On Nov. 17, as part of Sigma Tau Delta's monthly mini-lecture series, English professor Caroline Woidat delivered a talk titled "Native American Thanksgiving: Food for Thought" to students gathered in the Union's Fireside Lounge.
Woidat began by reading excerpts from Michael Dorris' 1988 New York Times editorial "For Indians, No Thanksgiving," in which he challenged prevailing ideas concerning the first Thanksgiving, like the notion that the Plymouth pilgrims viewed the Wampanoag people as equals. Woidat added that even more basic assumptions about the first Thanksgiving, like that giving thanks was an important part of the events, are open to question.
There are only two primary sources concerning the first Thanksgiving: Edward Winslow's "Mourt's Relation" and William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation."
"The thanks for the plenty is a little sketchy," said Woidat. "There's no mention of thanks [in Bradford's writing]."
Woidat also examined Jennie Brownscombe's famous 1914 painting "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" and highlighted the work's many historical inaccuracies. The Native Americans seated in the painting's background are wearing feather headdresses typical of the Sioux rather than clothing the Wampanoag people might have worn.
A log cabin home can be seen behind the Native Americans in the work, when in reality, pilgrims' first homes were dug out of mud.
"There's a lot here that is not historically accurate at all and yet this is the image that many people carry with them," said Woidat.
Woidat's lecture also tackled inaccurate depictions of Native Americans in American culture, like the one found in Joseph Dixon's 1913 photograph "The Sunset of a Dying Race." The photograph shows a man in stereotypical Native American garb sitting astride a horse and facing a setting sun. According to Woidat, the picture reinforced all sorts of commonly held misconceptions about Native American people, including the photographer's idea that Native Americans would eventually just disappear.
Such inaccurate and sometimes offensive depictions still abound in American culture today, found in everything from the logos of well-known sports teams to the packaging of common household food products.
"Not being American, I only knew the broad outlines of the Thanksgiving tradition," said Axele Kibodi, a junior exchange student from France who attended the talk. "I had no idea how controversial it was … This lecture explored a different version of what I had heard before."