BISMARCK — Thanksgiving will be a complicated holiday for many this year, with people opting for small gatherings to limit the spread of the coronavirus and, for those who have lost loved ones to the pandemic, setting one less spot at the dinner table.

On top of all the complications that come with celebrating Thanksgiving in the middle of a virus outbreak, many Native Americans will celebrate knowing that millions of people nationwide will observe the holiday without acknowledging that Indigenous people are at the center of the Thanksgiving story.

The federal holiday brings up complicated emotions for Indigenous people, and many do gather with loved ones, but for them there is an underlying idea that taints the holiday — the colonists' arrival was the catalyst for centuries of mistreatment and slaughter.

"The origin story that we all know, as simple and beautiful as it is to share a meal with one another, the reality is for Indigenous people, there's this violence attached to it," said Prairie Rose Seminole, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

Despite this history freighted with violence, Seminole said her family does gather each Thanksgiving and values their time together as they share a meal.

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Origins of the 'first Thanksgiving'

The "first Thanksgiving" is often portrayed as a significant moment for the Pilgrims and Indigenous people when both parties gathered to recognize their new alliance. Primary school students are sometimes taught that the Pilgrims invited the local Indigenous people for a celebratory meal with open arms, but the true story is steeped in complex tribal politics.

Long before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620, Europeans had already explored the land of the Wampanoag Indians, according to David J. Silverman, a George Washington University history professor and author of "This Land Is Their land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving."

The Wampanoag chief at the time of the Pilgrims' landing was Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit. Growing up, Ousamequin experienced multiple deadly encounters with Europeans, including the decimation of many of his people by disease brought by European settlers. Upon the Mayflower's arrival in 1620, he was hesitant to form an alliance with the newcomers and spent many months observing them.

When the ship landed, Ousamequin's people were at war with the Narragansett who lived to the west of the colonist town of Plymouth, Silverman wrote in a National Geographic feature.

Ousamequin formed an alliance with the Pilgrims with political strategy in mind, Silverman wrote, as the chief saw value in the settlers' firearms and metal weaponry for battles against the Narragansett. Many of the Wampanoag people were upset with their chief and his decision to align with the Pilgrims.

On the day on which the "first Thanksgiving" story is based, Ousamequin and 90 Wampanoag men traveled to Plymouth in the fall of 1621, because they heard gunfire by the colonists who were shooting their weapons in celebration of their first harvest, according to Silverman. The Wampanoag had rushed unexpectedly to Plymouth, because they thought the colonists were being attacked by the Narragansett. Instead, the Wampanoag ended up staying for an impromptu dinner.

According to Silverman, neither the colonists nor the Wampanoag appeared to have given much significance to the meal people would come to know as the "first Thanksgiving."

In the years after this meal, more Europeans came to Massachusetts and began pushing the Wampanoag off their land. Ousamequin tried for peace with the colonists, but between 1629 and 1640 colonists broke agreements that acknowledged the tribe's sovereignty and began taking Wampanoag land by slaying and subjecting hundreds of the Wampanoag to slavery, according to Silverman.

"It had taken barely 20 years before it was apparent that Ousamequin's alliance with Plymouth had been a Trojan horse for an English invasion," Silverman wrote in National Geographic.

Sympathizing with the Wampanoag

Though Native Americans in North Dakota's tribal nations are thousands of miles away from the Wampanoag people, many can relate to the violence and incorrect history people have come to know of their story.

Seminole said that even though the MHA Nation and Wampanoag are different tribal nations, Indigenous people in some ways feel connected, especially when an Indigenous community is attacked.

She compared the sympathy many Indigenous people feel for the Wampanoag with the sympathy that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe garnered from tribal nations across the country in 2016 when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were at their height.

Seminole said it's important for people to recognize that many of the foods that are traditional to Thanksgiving today, like potatoes, squash and corn, are foods of Indigenous communities, and some people do not appreciate this when they sit down for their feast.

Prairie Rose Seminole. Special to The Forum
Prairie Rose Seminole. Special to The Forum

Even though Thanksgiving comes with a traumatic history for many Indigenous people, some, like Cheryl Kary, celebrate in the name of family.

"I think that's kind of where a lot of Native people I know are at right now," said Kary, director of the Sacred Pipe Resource Center in Mandan, N.D. "We celebrate the holiday because it's about family and sharing and being thankful and things like that, but I do think that it is hard because this holiday does always remind us that we've had a very traumatic past."

For many Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the loss of a way of life and the loss of ancestors, said Annette Mennem, director of the Native American Center at Minot State University.

Since 1970, many Indigenous people have gathered on Thanksgiving in front of the Massasoit statue, which is across the street from the Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, to commemorate the National Day of Mourning. The day honors Native American ancestors and acknowledges the struggles suffered by many Indigenous people today.

Tawny Cale, a member of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition board of directors, said growing up she did not know about the complex history behind Thanksgiving. She said in school, she would create headdresses and dress up like American Indian chiefs. Now with her own children, she makes a point to go to their classrooms and give lessons on the traditions of North Dakota's tribes.

Kary said there are valuable teachings people can learn today from what happened all those years ago between the colonists and Wampanoag.

"There are a lot of lessons we can still be learning today in terms of cooperation, working together and holding your word," she said. "We can celebrate Thanksgiving in a meaningful way."

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at