This is Unbound, the newsletter of The Emancipator. In each issue, I examine some of the most urgent conversations on racial justice infused with context, news, and perspective. My goal is to bring fresh voices, new research, and bold ideas from The Emancipator’s editors, columnists, and contributors, straight to your inbox.

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Source: Quarternary Science Reviews 2019 study

The myth that lasted 400 years

Archival photo of Ute Chief Severo and family in 1899. (Library of Congress)

We know the story. Or, at least, we think we do: In 1621, a shared feast between  Pilgrims and Indigenous Americans in Massachusetts to give thanks for the harvest and survival of Plymouth colonists created a 400-year tradition Americans mark annually.

Most of us know that tale is, in large measure, a lie

Even Plymouth Rock, where European colonists purportedly set foot, is just staging. The Thanksgiving holiday itself wasn’t even formally established until more than two centuries later, not to honor the colonists or native people, but to heal a nation after the bloody war fought over the enslavement of Black people: America needed the fable more than the truth.

The truth, of course, isn’t an occasion to celebrate. I cannot fully debunk the myth of the Thanksgiving story in one newsletter, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend the work of historian David Silverman: In short, it’s bloody and certainly nothing to be thankful for. 

The colonists and Wampanoags weren’t friendly allies. They’d formed a necessary, if not entirely trusting, mutual-defense pact. The people in Plymouth Colony had not gathered for a solemn meal to express thankfulness. Pilgrims and Puritans who came from England usually expressed gratitude through fasting. Instead, they were having a party to celebrate their harvest — one so raucous the celebratory gunfire caused the nearby Wampanoags to believe the Europeans were under siege and came to help defend them. 

“They were firing off their muskets and making all the noise as the English do,” said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) chairwoman. “We thought they were under attack because who does that?”

Once Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, and other tribal members who came to give aid to the colonists realized there was no imminent threat, they hunted, fished, and joined in the harvest celebration.

“It wasn’t like there was an invitation for us to come,” Andrews-Maltais said. “But overall, that alliance stayed strong for years.”

It wouldn’t last. 

Violent battles and displacement would devastate the Indigenous population already nearly wiped out by European settlers, who began arriving in 1492. Yet the myth of Thanksgiving endured.

“That story exists in part to obfuscate the quite bloody reality of how the nation was actually claimed by the colonists who arrived here,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a journalist, activist, and advisory board member for The Emancipator.

A day of mourning: A foundation of gratitude 

Archival photo of Hopi Indians participating in a harvest dance sometime between 1909 and 1919. 
(Library of Congress)

So how do Indigenous people in America mark Thanksgiving? The ways are as diverse and complex as the communities themselves. They do mourn the atrocities their ancestors suffered. But Indigenous culture is also firmly rooted in the tradition of giving thanks. They find a way to do both.

One of NoiseCat’s traditions is attending Sunrise Ceremonies at Alcatraz Island, the Indigenous land that became the now-shuttered prison, to commemorate a 19-month occupation that began in 1969. Bay Area Native American activists sought to reclaim the island under the terms of a 19th-century treaty.

The vision was for Alcatraz to be “reclaimed as a symbol of Native rights, of Native sovereignty, of treaty rights, and of self-determination” in the West, NoiseCat said, much the same as the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the immigration and growth of America from the East. The fight to make that vision become reality continues.

For Andrews-Maltais, the day is marked with the annual National Day of Mourning in Plymouth. The event will be livestreamed by United American Indians of New England at 11:45 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

The observance is a good opportunity for those seeking to better understand the truth about Thanksgiving origins and hear from Indigenous people themselves, she said. It shows the community is not defined by the tragedy it has endured but by its resilience.

“It’s part of who we are,” Andrews-Maltais said. “We’re spiritual beings. We have to be able to find what we are grateful for.”

Culture in context

Ernie, a muppet from the popular children’s series “Sesame Street,” appears with new character Ji-Young. (Noreen Nasir/AP)

Thanksgiving on “Sesame Street” brings a new resident: Ji-Young, the first Asian American Muppet. It’s a place she was meant to be: in Korean, the name Ji means, among other things, “sesame.”

It took 52 years – way too long – but her arrival and the continued diversity on the show I grew up with is still something I’m excited and thankful for. Ji-Young makes her debut in a “Sesame Street” special that drops on Thanksgiving Day on HBO Max.

The joy of the Black Thanksgiving table

A woman plucks a turkey on a porch in New Jersey in 1900. (Library of Congress)

One of The Emancipator’s foundational principles is Black Joy, and few things fill me with as much happiness as the cultural delight that is Black cuisine. Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of Black American cooking. Families, friends, and community members who gather bask in the comfort of unique flavors and aromas of foods their families have prepared for generations. It’s not just a feast, it’s a continuation of traditions that tie directly back to the African continent.

“All those dishes are reflective of where we came from so many centuries ago,” said Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College, author, producer, and host of “The Fred Opie Show.”

One of the most delicious things about Black American cuisine during Thanksgiving and most holidays is the rich variety of foods. Growing up in Detroit, my family’s table was adorned with not only turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy but also collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, honeyed ham, and my late grandmother’s (the Rev. Lorraine Johnson) famous ambrosia and zucchini bread.

What is on our tables literally depends on where we are from. For Black Americans whose ancestors came from what is known as West Africa’s Rice Coast, there are rice-based dishes like jambalaya and gumbo. Those who descend from the continent’s Yam Belt, indulge in savory and sweet root vegetable dishes. 

“We are trying to recreate our historical palate,” Opie said.

While most Black households also have turkey, dressing, and more Americanized fare, you may not find a pumpkin pie. The sweet potato — the closest cousin to the yam found in North America — takes center stage.

“Once you have sweet potato pie,” said Opie, “pumpkin pie? You probably don’t want it any more.”

What Im cooking

(Kimberly Atkins Stohr)

My contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner table will be sweet potato pie, as usual. Pictured are the ones I baked last year.

I won’t include a recipe here because I, like generations of my family, don’t rely on them. We cook by sight, by feel, and by instinct. We assess texture, color, and aroma to decide what ingredients to reach for. A pinch of this, a bit of that, and improvising where needed. It’s not from a piece of paper but from the heart. Then there are the secret ingredients that never leave the family vault. I will guard those.

I’m thankful to all of you, Unbound readers, and I wish you the happiest Thanksgiving full of robust gratitude, joy, and lots of flavor.

Until next time,

Kimberly Atkins Stohr
Senior opinion writer and columnist, The Boston Globe

The Emancipator is a collaboration between Boston University and The Boston Globe that is provided without a paywall. 

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Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research and The Boston Globe's Opinion team are collaborating to resurrect and reimagine The Emancipator, the first abolitionist newspaper in the United States, founded more than 200 years ago. The Emancipator is a collaboration between Boston University and
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