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The Real History of Thanksgiving

As the fourth Thursday of November approaches, the Millersville community will enjoy a restful break from classes. When commemorating the first Thanksgiving, it is important to learn about and be respectful of the history behind it. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Native Americans and English settlers did break bread together, but the English continued to encroach and attack upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements.

Frank Vitale is the University archivist and special collections librarian here at Millersville. He explains some of the history of native peoples in the Lancaster area. “The Lancaster region was a crossroads for a variety of Indigenous peoples. Those peoples were largely driven from this region through conflict with encroaching European settlers; illustrative of this are the Paxton Massacres of December, 1763, when the settlers in this region killed a group of 20 Conestogans who lived near the modern-day town of Conestoga, just south of Millersville,” says Vitale.

These groups were honored in a land acknowledgment ceremony that took place on campus on October 25. There, the land that we learn on today was acknowledged to be the ancestral property of the Conestogas, Susquehannocks, Shawnee and other indigenous groups.

Another part of Native American history to be aware of is Pennsylvania’s history of boarding schools arranged by the federal government to assimilate natives and erase their culture. One such school, as Vitale explains, was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School which operated from 1879 to 1918. Vitale shared some important history about this particular school, saying, “Indigenous youth were often forced to attend these institutions, where they would be prohibited from speaking their own languages and practicing their own cultures. Notably, some of the Indigenous students who attended the Carlisle Indian School later enrolled at the Millersville State Normal School (as we were then known), to be trained as teachers.” Even after local Indigenous groups were forced from what we know now as central Pennsylvania, they were oppressed through imperialism at places like these boarding schools.

The Historic Marker at the gravesite of Native Americans that attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

As we continue to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, be mindful of the deep history and culture of those who lived here before us.

For more information on native perspectives on Thanksgiving, visit the Smithsonian website here: https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/informational/rethinking-thanksgiving

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