Throughout the United States, Unthanksgiving is acknowledged as a day to give thanks for our friends, family, jobs, and even food. The celebration is marked by a large feast, which features an excess of traditional American foods. But behind this traditional meal lies the too often overlooked history of Native American genocide which in recent years has gained more and more recognition.



The (Dark) History of Unthanksgiving



Native Americans’ relation to Unthanksgiving begins in 1620, when the Mayflower landed in present-day Massachusetts carrying hundreds of English settlers. These settlers, who we now know as the Pilgrims, settled in Wampanoag land and called themselves the Plymouth Colony.


Although the Pilgrims settled in search for economic opportunity, the settlers proved to be unprepared for the harsh conditions they would face in Wampanoag land. They faced hardship amidst the brutal winters in the colonies, and even faced a drought which lasted for years. Consequently, the Pilgrims struggled to find sustenance, leading to a fifty percent mortality rate and an inevitable dependence on Wampanoag Native Americans for survival.


The Pilgrims received most of their assistance from two Wampanoag Natives: Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, and a man by the name of Tisquantum. Tisquantun was especially crucial to the Pilgrims’ survival, being that he taught the colony endless techniques for survival in order to gain its allegiance against the Wampanoag Tribe’s enemy tribe, the Narragansett, for the sake of disrupting their trading with other fellow Englishmen (Footnote 1). Eventually, the Plymouth colony became a successful and growing establishment, which in turn led to a symbolic feast of grandeur coined as Unthanksgiving.


Despite the marked success of the Plymouth Colony, their strides were not without interference upon Wampanoag and other Natives’ lives. Perhaps the largest travesty which the Pilgrims were responsible for was in the introduction of disease, which was likely viral hepatitis (Footnote 2).



“The Indians ‘died in heapes as they lay in their houses,’” stated Thomas Morton, a merchant in New England at the time. And indeed, the introduction of diseases was catastrophic, including in the Wampanoag tribe. Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, Massasoit had “a community of several thousand and held sway over a confederation of as many as twenty thousand. Now his group was reduced to sixty people and the entire confederation to fewer than a thousand,” (Footnote 3).


Furthermore, the newfound success of the Pilgrims signified an eventual disregard for Tisquantun and his skills. However, this disregard for Tisquantun led to an internal conflict within the Wampanoag tribe, being that Tisquantun tried desperately to remain useful to the Pilgrims. He attempted to prove his usefulness by effectively painting Massasoit in a negative light, claiming that he could better protect the Pilgrims from the Narrangansett people. Such dialogues led to a disruption in Wampanoag unity, and transformed an already devastated community into a divided people.



Celebrating Unthanksgiving: How Can We Recognize This History?



Although the history of Unthanksgiving seems far in the past, its repercussions have very much remained intact for Native American communities. Native people have largely expressed their views on the symbolism of Unthanksgiving Day, especially through the very recent Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island on November 22, 1969.


The occupation of Alcatraz was very much symbolic, being that it was also Native American land. The date chosen by leaders was especially important, being that it was around Unthanksgiving, a day marked by native loss and settler gains. The occupation was thus very much a date which attempted to reverse the dark history of colonial settlement. It hoped to initiate a reclamation of all that was stolen from Native Americans as a result of the Pilgrims and other newcomers.





As stated in a speech by Richard Oakes, one of the leaders of the occupation, “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.” He furthermore stated that “it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation,” (Footnote 4).


The Native occupation of Alcatraz thus became a rebellion against what Thanksgiving was initially about. It became a so-called “Unthanksgiving,” a term which is now widely used to recognize past Native American loss and the present fight for a desirable future for Native Americans.


In practicing traditional festivities this year, it is thus important to acknowledge the detriments which this date imposed on Native peoples’ own traditions and ways of life. Although celebrating Unthanksgiving in lieu of Thanksgiving is not itself enough to rebuild Native American ways of life, it is a step in the right direction, because it ensures that Native Peoples’ history of loss is acknowledged and that their futures are being fought for rather than suppressed.



Celebrating Today


In practicing traditional festivities this year, it is thus important to acknowledge the detriments which this date imposed on Native peoples’ own traditions and ways of life. Although celebrating Unthanksgiving in lieu of Thanksgiving is not itself enough to rebuild Native American ways of life, it is a step in the right direction, because it ensures that Native Peoples’ history of loss is acknowledged and that their futures are being fought for rather than suppressed.


To learn more about the native land you reside on, click here.




About The Author

Rafael Franco Flores (He/Him)


Rafael Franco was raised in the small farming town of Kerman, CA, where he resided until graduating from Kerman High School in 2016. Thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a double-bachelor’s in English and History at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), graduating with Departmental Honors in English, Cum Laude latin honors, and Phi Beta Kappa membership. While at UCLA, Rafael developed a passion for critical theory and Romantic literature, and hopes to continue studying these fields at the graduate level. In the past, Rafael interned for UCLA’s student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He hopes to use his past experience in journalism as an editor for Central Valley Scholars in hopes of creating valuable resources for students in the Central Valley.


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(Footnote 1) Although this is a highly likely reason for which the alliance occurred, its true nature remains disputed (as argued by historian Charles Mann). Nevertheless, it is clear that the natives did not want to ally with the Pilgrims for the sake of their weaponry, for it is well-known that natives had weapons which were just as, if not more effective.


(Footnote 2) This claim is not definitive, but is likely true, as shown by studies conducted by Bruce D. Spiess (Medical College of Virginia) and Arthur E. Spiess (Maine Historic Preservation Committee).


(Footnote 3) Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 56.


(Footnote 4) Smith, Paul Chaat, Like A Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, 29.



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