The first Thanksgiving 1621, painting by J.L.G. Ferris (Jean Leon Gerome 1863-1930). Romanticized paintings of the event helped spread myths about the relationship between settlers and native people, some of which persist four centuries later, scholars say. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

For University of Maine history professor Liam Riordan, Thanksgiving is a good time to reconsider long-held myths about Indigenous people.

“The widespread tradition of having children dress up as Indians is deeply problematic. It’s insulting to Indigenous people who have survived,” he said.

For Maulian Bryant, Penobscot Nation ambassador, the holiday is a time for the family to gather, share food and give thanks. But she agrees there is much more that people need to understand about colonial history than the fact that Native people and English settlers shared a meal at Plymouth four centuries ago.

“When it comes to Thanksgiving, we’re all taught that this was a triumph of humanity, and it was the Native people and Pilgrims coming together to have this meal together, and it was this nice, mutually beneficial relationship. And some of that has some truth to it,” Bryant said. “But I think when we shy away from the real destruction and trauma and harm in the immediate years after between these groups – it led into these widespread wars, and Indigenous people were just decimated by warfare and disease at the hands of settlers and Pilgrims – I think by not telling the whole story, it’s adding to the invisibility of the full experience of Indigenous people.”

In a 1755 proclamation, Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips of Massachusetts said bounties would be paid for dead and alive Penobscots, 20 pounds for the scalps of young, male Penobscots; 50 pounds for male Penobscot brought to Boston to be enslaved. In the proclamation, Penobscot were called enemies and traitors of King George II. Submitted by UMaine history professor Liam Riordan

The popularized version of the First Thanksgiving is of a friendly harvest celebration in 1621 when Pilgrims and Indians came together to eat and give thanks, according to the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian. But the story is a simplified version of what happened – the meal was more about diplomacy and politics than friendship, according to the museum – and it became a myth shaped by romanticized paintings that contributed to the Manifest Destiny sentiment as the United States pushed West, according to the museum.

Riordan is trying to bring the context to that story by giving public presentations around the state about colonialism and the Penobscot Nation. He wants his audiences to know that Indigenous people are not simply part of the state’s history. They are part of the community.


“For our children, grandchildren, and their grandchildren, rather than think Native Americans are something of the past, that they have vanished, their part of society is growing more important,” he said.

Riordan began a deeper look at colonialism and the Penobscot Nation in 2020 when the Bangor City Council agreed to remove a monument of Portuguese explorer Estevan Gomez, the first European to sail the Penobscot River in 1525 for Spain. The monument was erected in Bangor in 1999 as a gift from the Portuguese community in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

It was Bryant, as tribal ambassador for the Penobscot Nation, who said the monument should be removed, considering that Gomez captured at least 58 Native Americans, brought them to Spain, and attempted to sell them in the slave trade, Riordan said. The monument was a continual reminder of traumatic events. The 58 men and women were freed but were never returned to America.

A significant piece of the history, Riordan said, was “a stunning moment” in 1755. A proclamation issued by Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips of Massachusetts declared Penobscots enemies and traitors to the king of England, and that all Penobscot people should be captured and killed. The proclamation was printed in broadsheets and distributed widely.

“It’s quite detailed in offering premiums for Penobscot people who are captured and brought to Boston and sold in slavery,” Riordan said. The government offered 20 pounds for the scalp of a Penobscot boy under 12 years old, and 50 pounds for a Penobscot delivered alive to Boston.

The colonial period saw a dramatic decline in Native American populations. “There was an unbelievable, catastrophic decline in population, from estimates of about 5 million in 1492 to about one-quarter of a million at the start of the 20th century,” Riordan said.



Riordan shows his audiences the artwork of James Eric Francis Sr., an artist, and director of the Cultural and Historical Preservation Department of the Penobscot Nation. Francis recreated a production of the 1755 proclamation, and across the document he painted Penobscot words that mean: “We Walk On, Eternal.”

“Rather than succumbing to the overwhelming abuse of colonialism, the Penobscot Nation walks on eternally, and is still an active presence in Maine and the United States in the 21st century,” Riordan said.

While the Thanksgiving story is an incomplete version of history, the holiday is celebrated by many Wabanaki people the same way it is celebrated by non-Indigenous communities.

“I know that a lot of folks celebrate Thanksgiving in our tribal communities and come together and share food and be in gratitude to one another. Our family celebrates it,” Bryant said.

“I think it’s really important to honor each individual and how they choose to see it. If you’re reconciling the past and deciding to embrace parts of the holiday that resonate with you, that’s fine. If you want to rebel against this false narrative, oppressing our ancestors and our legacy, and our people, and not celebrate it in protest, I think there’s space for that, too,” she said.

“It’s pretty layered and complex, but I think the main theme of telling the full truth of history and not being afraid of it – and that that truth empowers everybody – is kind of where I fall on it.”

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.