by Liam Conner, class of 2025
National American Indian Heritage Month, since its inception in 1990, celebrates the past and present histories of Indigenous peoples and honors Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. In an attempt to acknowledge the United States’ colonization of formerly Tribal lands, the month recognizes the evils of colonialism and its effects on how we perceive American identity.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that has become a staple for all the wrong reasons. The feast-focused celebration now features early-morning 5Ks, televised parades, football games, and boxed stuffing (albeit the best kind). In classroom retellings of the holiday, we learn that the Puritan Pilgrims peacefully ate alongside their Native American counterparts solely because they developed a friendly relationship. Unfortunately, many accounts fail to mention painful truths, like how the feast coincided with various wars and battles for land. The contextual and historical exclusion of the crucial facts of this story not only allows for these traditions to remain prominent but also disregards the toilsome reality of Thanksgiving and its colonial undertone.
One way to visualize American misconceptions around Thanksgiving lore is to engage critically with depictions of the holiday in art. From Thanksgiving’s earliest representations in the 1800s to the modern clipart we can download on our computers, incorrect retellings inform some of art’s most seminal pieces.
One of the first published renderings of Thanksgiving dates to 1867, four years after Abraham Lincoln codified the holiday as a national celebration. In George Henry Durrie’s “Home to Thanksgiving,” a snow-covered farm and its inhabitants greet their guests from the city. Rural tranquility marked with a jovial yet modest celebration demonstrates the escapist nature of the holiday. The idea of leaving a bustling city for the peaceful countryside still prevails today, as relatives convene in a typically calm and welcoming home situated away from the day-to-day.
While perfectly describing the current nature of Thanksgiving, Durrie’s painting does not reflect its origins in history and conflict. The people in this scene celebrate the holiday that began in 1863, not the 1621 feast that the current holiday attempts to resemble. In no way, however, was the first Thanksgiving utterly peaceful. Instead, the feast most likely celebrated a recent massacre of about seven hundred Pequot Indians or the newly agreed-upon, yet quickly broken, peace treaty between the local Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims.
Nearly fifty years later, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s painting “The First Thanksgiving” attempts to depict the holiday as dominated by the Pilgrims. They are postured above the Native Americans, standing up and feeding them as they sit on the ground. It is as though the Pilgrims were fully responsible for their bountiful harvests and societal advancement, leaving no thanks for the Natives, who were crucial to their survival.
Perhaps the most notable of these native guides is Squanto or Tisquantum. Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet Tribe, was an English-speaking liaison between the Pilgrims in Plymouth and his own Tribe. His story is a prime example of how crucial facts are left out of the general public’s view of the holiday. Many people tend to disregard the question of how Tisquantum learned the culture and language of the English. Many years before, European colonizers captured Tisquantum and sold him into slavery. Because of this enslavement, Tisquantum spent years in England, forced to adapt to the language and ideas of his colonizers.
A more contemporary look at Thanksgiving includes one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous pieces. “Freedom From Want,” part of a four-part series, displays a family sitting down to eat the Thanksgiving meal. Instead of gawking at the mouth-watering turkey, the family members smile at each other, grateful for their presence. They have no need for a bountiful meal; they just need each other.
Despite the wholesome and anti-materialist representation of this modern feast, the painting still disregards any historical context. The holiday may have signified familial love and gratitude, but that does not mean we should ignore its true and violent origins. Wars across the “new world” surrounded the time of the feast, making it nothing but cheerful. Therefore, depicting the holiday as strictly pleasant is wrong and misleading.
Before the colonization of the “new world,” there were approximately five million American Indians, but by 1800, this population had declined to only 600,000. European colonizers brought disease, quickly killing many Native peoples, yet the wars they waged were the most impactful. In a greedy search for land, colonizers decimated Native populations and enslaved the remaining survivors. As a result, Europeans and their colonial desires wiped many tribes completely out, one of them being the Massachusett, who resided on the very land that Boston College now inhabits. Because of this, a month of history is not enough, as many Native Americans call for reparations to begin amending the crimes of the colonizers.
While these famous works of art certainly depict a widespread misunderstanding of Thanksgiving, there are even false and problematic pieces like these on Boston College’s campus. In Gasson Hall’s rotunda, there are four large paintings on the upper walls created by Francis Schroen, SJ. Two of them display colonizers and their interactions with the local Tribes.
While attempting to praise these saints, these religious images blatantly show how European colonizers forced Christianity onto the Native Americans. In the first image, it seems as though the holy figure leads the Natives in search of more land. He uses his domineering religion to colonize another land that is not his own. Similarly, the second image depicts a religious ceremony happening right in front of the Natives’ eyes. Placed in the background, they watch from afar, and the painter shows them gazing in a state of awe. The painting inflates the importance of Christianity, deeming it superior to the religion of the Natives. Again, on land that is not their own, the colonizers celebrate divine providence and the false sense of manifest destiny.
It is striking to see these paintings within the halls of Boston College, as they display extremely problematic scenes of colonization. To praise these saints that clearly imposed themselves and their religion on the native population is seemingly against the values of our institution. Unfortunately, this example is not limited to the walls of our own university. Reminders of the incorrect retellings of Thanksgiving and the colonization of the “new world” riddle themselves throughout the United States. Depictions through art are just one of the many ways our modern world ignores the horrific actions of the European colonizers. If we continue to acknowledge these works as accurate, we will never be able to honor the true history of our nation. Instead, we must know that these depictions are wrong and educate ourselves to the greatest extent.