Thanksgiving and the Doctrine of Discovery

Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.
20 min readNov 23, 2021

Origin Stories shaping our National Consciousness

Columbus Day. Thanksgiving. Fourth of July.

These three holidays publicly commemorate the origins of our nation: linked together they form a collective origin story for the United States of America. Together, the holidays, the rituals around them, and the stories we tell ourselves about them enculturate certain values, morals, and define what is associated with patriotism and what it means to be “American.” Along with Christmas, Easter, and a series of other federally-recognized holidays mostly reserved for individuals (ie, MLK day and Presidents day) form the country’s liturgical cycle of the year. They are practiced — observed, celebrated, dealt with, suffered through — in schools, workplaces, and play key roles in the acculturation of immigrants. We do well to inquire into what we are practicing.

Today, as we mark the 400th anniversary of what Americans in the mid-nineteenth century started calling the “First Thanksgiving”, let us reconsider what cosmovision we are emphasizing in our collective origin story, and how we want to retell these stories. Already, Columbus Day is being actively re-named Indigenous Peoples Day. Thanksgiving is being poked and prodded: “real history of thanksgiving” articles can be found in many print, video, and other expressions. Here, I explore the multiple historical links between the Doctrine of Discovery and Thanksgiving.

Exploring such links is not, actually, a call to stop celebrating Thanksgiving. Gathering together with friends and family, extending a hand to strangers, feasting, celebrating the harvest, playing (and watching) games together, and giving thanks for life itself is a precious and valued opportunity. Federally recognized holidays provide important down-time and family time amongst our overly busy and, for far too many people, overworked lives.

If anything, this is a call to heal from the diseased Christian imagination that dwells within the Doctrine of Discovery that has come to shape our contemporary society. Rituals, including much beloved rituals around food, family, and gratitude, are dynamic. We can infuse into our rituals values of abundance built not on domination but on recognizing, honoring, and acting upon our obligations of mutual aid with our indigenous peoples.

Gratitude is a spiritual-emotional experience that can swell up from within us as we connect with the wonder of our common home and our existence, made possible by other human and non-human beings. It is an emotion that can, and often does, sit alongside grief. Giving thanks can dwell besides mourning.

Thanksgiving can become a celebration that actually does honor indigenous peoples, food, and land; it can act as a force bringing us closer to reconciliation. But for that to happen, we need to untangle it from the Doctrine of Discovery. Which is no small task.

Healing from the Doctrine of Discovery requires an immense, cross-cultural, international effort that is in no way limited to any of these holidays. And reinterpreting and reimagining our rituals and our celebrations is important. May this work bring us towards greater healing.

First, let us start with a brief review of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Papal Bull

The Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) is a series of Papal Bulls written by the Popes of the Catholic Church between 1450 and 1494 that gave the legal, moral, spiritual, economic and political permission for the European Christian royalty and their “afonts” to colonize the rest of the world that was becoming known at the end of the Middle Ages. It lays the ground rules within which the fundamentally theological question, how does the self, in the form of the Church, relate to the other, in the form of human and non-human entities who are not from the Church. Its’ theological arguments draw from arguments and laws crafted during the Crusades, especially the notion of terrus nullus, or empty land, which says that if the lands are not ruled by a Christian Prince/King (of Europe) then they are considered “empty” regardless of who is living there. This was a key principle in enabling the continued invasions and plumage of the Holy Land. It should be read as an ecological, theological, economic, political, and anti-Islamic doctrine.

The Doctrine of Discovery is fundamentally about the relationship between land/water, people, and God. It is a key component example of what Willie James Jennings names the“diseased Christian imagination.” Jennings suggests that the disease stems(at least in part) from an arrogance found in old anti-semitic roots of certain Christian perspectives, in which Christianity is seen to replace Judaism as the collective body of God’s “chosen people,” and, as such, are uniquely positioned to interpret God’s will on Earth. This early theological stance eventually grew into the notion that the Pope, as God’s emissary on Earth, had the right (and the responsibility) to decide the fate of different lands. Remember that in Deuteronomy, God explicitly says that the lands and creatures of all the Earth belong to him. Catholic/Christian doctrines subsequently interpreted this to mean that the Pope could “donate” land (from God) to certain people (the kings and queens of Europe). This first “Donation Bull” (as the religious documents were called at the time) was in the 1450s, giving permission to King Alfonso of Portugal and his uncle, Prince Henry the Navigator, to explore, conquer, and enslave the peoples and places of West Africa. The second set of Donation Bulls was written in the 1493, upon Columbus’ return from Hispaniola.

The Doctrine of Discovery reeks of arrogance.

Three of its most influential aspects are:

Dominion: European colonization of non-European territories and the subsequent transition of land into property; the domination and extraction of minerals from the Earth; the growth of the industrial revolution/human technology being used to control and dominate the Earth; the subsequent rise of climate change.

Cultural/religious superiority of white Christian Europeans, much of which becomes engrained in the modern secular world. Including in this is that God is (primarily) seen as masculine, outside of the body/above the Earth, and demanding of absolute obedience. Related is the assumption that God is “on our side” and, that the ends justify even the most horrific and violent of means. The close connection between material wealth (ie gold), God, and the vision of a “good” society. Within the DoD one also finds the early sensibilities of Manifest Destiny.

Slavery: Related to the supposed superiority of Europeans is the explicit support of slavery of native peoples in both Africa and the Americas. While the Papal Bulls do not, themselves, mention ethnicity, skin color, or race, the connections between the growth of racism as we know it today and the early modern/colonial era is so intertwined it is hard to separate them.

The DoD was the base of colonization/the taking of indigenous land by Europeans between appx 1560 and the end of the colonial period (which for some countries in Africa was as recently as the 1960s). It was instrumental to the growth of the modern corporation, including the East Indian Company. It became part of US domestic and international law within the first few years of the US government’s existence. There are references to it in the Constitution, and became enshrined as the basis for Indian Law in the Johnson v McIntosh Supreme Court Case in 1823. That court case not only influences Indian Law; it influences the basic assumptions of who can own, buy, and sell land. Land, afterall, is what the Doctrine of Discovery is all about. Since then, the Doctrine of Discovery has been used against Indian Tribes ever since throughout America’s legal system, with legal citings as recent as 2007. It has held significant influence in determining contemporary settler-indigenous relations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and many other parts of the world. It continues to inform the legal structures, standing, and tactics of multinational extractive corporations (ie, the mining industry in Bolivia).

In part because it is one of the major legal (and moral) arguments used against indigenous sovereignty, often referenced in struggles around land, water, and mineral rights, it is often seen to be an “indigenous issue.” However, this approach pretends that “indigenous issues” are not simultaneously impacting non-indigenous peoples.

Learning about and engaging with the Doctrine of Discovery is something that needs to be part of everyone’s understanding of ‘how we got to where we are today’, because it forms such a pivotal place in not only the initial colonial rush of Spain and Portugal, but in forming international foreign policy, global colonization by European powers, racism, the structures of modern institutions including private property, the modern corporation and (to a lesser extent) the modern judicial system, and the key questions of how humans relate to one another and the environment. It can be seen as one of the major origin points of climate change.

I often incorporate the 1484 Witch Bull which gave permission for the Great European Witch Hunts into the Doctrine of Discovery, due, especially, to the extent to which the scientific ‘discovery’ process, the growth of intellectual property and the European relationship to its own traditional ecological knowledge holders grew out of the “Witch Bull”, the Papal Bull which gave Church endorsement to the Witch Hunts. In this article, I am focusing on the ‘classic’ definition of the Doctrine of Discovery, which does not incorporate the Witch Hunts.

This is an international story, influencing the way in which our global world came to see itself.

The DoD is embedded in three key moments of the national Origin Story

While this article focuses on the links between Thanksgiving and the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD), it is worth noting how these three holidays are linked to the Doctrine of Discovery, so we can better understand where Thanksgiving sits in the larger historical narrative.

  1. Columbus Day recognizes the “discovery” Columbus made of the Americas. Or, as so many Taino people say today, their ancestors discovered Columbus. The Doctrine of Discovery is deeply intertwined with Christopher Columbus, the second major set of Papal Bulls being written immediately upon Columbus’ return from the Taino people’s homeland, in what Columbus called Hispaniola. Americans have been associating their origin story with Columbus for centuries, despite the clear fact that Columbus himself never stepped foot on any territory now associated with the United States. While rarely described as such, associating ourselves with Columbus Day directly (spiritually, theologically, symbolically and to an extent legally) associates America (including her land policy, relationship to indigenous peoples and overarching moral sensibilities) with the Doctrine of Discovery and the elevation of “discovery” as one of the highest forms of engaging with the world. Given its relative lack of emotional attachment, it has been one of the easier federal holidays to challenge, with towns and cities switching from Columbus Day to Indigenous peoples Day for several decades; 2021 marked the first year that a U.S. President acknowledged Indigenous Peoples Day.
  2. Thanksgiving Day (as a federal holiday) has become deeply intertwined with the “First Thanksgiving”, the Mayflower, the notion that the United States was founded by Pilgrims, and the relationship between Pilgrims and Indians. Less discussed is the extent to which the Mayflower Compact is built upon much of the ideology within the Doctrine of Discovery; after King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534, he continued to see himself as inheriting the blessings of the Pope and the right to the principles of Discovery; his protestant heirs followed suit. The entire English overseas colonial project was devising itself from the DoD. Whereas in the Columbus encounter, indigenous peoples traditionally play little to no role in the retelling, the First Thanksgiving story is centered on a friendly encounter, with the Indians often seen to be passively opening their homelands to the colonists.
  3. Fourth of July, or America’s Birthday, celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This narrative usually completely ignores indigenous peoples as already independent, sovereign nations, with often complex treaty agreements with multiple European kingdoms. Instead the moment focuses on the relationship between the English Crown and their (mostly) English colonists. The assumption behind this is made possible only because of the DoD: that the colonists have the right to ‘own’ and ‘govern’ themselves on this land is assumed as such because they are not recognizing pre-existing indigenous sovereignty. Indeed, one of the first things that Jefferson does as Secretary of State under President Washington is sail to France, where he famously signs the Louisiana Purchase (never informing much less asking the people who already lived in those lands what they thought of this), and, less famously, settles an agreement for America to ‘inherit’ the British rights entailed in the Doctrine of Discovery.

The DoD and Thanksgiving

We start with the initial Mayflower encounter before turning our attention to the arguably more important moment, when the holiday becomes a part of the national consciousness.

Early image of Samoset entering Plymouth

By the time England was becoming more serious about sending ships to the eastern shore of what is now the United States, the English had watched Spain and Portugal grow phenomenally rich through their horrific exploitations of Latin America, Hispaniola and South America. Whatever their religious disagreements within Europe, they agreed on one thing: European Christian culture was significantly superior to non-European cultures. Furthermore, the natives were perceived as “wanting” their help: the 1629 symbol (fashioned in Europe) for the Massachusetts Bay Colony was of a native person dressed in leaves that might have evoked primordial images of Adam and Eve asking the English to “come over and help us.” Obviously no Native would have designed this: it was a pure projection of their moral superiority. Such projections remained throughout the colonial era and were translated in the post-colonial periods into the fields of international charity, aid and development.

These theological descriptions of their world were often backed in with gratitude to God. Violent scenes (in which the colonists were, say, enslaving the Natives) were accompanied with heartfelt prayers to God, not for forgiveness, but for His continued blessings of their violence. Which, in their opinion, was their right/obligation. Indeed, the Puritans explicitly saw themselves as following the narratives of Exodus and the Israelites entry into Canaan — where God explicitly permitted the Israelites to slaughter those Canaanites who were already living in what God said was the Israelites homeland. (To be clear, Exodus was not referenced in the Doctrine of Discovery, and it was primarily the English, not the Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Swedes, who leaned upon the Deuteronomy text).

References to “rights of discovery” were written into early English documents, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Mayflower Compact. Ships were not allowed to sail without a significant amount of guns and objects of warfare. The assumptions embedded in the Doctrine of Discovery: that the land was theirs for the taking, the people were heathens/pagans/devil-worshipers and (thus) theirs to do whatever they wanted with them including forcing them into slavery, and the blessings of God were upon their endeavors, regardless of what harm they might cause, were all baked into the cosmovision with which the Pilgrims saw their world even before they landed upon it. Their correspondence back to their European audiences (including their financial backers) demonstrates no shift in this attitude of cultural superiority.

The reality before them was something quite different. They were strangers in a strange land; utterly dependent upon their Native hosts’ choice to not kill them upon their arrival, and, subsequently, the Wampanoag people’s choice to reach out to them in tentative friendship. They were confronted with people who were taller, healthier, ate far more nutritious meals and generally lived lives of freedom, bravery, dignity and abundance — even with the epidemics that wiped out between 30–90% of their population shortly prior to the Pilgrim’s arrival. The Pilgrims’ eating, drinking, and, we must presume, some of the social habits changed drastically upon landing in what we now refer to as Plymouth. The alliances they forged were very much a result of the local politics — ie, it was as much about what served the needs of the Wampanoag as it was what served the needs of the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims did not write home about this, or rather, it was all couched in a way that made it sound as if it fit the original narrative (native people are savages and Europeans are culturally superior; this land is now our land).

After several months of being supported by the Wampanoag peoples, the Pilgrims were in a state so much more improved than they were when they arrived late in 1620, sick and suffering, in the Autumn of 1621, they decided to hold a feast of rejoicing. They wrote home about how they gave thanks to God for their improved conditions. They did not mention giving thanks to their Wampanoag hosts, who were responsible for their survival. They also did not invite them to their ‘day of rejoicing’. When the Wampanoags heard their (highly unusual) celebratory gunfire, 90 warriors armed themselves and came running to they knew not what — possibly to rescue their neighbors. When they realized it was a feast, both sides joined in for several days of feasting, dancing, and socializing. Quite possibly they played games that might have resembled soccer. Certainly, both sides would have offered prayers. It was not considered a Thanksgiving, which was a special term for protestant England, reserved for fasting and prayer.

It was a sweet moment in what was an overall often stressful and tense situation. It was a moment that would not have made sense in the pre-existing narrative of the colonists, for it was a moment of relative social and political equality. It was not a moment that fit into the narrative behind the Doctrine of Discovery. Two of the colonists briefly recorded this feast in their diaries and letters home.

And there the event might have rested for eternity, as the documents recording this celebration were subsequently misplaced/lost. The era of breaking treaties began.

The Making of Thanksgiving

A century went by before some of the more elite men in Plymouth initiated a local holiday: Forefathers Day, which was celebrated by a feast of indigenous foods and toasts to various Pilgrim Fathers and some of the Indian leaders who helped them. Over several decades, they attracted enough attention by enough of the local elite (including the likes of John Adams) to help secure the Pilgrim’s place in the shifting colonial narrative of the origin story of America. “Discovery” was a term often used, though its historical link to Papal Bulls was most likely either unknown or not mentioned. The feasting part of the holiday morphed into a ‘thanksgiving meal’; exactly how and why is not known.

It was not until the 1850s that the earlier Pilgrim documents mentioning the feast were recovered, and New England historians began referring to the 1621 meal as the “First Thanksgiving.” Sally Josepha Hale, a prominent and highly influential editor of a national Ladies Magazine, took up a 17 year effort to have a unified and unifying Thanksgiving Day. She eventually succeeded: Abe Lincoln pronounced the first national Thanksgiving day during the final year of the Civil War, when the country was torn apart and desperately needed a moment of reconciliation. Around this same time, artists, especially painters and illustrators, took up these themes, and started creating bold images of the First Thanksgiving — over two hundred years after it had occurred. Unsurprisingly, none of those images are remotely accurate to what would have happened two centuries earlier. They were not aiming for historical accuracy. They were aiming to create an origin story that suited them.

In this classic image of the First Thanksgiving, painted in late 1800s, similar to others in the early 1900s, almost every detail is historically inaccurate of the 1621 feast. However, the sentiment: of natives in the background and puritan fathers offering prayers of Thanksgiving, conveys the desired perception of America by the artists and cultural leaders of the late 1800s.

The images, associations, stories, and folklore that grew up in the 1850s dramatically reflect the values of the (white) cultural elite of those times, including, most especially, the values about the relationships between the Pilgrims, the Indians, God, and the fruit of the land — the harvest. Indigenous peoples were never consulted in how those images were portrayed. It is these stories/myths/images that so dramatically influence how we conceptualize the First Thanksgiving, and the symbolism of the subsequent holiday, today.

Many of the core values of the Doctrine of Discovery are engrained in those tales and images. Namely, these are: cultural superiority of the settlers over the Indians; the Christian/white/settler/Pilgrim being the only person who is praying/the person whose prayer-life and prayer-formation is central to the story; the acquiescence of meek/friendly/welcoming Natives who want the foreigner to be there; and the sense that the white/settler/Christian has an automatic right to the fruits of the harvest. This last is often symbolically or explicitly connected with the sense The very title, “First Thanksgiving” could easily be interpreted as “first thanksgiving in America”, which would imply that before the Pilgrims, the native peoples never gave thanks, or never celebrated the Harvest, instead of seeing the First Thanksgiving as an outgrowth of both Indigenous and European traditions of feasting and celebrating abundance. Indeed, if you listen to most stories of Thanksgiving, they always start with First Contact. Pre-European indigenous histories are ignored, as if history did not exist before Europeans came to the Americas. This is not only factually wrong, it furthers the notion of terrus nullus that is so engrained in the Doctrine: no history, no culture, no people.

At the time this holiday was taking hold in the cultural imagination, Westward expansion was well-underway. The Doctrine of Discovery had become embedded into U.S. law and the sentiments shape-shifted into Manifest Destiny. Most of the images of the Indians at the First Thanksgiving are thus the Indians of the Great Plains; they certainly don’t resemble the cultural characteristics of the peoples of the North East Woodlanders. Many of these images send the message that the Indians of the Great Plains were acquiescing to US railroads, canals, ranches, cattle, the massacre of the Great Buffalo, and being forced into reservations. None of which was true. Indeed, the U.S. military lost as many battles against the Indian warriors of the plains as they won. The images of sedate Indians are fantasies that can be traced back to the images of the ‘diseased Christian imagination.’

This also tells us that the New Englanders (and others) illustrating these images were blatantly ignoring their own Wampanoag neighbors. The Wampanoags have lived continuously on Cape Cod and the surrounding areas for over 10,000 years: they still live there today. Throughout the 1860s, when these images and stories of the First Thanksgiving were being painted and retold, they were enduring unimaginable hardships and conditions that resemble forced servitude/indentured slavery.

The Wampanoags, like their indigenous brothers and sisters across the Americas, had been forced to abandon many of their traditional practices around food. The very abundance celebrated on the Thanksgiving table is one that most indigenous nations in the Americas once had and, due to forced relocation, epidemics, boarding schools, and being forced into “American” agricultural practices (many of which were utterly unsuited for their locations) and herding practices (also often unsuited), they have been unable to maintain their traditional foods. Addictions, malnutrition, obesity, and the other health crises that plague “Indian Country” today are direct results of colonization and the expansion of the United States into Indian land in ways that denied the continued existence of traditional ecological knowledge and foodways. The abundance of the First Thanksgiving being one that was actively shared between the peoples is rare practice in America today.

By the turn of the century, Thanksgiving was a deeply engrained U.S. holiday. It became central to how school children were taught about American history and how immigrants became enculturated. Many immigrants willingly embraced Thanksgiving; they saw in the story an image they wanted for their own story: their journey was hard and challenging, and they wanted to be as warmly embraced and welcomed into this new land as was the image of the Indians welcoming the Pilgrims. They hoped that they too would be offered some of America’s harvest, especially if they were still hungry. They would have been taught that the Indians, like the Pilgrims, were a thing of the past. They had “disappeared.” Or were being disappeared. Or were somewhere -else. Far away from the lived experience of the new immigrant (especially after 1870). All of which was false… but which preserved the dominant U.S narrative that the United States had “settled” indigenous peoples and the immigrants were now arriving on ‘empty land’ that, through hard work (a not-so-subtle Puritan value that was also a critique of the supposedly ‘lazy Indian) was theirs for the taking. This is part of why so many indigenous peoples wonder, ‘what are you (settlers) really giving thanks for during Thanksgiving?”

When you give thanks to however you today conceive of God, are you giving thanks to the God of the Doctrine of Discovery? Or are you giving thanks to the God of Earth and all of her peoples?

It is ironic that the American holiday that most celebrates indigenous peoples and indigenous foods is also a holiday that, historically, has effectively silenced them. In this irony we can, perhaps, see some of the deep discomfort and ambiguity about (white) America’s relationship to indigenous nations, a discomfort that we can see stemming from the Doctrine of Discovery: can we share land in common, or do we have to own it? Is dominion necessary for survival? Or can we create a different way of living on this land?

Purposefully dismembered in these histories is the multi-faceted histories, faces, lands, values, and lived experiences of Native peoples. Since the Indian Religious freedom Act of 1978 and the Indian movements, indigenous voices have been steadily rising in the American public’s imagination. They have challenged these stereotypes and the original histories. They have helped to name and articulate some of the damage done by the Doctrine of Discovery. As they have done so, others, including myself, have also begun to draw connections that our ancestors could not make. Engaging more deeply with damages done by the Doctrine of Discovery enables different encounters with God: ones that constitute different forms of gratitude. Ones that might, in time and with experimentation, engender new and different forms of thanksgivings.

Towards Healing our relationship with food, land, and indigenous peoples

Recovering from the Doctrine of Discovery, in practice, entails healing our relationship with God, food, land, and one another. It entails telling different origin stories. Regardless if we own land, rent an apartment, or live on a reservation, it entails moving out of a “dominion” mindset in terms of our relationship to land. Eventually, it will necessitate us to create different models of our relationships to land. And, with land, food.

Elsewhere, I write about what I and some other colleagues are seeing as a deep longing for reconciliation within Thanksgiving: and the necessity of ensuring that we are not projecting that longing into the past but instead seeing it as a future possibility.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Chef Nephi Craig, a half-Navajo member of the White Mountain Apache tribe of Whiteriver, Arizona, speak about native food ways. He has spent a life time navigating and coming to understand the ramifications of colonization and the Doctrine of Discovery, and finding a way to let his passion for food open the door for greater healing. Most of what we think of as “good sustainability practices,” — eating locally, local economies, eating outside of the industrial food system — are not just ‘new’ practices thought up by white folks, but are how indigenous peoples have lived for millenia.

In an interview for VICE, he encourages people to decolonize their Thanksgiving Dinner through paying attention to where your food comes from — is it from Native America? (hint: the pumpkin in pumpkin pie is, the nutmeg is not). Is it (historically) regional?

As he says:

“There is no handbook on how to decolonize your life. It is place-based. It's ancestrally based, and it's based on your own intuition. Decolonizing your life and diet has gotten trendy lately and everyone can sound cool saying that, but who can live it out? Can you really confront the colonialism within you and the privileges because of it that you benefit from?”

He also suggests we might want to consider renaming Thanksgiving “Indigenous Foods Day.”

Other articles for Decolonizing Thanksgiving abound. One of my favorites includes suggestions such as acknowledging what land you are on as part of your celebrations; acknowledge the Day of Mourning; shifting to a native play list; educating your family and celebrating Native artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs today.

Let us not forget: the work of decolonizing thanksgiving is, really, a year-round effort. The education of school children and immigrants needs to change; the current Thanksgiving Pageant needs to stop; the “termination narrative” and the “poor Indian” narratives need to shift into uplifting contemporary and historical native images, entrepreneurs, traditional knowledge holders, contemporary artists, musicians, problem-solvers, and the wide diversity that is the contemporary Native community.

Changing the narratives around Native peoples changes the narratives around non-Native peoples. It is often unsettling. But it can also be immensely healing.

We may — I certainly have — found ourselves once again sitting together at the table. Or perhaps around a fire. Sharing food, gratitude, and wondering what kind of future we might create. This time, let us keep our (old) promises, and engage in mutual aid.

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Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.

ReMembering and ReEnchanting our world. Retelling Origin Stories and other myths and truths. Entrepreneur, legacy advisor, and unconventional minister. Healing.