Decolonizing Thanksgiving

Sunday, November 21, 2021 ECSM 
Decolonizing Thanksgiving Service

If you are like me, when we think of Thanksgiving we are whisked back to our days of elementary education, to coloring pages of turkeys and telling the stories of the Pilgrims eating a wonderful meal with the Native Americans. This was the time for school assemblies, complete with paper costumes and songs of our thankfulness to be Americans. 

We have a national story about Thanksgiving just like we have a story of the Fourth of July. A people need a narrative to be a people and a nation needs a common story to become united as a nation. Stories define us. They shape who we are and they give form to our common experiences. 

Thanksgiving has its roots in the harvest festivals of ancient agricultural societies, and like the 4th cof July, Thanksgiving has become more of a patriotic celebration. Perhaps this is because we are unable to make a connection to what constitutes a good harvest, especially when we live in a world where fresh bounty can be shipped to us year-round and picked-up easily at the local supermarket. We as a people have become disconnected from our world and with what it takes to bring food to market, let alone to our tables. 

The narrative associated with Thanksgiving is the landing of the Pilgrims in New England. It is significant that the Pilgrims themselves turned to one of those other ancient stories – the story of the Exodus – to interpret what happened to them. We should remember that the Pilgrims, saw Europe as Egypt. They considered the Atlantic as the Red Sea and these ancestors viewed these shores as their Promised Land. 

Perhaps it was by interpreting their experience in light of the Exodus story that enabled them to face the hardships of those beginning years. They were sure that God had guided them from bondage to freedom and that they could endure suffering, because they believed that through it they would be led to freedom and a better life. 

Just as significantly, we need to remember that when the only non- voluntary immigrants to this country – the African-Americans – sought to make sense of their experience of slavery, they used the same biblical story, the Exodus, and interpreted it for their situation. 

For those stolen from African and enslaved by white settlers here – Egypt was where they were, here in America – and the Promised Land was freedom while they were here, or a return to their homeland. The songs that they created that have become a permanent part of American culture and many of our hymnals – and they are replete with the images of the Exodus. 

Today, let’s also remember our Liberian friends among us here in Contra Costa County. These siblings of ours, whose ancestors were once enslaved in America, then returned to Africa only to be displaced as refugees by the conflicts in Liberia – these sisters and brothers are a testament to that cry for freedom present within every human soul. 

But there is one other group that we usually leave out of our American narratives, or at least we tell their story differently than they do. The Rev. Robert Two Bulls of the Oglala Lakota people is an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles who experiences Thanksgiving this way. He says, 

“Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians. It is an awareness that wakes up every year after Halloween and then will go back to sleep when the last scrap of turkey is devoured.” 

Yes, the American version of Thanksgiving to Robert Two Bulls and other Native-Americans is starkly different. It goes something like this: 

“God had given this land to European people. They came to these shores primarily for economic reasons. And through the next few hundred years America was born as a country and the Indian faded away. All is well.” 

But the narrative most Americans know – says, 

“The Pilgrims came here mainly for religious freedom reasons. After the settling and founding of a new colony they gave thanks to God for providing a great bounty.” 

This is a hard word for people like you and me from the Congregational and Presbyterian histories in this country, isn’t it? 

The truth of our Thanksgiving story is a complicated one about which much has been written, but there are facts that need to be considered and remembered by us as people of faith before we begin to celebrate this holiday. 

When the Pilgrims touched Plymouth Rock in 1620 and made it to shore, they found a deserted village which they eventually appropriated for themselves and named Plymouth Colony. That village had been named Patuxet and was the formal home of the people who were a branch of the Wampanoags. The majority of these people had died from smallpox in 1618. But two years later their village was a ghost town.

Those early Pilgrims who arrived were poor and hungry, unprepared for life in this new land. By the time they were found by a Native-American named Squanto, a former inhabitant of Patuxet, half of the Pilgrims had died. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Squanto spoke English. But what we usually don’t hear is that Squanto had learned this language over a period of several years following his capture by English traders and being sold into slavery in Europe. 

According to Historian David Silverman in the Atlantic Magazine, “In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt had anchored his ship in the harbor of the Wampanoag community of Patuxet—the very site where the colony of Plymouth would be founded six years later—and invited curious members of the tribe onboard. Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. And so a number of them—including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto for short—went aboard Hunt’s vessel.

Hunt double-crossed them, seizing 20 of their men, then stuffing them below decks. Soon seven other Wampanoags farther east at Nauset fell into the same trap, joining their tribesmen on a horrific oceanic journey toward an unimaginable destiny. It would have come as cold comfort when they discovered Hunt’s actual plan to sell them as enslaved people in Málaga, Spain, alongside his catch of fish. That is the last we hear of most of these unfortunate souls, who disappeared into Iberia’s mass of bound laborers drawn from around the globe.

Tisquantum very nearly shared this end but for two strokes of fortune. First, a group of friars blocked his sale, doubtlessly citing a routinely ignored Spanish law that Native Americans should not be enslaved. Then, after an uncertain period of time, Tisquantum made contact with one of Málaga’s many English merchants who, in turn, took him to London.

Finally, in 1618, Tisquantum got his chance to return to his native land. He was introduced to Captain Thomas Dermer, who, back in 1614, had been part of the very exploring and fishing expedition that had kidnapped Tisquantum. By this point, Tisquantum had learned enough English to offer his services to Dermer in exchange for passage home. As it turned out, Dermer was just the right person for such an overture. Dermer’s employer, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, was a prime mover of English colonization schemes and, as such, a collector of captive Native Americans who could serve as cultural brokers.”

Squanto had eventually made it back home in a heroic nine-year journey only to find his people pretty much wiped out by disease and a new people living in his old village.  They say as much as 75% of the Wampanoag Confederation were wiped out. 

One Indigenous writer says it this way:  “Into this disaster bumbled the Pilgrims. They showed up in New England a few weeks before winter and promptly began starving. Up until the Pilgrims, the pattern had been pretty clear. Europeans would visit the Wampanoags who would be interested in their trade goods, but were really uninterested in letting Europeans permanently occupy the land. Often, armed native people would force Europeans to leave if they attempted to stay too long. This time, the Europeans wanted to stay, and the disease that had decimated Patuxet ensured that they had a place to settle.” [i]

After teaching the Pilgrims basic survival and agricultural techniques, the Wamponoags and Pilgrims kept peaceful relations for well over fifty years. But some historians believe that Squanto was eventually killed by one the Puritans, after Chief Massassoit considered him a threat to the Indigenous people, after he was accused of a coup attempt.  By the second winter, the Settler’s situation was secure enough they held a feast of Thanksgiving, where Chief Massassoit showed up with with about 90 men, most of them armed.  After the Pilgrim militia responded by marching around firing their guns, both sides sat down, at a lot of food and complained about their neighbors, the Narragansetts down in what is today Rhode Island.  Most if not all Wampanoags now consider the arrival of Europeans as a tragedy – not something to be grateful about – as this brought about the genocide and then cultural genocide of their ancestors.  

Perhaps today, perhaps this week, we as a nation need to celebrate the life of Squanto, who was the real hero of this sad story.  In an interesting way, it was Squanto – as both former slave and aid to the Pilgrims – who merges both of our American narratives into one.  Squanto was the one who reached across the Interfaith and inter-cultural breach.  The Pilgrims probably wouldn’t have survived that first winter without him, but it also set up a relationship of conflict with the other Natives.  

And so, perhaps Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration created to play into our notion of greatness. We as Americans have to remember that land in America was largely acquired dishonestly by outright theft and by the breaking of treaties with the first peoples of this land. We also need to ask the question, 

“Did God really send the diseases of Europe to annihilate all the indigenous inhabitants and then give the land to the Europeans?” 

Only three years after arrival, in 1623, Mather the elder, one of those Pilgrim leaders was recorded as giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way for what he called, “a better growth.” 

Perhaps we need to question all of these narratives, in the Bible or elsewhere, that link the stories of Exodus of the liberation of one people to the annihilation of another people. 

For with the biblical Exodus also comes the eradication of the Canaanites, and the Jebusites, and the Hittites, and the Moabites, and the Ammonites. And the current war there in the Holy Land continues to be a conflict for land and resources, that affects each of our communities. 

Again, from the Atlantic: 

“Like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, two of the other famous Indians in American lore, Massassoit’s people helped the colonizers and then moved offstage.

Atlantic Article – In 1621, the Wampanoag Tribe Had Its Own Agenda

Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, though, friendliness does not account for the alliance the Wampanoag tribe made with the nascent Plymouth settlement. The Wampanoags had an internal politics all their own; its dynamics had been shaped by many years of tense interaction with Europeans, and by deadly plagues that ravaged the tribe’s home region as the pace of English exploration accelerated. Chief Massassoit—whom historians today generally refer to as the sachem Ousamequin—faced stiff opposition from his own people as he tried to manage the English newcomers and looked for ways to survive the forces of colonization already tearing at the Wampanoags.”

The article continues to tell the story of how Captain Dermer, who returned Squanto back home in hopes of greater trade, eventually was entrapped and massacred by Chief Massassoit and another formerly enslaved Indigenous Wampanoag named Epenow, who had escaped the same kind of slavery Squanto was trapped in.  Squano had tried to warn Captain Dermer that it could be a trap, and barely escaped with his life.  Just a few months later, the Mayflower appeared off Cape Cod.  The real story of Thanksgiving has attempted to do away with the portions about White Settlers colonialism and preceding rounds of how European Slavery was first making Indigenous Americans their victims.  

Friends, what Thanksgiving reminds us of is that the land – and the produce of the land ultimately belongs to God, just as it says in Psalm 24.  And that the sharing of the produce of the land, like that done by Squanto and others, is what calls us to this moment.  It is in the sharing of this Holiday that we are reminded that we belong to each other.  So, how do we tell this story as modern Anti-racist Americans?

Real story of thanksgiving: We don’t have to pretend that the Pilgrims and Wampanoags were peaceful.  Their relationships were fraught with tension, because both of their survivals were at stake.  And, while they may have had a peaceful meal a few times, eventually their relationship returned to Colonizer and Colonized, especially after more rounds of illness further weakened the tribes, and more European Settlers followed the Pilgrims.  Even more conflict arose as their children kept moving onto Indigenous lands.. 

Jesus of Nazareth once said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…” 

While different Americans may experience Thanksgiving differently – 

  • •          as Pilgrims escaping religious intolerance, 
  • •          as slaves escaping bondage, 
  • •          as the oppressed escaping poverty, 
  • •          as victims escaping persecution, 
  • •          as refugees escaping the ravages of war – 

we all have in our past a version of the same story. And if it is not our personal story, it is our ancestors’ story. And even if it is not our ancestor’s story, then it is the story of our friends and loved ones. 

That is why our faith community are so important. Not so we can have great gatherings like this where we can pat each other on the back.  We come together as often as we can because our narratives run through – and run into – each other’s. Sometimes the relations we share are life giving, and bolster our common humanity. But sometimes we need to be able to tell each other our truths and be changed in the interaction. 

We can remember the past, and not use the title of this holiday in the presence of Native Americans – now knowing how hurtful it is for many people.  Perhaps we could change up our menu on that day, including an Indigenous dish from your region or from a regional First Nation. 

8 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving

         1. Learn the Real History

         2. Decolonize Your Dinner

         3. Listen to Indigenous Voices

         4. #StandwithMashpee, the Wampanoag Tribe in Mass.

         5. Celebrate Native People

         6. Buy Native This Holiday

         7. Share Positive Representations of Native People

         8. End Racist Native Mascots in Sports 


Give to funds like this one:  Supporting the United American Indians of New England’s National Day of Mourning – found at

Questions you could discuss as you share what you are thankful for around your table on Thursday:

  • • How have I benefited from settler-colonialism and the displacement of Indigenous peoples?​
  • • Am I actively incorporating Indigenous Justice into my work and life?​
  • • What is my intention in honoring Indigenous peoples when offering a land acknowledgment? ​
  • • What do I know about local Indigenous peoples today?  What would #LandBack look like?

Remember the Goodness of God: You don’t need a national holiday to create your own Holy Day!  You can take a day off any time you really need to.  You could make any day a day of Giving Thanks, if you think about it!  You can even make turkey and stuffing for dinner any day you wish, if you want.  Take a day and go to the beach!  Take your family out to dinner.  Go hiking and count your blessings, thanking God for all of the goodness in your life!

Last two quotes to take us home…

“Thankfulness Breathes through the rusted cracks in our soul and reminds us why we have a soul in the first place.”

Slow down, breathe, take a break!  –  And, remember….

“You were blessed to be a blessing!”

This is how we add to our Anti-Racism work as Presbyterians and UCCers. 

May we ever be thankful, truly thankful, and may we ever be hungry for justice. Real, genuine distributive, social, transformative justice – and a theological  understanding broad enough to see such justice come – in this world and the next. Amen. 

[i]  The True Story of Thanksgiving:

If you want to see it with the images in the sermon, please visit:

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