Meriden blogger explores Native American perspective on Thanksgiving history

I often wonder about the way the first Thanksgiving is taught in school. I consider the hand-turkeys and the headbands with feathers on them, and the way the focus has shifted from history to maybe spelling as children scratch out their heartfelt, “I’m thankful for”s onto colorful strips of paper. More recently, I’ve been considering the picture books of brown men with braids and horses sharing corn with light-skinned men in all black and silly top-hats. Both parties are alway smiling.

This year, I decided to delve into some real accounts from those who did not smile as the way of life of their ancestors was forever shifted when the first Europeans set foot on this side of the ocean.

For a micro perspective, Gary O’Neil graced me with both his presence and shocking tales of his own family history. Sitting down with this Meriden art teacher and historian, he spoke of the Thanksgiving realities rarely shared in mainstream settings. With both Nipmuck and Wangunk ancestry, O’Neil had a unique upbringing.

“We always were taught that we were to use this holiday for family, but it is a holiday of betrayal.” he said.

As he conducted more research on his lineage, he came to realize the harsh realities of how Native Americans were either wiped out, or forced to adapt to survive.

“We learned strategies of how to become accepted,” he said.

Through church and town records, he started to piece together bits of his past and the people who did what they had to do to make it in 18th century Connecticut.

“We tried to assimilate as much as possible,” he said.

As a descendant of the Jonathan Palmer line, O’Neil is one of the lucky few who actually have documentation of their indigenous ancestors’ existence in what’s now East Hampton, Middletown, and Portland.

Regarding his people’s resilience, O’Neil stated, “When you think about survival you think about the strength of your family surviving tough odds.” He continued, “Between disease, and everything else, we’re very fortunate to be alive.”

When European colonizers and traders came to what is now Connecticut, their foreign bacteria and diseases wiped out an estimated eighty to ninety percent of those indigenous to the area. When looking back on his incredible life story and genealogy, O’Neil frankly mused, “We survived.” 

For a macro perspective, Darlene Kascak, Museum Assistant, Native American Storyteller and Education Coordinator at the Institute for American Indian Studies Museum took some time out of her busy schedule to share her knowledge from both a personal and academic perspective. Through a “Food for Thought” presentation on the modern representation of Thanksgiving and a museum tour, this Schaghticoke Tribal Nation member shed some light on common misconceptions and the impact false narratives have on history.

Touching upon the different perspectives including those of the colonizers, indigenous people and later different groups of immigrants, Kascak expertly dismantled many of the false claims about Thanksgiving.  She even went as far as considering the matter of moving forward — How do we acknowledge the atrocities of our country’s past while actively striving to build a future that doesn’t repeat itself?

"We begin by telling the truth." Kascak continued, “Children need to know the facts, so they can form their own opinions. In this way we can raise our children to be more empathetic to other cultures and to recognize when they see something that's going on that isn't right or fair.”

Kascak’s work at the Institute for American Indian Studies Museum is in the exploration, education, and celebration of Native American culture both historically and present-day. Through the museum, she not only reteaches much more accurate versions of Connecticut history, but she also uplifts the modern Native American community and reminds visitors of their current successes.

For more information on the incredible real stories of Connecticut’s tribes, visit the Washington, Connecticut museum any day Wednesday through Sunday. Don’t miss their Wigwam Escape Room experience!  

Learning more about Connecticut’s rich history is always fascinating. This Thanksgiving, somewhere in between the football and the post-feast nap, I’ll be reading up on the Wampanoag tribe. These are people I know little about except that they are historically credited as the tribe involved in the first Thanksgiving. While learning about our history isn’t always easy and pleasant, it is incredibly important for self-awareness and growth.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”-George Santayana

Francesca Fontánez is a Meriden-based journalist, educator, and creative. A graduate of both the University of New Haven and the University of Bridgeport, she is happy to be back in Meriden writing about the city she loves. When she's not helping out in the English department at Maloney High School, she's either exploring the Eastern seaboard for her lifestyle blog (@ eastsidevibes on Instagram) or working on music for her band, Cessa and The Zach. Email Francesca at with tips on what you want to read about next, or just to say hi!


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