'This Land Is Their Land' Injects Truth Into The 'Thanksgiving Myth'

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: History , Holidays , Historic preservation , Civil Rights and Justice

A new book by author, historian, and professor David J. Silverman, "This Land is Their Land," aims to debunk the myth that Thanksgiving was a peaceful happening between New England's indigenous people, specifically the Wampanoag, and European colonists. Kat Szmit Photo

PHILADELPHIA – Think you know the truth about Thanksgiving? Think again. As people across the nation prepare to sit down to another turkey dinner, David Silverman has an important message for them: it's all a lie. If you want the truth, read his new book “This Land Is Their Land,” which aims to eradicate what Silverman calls the Thanksgiving myth.

Silverman, a historian, college professor and author of four previous books that each pertain to Native American and/or Colonial American history, said he was inspired to write his latest book by his longtime relationship with the Wampanoag people, whom he first met when writing his first book, “Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1600-1871.”

“People expressed to me how difficult it was to be children during the month of November,” Silverman said. “Particularly in school when teachers were having them perform in pageants and dressing up as pilgrims and Indians.”

Silverman said when parents would protest the pageants, administrators and educators often expressed doubt that they were indeed “real” Native people since the belief was that New England Indians no longer existed.

Even in an era of pervasive technology, Silverman said Native People are often met with disbelief, something he addresses in his book when he explains the incredulity of those who believed New England Indians to be extinct.

“The only authentic Indians were supposed to be primitive relics, not modern, so what were they doing in school, speaking English, wearing the same kind of clothing as their classmates, living in contemporary houses, or returning home to adults who had jobs and drove cars?” Silverman writes.

They didn't expect descendants of those aboard the Mayflower to continue dressing in period attire and using primitive tools, but somehow Native Americans fell under a different understanding.

“It seemed to me that writing a history, unvarnished, unsanitized, with three-dimensional Native people at the center of the narrative would serve to correct some of those experiences,” Silverman said.

Known for his expertise in the area of Native American history, Silverman said he is often approached at teacher training events not to discuss the day's topic, typically the Revolution, but to talk about the real history of the first Thanksgiving.

“They all recognize that they don't have the content knowledge to do justice to the topic,” Silverman said, adding that in many instances, he wrote the book first for Native people, and also for secondary school teachers so that they might educate their students as to the truth of the holiday.

Contrary to what is widely believed, with those beliefs greatly aided by media through the years, Thanksgiving is not a time of celebration for the Wampanoag People, or really any Native American tribe, since in truth, the Europeans, or Pilgrims, ultimately took indigenous lands by cunning and force.

“Wampanoag People have been critiquing the basic perspective of the Thanksgiving myth, that kind of whitewashed view, since the 1600s,” said Silverman. “It's not new. There's a consistent through line across the centuries of Wampanoag People saying to almost anyone who would listen that white American society betrayed the trust and the hand of friendship they extended.”

Silverman said he feels the time is right for his latest work as for myriad reasons, most notably the impending quadricentennial of Plymouth, no doubt with all manner of celebrations planned for the 400th anniversary of what many have dubbed the beginnings of America. While historians and academics are well aware of the truth surrounding the arrival of the Pilgrims, the average person, Silverman said, is not.

“The story that's contained in this book is nothing new to academics. We've been writing very specific Native American histories for decades,” he said. “But the public is almost entirely unaware of this.”

Add to that heightened tensions regarding race relations given the country's current political climate, and the book takes on a deeper meaning. Silverman said that while he started writing the book well before the 2016 election, given what he deemed a “rising tide of white nationalism,” his book feels even more necessary.

“I see the Thanksgiving myth as false proprietorship of this nation,” he said. “It's an ideology designed to make Indians disappear. That's something I found disturbing.”

So what can people do to exact change?

“I think the first step is to look the true history full in the face,” Silverman said. “I think if you ask any reasonably thoughtful adult, a shared meal is a poor symbol for Indian-Colonial relations. The general public can't explain exactly why, but acknowledge that it was a far bloodier event.”

Silverman urges people to separate the holiday itself from the myth.

“The Thanksgiving holiday was not connected to this myth until the late 1800s,” said Silverman. “If people were able to celebrate Thanksgiving without this myth for most of history, we can do it now.”

Telling the truth about Thanksgiving, and by extension about Native Americans and their rich histories, isn't just about making amends, however. Silverman said schools that adhere to the antiquated versions of American history do students of all races a disservice since they're spreading falsehoods. He said it's time to “acknowledge the existence and the sensibilities of Native American people. To see them as fully modern as our fellow Americans, and a people whose history is worthy of being taken seriously.”

“Our society needs to be more thoughtful and compassionate in the way that it celebrates Thanksgiving,” he said. “It's not just a matter of being thoughtful and compassionate to indigenous people.”

In response to the question, “what can I do?” Silverman said there are many options, beginning with those pageants.

“Insist that your public schools stop performing these Thanksgiving pageants,” he said. “It's not harmless. It even harms people when there are no native people in the room. Those who are more ambitious can press their local school boards to take Native American history more seriously in the context of American history, throughout the American history curriculum.”

Silverman acknowledges that change won't come easy to everyone, but is grateful for those he hopes to reach with his book.

“There are plenty of people who will deny the truth when it's staring them in the face, but for others there is a reckoning to be had on this issue,” he said. “I confront them with the voices of modern native people who have told me their stories. They are powerful and undeniable.”