As marketers, Thanksgiving has marked the start of the end-of-year season when so many nonprofits compete with other businesses for their supporters’ attention. (Although, this has become less true as end-of-year campaigns start earlier and earlier.) Still, Thanksgiving is such an important kick-off to a jam-packed weekend. The traditional narrative of unity and cornucopias is fun and festive—but there’s more to the story than turkey.
Have you stopped to think about the narratives embedded in your Thanksgiving messaging? Are we as marketers capitalizing on and perpetuating harmful myths? Let’s take a closer look at the full story of Thanksgiving.
History of Thanksgiving
Since Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1863, Thanksgiving is a national holiday that is based on the 1621 feast between colonists and the Wampanoag Tribe in Plymouth.
The colonists who were part of this feast left Plymouth, England on the Mayflower with 102 passengers who were interested in the promise of the “New World.” After their 66-day long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they eventually settled into and established a village at what’s known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. They set out in September and arrived in November, utterly unprepared for the winter and diseases that soon spread on their ship.
By the next spring, only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew survived. During that spring they were visited by a member of the Abenaki tribe and the Pawtuxet tribe. The Pawtuxet tribe member, Squanto, had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery in London before escaping and making his way back across the ocean. Despite this experience, he taught the settlers about growing corn, avoiding poisonous plants, and catching fish. He also helped forge an alliance between settlers and the local Wampanoag tribe.
In November 1621, a year after arrival, the settler’s first corn harvest proved successful. A celebratory harvest feast was organized by the settlers who invited a group of the colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. This is often referred to as the first Thanksgiving. While lobster, seal and swans were on the menu back then, turkey and stuffing is the typical centerpiece of today’s feast.
Burying the Bloody Lede
Despite this celebrated alliance, bloodbaths largely followed. Some take issue with the narrative of Thanksgiving for the way it obscures the long history of war and massacre of European settlers against Native Americans.
Around the same time as this glorified fall feast were massacres and wars sparked by settlers’ bloodthirsty desire to own new land and rid the native people. In fact, just over a decade after the 1621 Thanksgiving was a massacre of the Pequot tribe where a general declared the bloody day “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because his men were successful in killing several hundred unarmed men, women and children and enslaving hundreds of Native Americans too.
As a result of that long history, there are many features our language today that are rooted in genocide of Native Americans and remain insensitive. Here are 7 words and phrases to not use.
1. Redskin or red Indian
Historically, bounties were placed on the scalps on Native Americans as a way to encourage their genocide, and “redskin” used to refer to the bloody scal. The pejorative term also means to invoke red as meaning skin color. Though professional sports leagues have used the term and local teams continue to keep the name, this should never be used.
Native Americans were originally called Indians because Christopher Columbus had a strong and incorrect conviction that he reached the shores of South Asia. While it is up to anyone to choose how they identity—whether Native American, Indian, American Indian, Indigenous, or a tribal name—it is best to say Native American or indigenous instead of Indian.
Former president Donald Trump famously called Sen. Warren Pocahontas in an inflammatory rant. Pocahontas is a historical figure, but her name has been something people often use in a derogatory manner towards native American women. It is offensive and should never be used. There is no alternative but the name of who’s being spoken to.
Although this term is lesser known for being one not to use, this is actually an offensive term usually used to describe Inuit tribes, which includes people in the Arctic indigenous population of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The word comes from the Danish word “ashkimeq” that translates to “eaters of raw meat,” which is no name to give a group of people.
This is an honorable title for leaders in tribes, not a casual name for a buddy. It is also extremely reductive and when used for a Native American person, reduces them to their race. And it follows, you should also never say “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
Powwows are celebrations of indigenous cultures that include music, food, art, and dance in regalia—to name a few components. Powwows are not meetings held at work or for group projects. Rather than appropriating the term, simply call it was it is: a meeting.
7. Indian giver
This term was originally used by European settlers to describe Native Americans who wanted to take back something or change an agreement. Now, it can be used to describe anyone who wants to take back something they gave. Not only is the term offensive, but it is historically untrue.
What to Keep in Mind
Although we’ve noted just 7 offensive words that have been used at the expense of the Native American community, we encourage you to take a deeper look at possibly harmful narratives and biases your holiday content or Thanksgiving campaign may reveal. Are you glossing over events that still traumatize indigenous communities? Are you painting certain groups in a biased light? The work of DEI can be difficult, but acknowledgment is the first step!
Everyone is born into a unique historical context which can shape their experiences with everything from the holidays they celebrate to identity-based discrimination. It’s always a good move to improve your cultural competency and be respectful to others.