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Thanksgiving: A Day of Gratitude, Feast, or Mourning

Why we should reflect on the harms against Native Americans on Thanksgiving.

Key points

  • Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude but also a time for atonement concerning harms against Indigenous populations of the Americas.
  • It is important to address the myths of the First Thanksgiving so as to not re-victimize all Native Americans, both past and present.
  • There are steps you can take to begin to work towards social justice and peace on Thanksgiving and every day.

Every year, Thanksgiving arrives with images of families gathered around the hearth celebrating the bounty of their lives. We witness children running home to parents sharing their brightly colored turkey handprints. We once again through family, schools, and the media tell the story of that “First Thanksgiving”—Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth, as part of the autumn harvest celebration. Despite the many challenges and heartaches we may be experiencing, we take a moment to pause and reflect with gratitude. Yet, not everyone views Thanksgiving as a day of peace and gratitude. For some, it is a day of mourning.

Why mourning? The history of Thanksgiving and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas is one of darkness, enslavement, and atrocity—with roots of genocide, both cultural and mass killings of entire peoples. The idea of peaceful colonizers reaching out a hand in friendship nurturing a symbiotic relationship between two peoples is one of myth—a myth that silences the voices of all those who subsequently died, in an attempt to erase them and atrocity from history.

Obviously, there are too many harms and horrors over centuries and continuing through today to recount in this short post. However, we can take a look at a brief history of the day known as Thanksgiving.

In 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Since the 1840s, Sarah Josepha Hale, who edited a prestigious women's magazine, argued that Thanksgiving should be made a national holiday. In the Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln stated, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving ... and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.” Of course, less than a year prior, Lincoln ordered the single largest mass execution in U.S. history—the execution of 38 Dakota Indians.

Prior to 1863 and indeed, before that “First Thanksgiving,” settlers within the colonies regularly held thanksgiving festivals. The colonizers also sold enslaved Native Americans to buyers in colonies as well as Europe—a practice, which defies the early Thanksgiving myth. However, one proclamation of Thanksgiving is particularly noteworthy, as it also runs directly counter to the mythology of those first peaceful days of feast and harvest. In 1637, John Winthrop, Governor of the Bay Colony, made a proclamation of Thanksgiving. He declared, "A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God." This proclamation celebrated the massacre of approximately 700 Pequot men, women, and children. It should be noted that the Pequot villagers were not attacking; they were largely unarmed. Rather, they were simply celebrating peacefully the Green Corn Festival. The British and Dutch commanders who led the attack stated, "… to see them frying in the fire, and the streams of their blood quenching the same and the stench was horrible, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice to the great delight to the Pilgrims and they gave praise thereof to God.”

Since that time, the history of treatment of the Native American populations in what is now the United States mirrors that massacre. It is a history of enslavement, killings, forced relocations, stolen children, destructive boarding schools, intentional infliction of smallpox, theft of land, denial of language, destruction of culture, and the destructive list goes on. It is estimated that there were 15 million Native Americans—First Peoples when the Europeans first arrived, in what is now called the United States. By 1890, the number was 1/4 of a million (.25 million). Colonizers and settlers committing these atrocities held a belief in manifest destiny—the premise that God had ordained the Americas for their use and control. This belief was bolstered later by ideas of social Darwinism, eugenics, and a false premise of human hierarchies with white, European, Protestant men as the pinnacle of humanity.

As we pause for Thanksgiving, let's be mindful of both gratitude and atonement. Certainly, gratitude is a key component of well-being. We can practice it once a year or strive to be grateful each day. As part of that gratitude, we can thank the Haudenosaunee for their practices in democracy, which were woven into the U.S. Constitution. We can be grateful for Native American peoples' care of the air, land, water, and all living creatures of the earth—a value much needed to address current harms caused to this planet. There are over 550 tribal affiliations within the United States, with diverse and vibrant peoples, languages, and cultures. We can be grateful for the richness that they bring to our communities and land. We have much to learn.

We also should engage in efforts of atonement. European colonizers largely missed the opportunity to learn from Native American civilizations and what these peoples and communities had to teach. Rather, the colonizers framed the situation as one of their civilization vs. the “savages”—a myth often played out in many an old Western. However, we as individuals, families, and communities do not need to continue the mistakes of the past.

So, what can you do today? How can you be part of the solution as opposed to a purveyor of harmful myths? Here are some sample options that can help you begin your journey:

  1. Visit a community center, museum, or other Native American institution and learn. Remember that you can visit the Museum of the American Indian online. Learn the history—not the sugar-coated narrative.
  2. Bring the truth—the good, bad, and ugly—of the past into the present and discuss these facts as part of your Thanksgiving rituals.
  3. Acknowledge the land that you live on—it previously belonged to another people from whom it was taken forcibly. Learn about the peoples and where they are today.
  4. Read Native American authors and watch their films. On Thanksgiving, you can watch football, parades, or check out a film by Indigenous directors/producers on your favorite streaming video source.
  5. Host Native American speakers at your community and educational events.
  6. Support businesses and charities that are Native-owned or organized.

Staub (2008) discussed the harms caused by ignoring the past and unhealed group trauma. Reconciliation only can occur when conditions are changed and restorative justice is pursued. Most importantly, we should never forget. We should learn from the atrocities of the past and stand against repeating harms and continuing to foment oppression. Today, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) disproportionately are dying due to COVID-19 and violence. The pattern of neglect and harm continues. It is time for us to work together with both gratitude and atonement toward change and a path of social justice and peace.


Staub, E. (2008a). Promoting reconciliation after genocide and mass killing in Rwanda--And other postconflict settings: Understanding the roots of violence, healing, shared history, and general principles. In A. Nadler, T. E. Malloy, J. D. Fisher, A. Nadler , T. E. Malloy, & J. D. Fisher (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup reconciliation (pp. 395–422). Oxford University Press.