Americans differ among themselves about the meaning of Thanksgiving, as they do on so many other issues. How should we describe the First Thanksgiving? It may not be as simple as many of us were taught in school. Did the first Thanksgiving establish peace between Pilgrims and Native Americans? Or was it just a temporary break in tensions?
In the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, the split on Thanksgiving’s origin story falls along party lines: Most Republicans say that the original Thanksgiving Day meant an end to hostilities, while slightly more than half of Democrats and Independents disagree.
Nearly every American today agrees that Native Americans were instrumental in ensuring that the Pilgrims would survive their first year. More than nine in 10 Americans say the Native Americans helped the settlers, with 56% saying they helped “a great deal.” Fewer than one in 10 Americans say Native Americans were a hindrance to the Pilgrims.
Historic descriptions of Pilgrim-American Indian interactions differ. But Americans are twice as likely to think the Pilgrims “stole” American Indian lands as to say they simply settled in empty areas. About half (49%) of Americans say the Pilgrims stole native lands, while 23% say they settled in abandoned areas. This is another question on which Republicans lean the other way from the American public overall: By 40% to 29%, Republicans say the Pilgrims did not steal native land.
Americans unite across the political spectrum in agreeing that American schools botch their teaching about Thanksgiving. Americans say the same about teaching about the history of European settlement and Indigenous people: They’d like the schools to do better, even if they may not all agree on what better teaching of the subjects would look like.
Should we celebrate the day at all? On this question, the public responds resoundingly with, “Yes!” More than half (53%) would celebrate it just as we do now, and 28% would celebrate it with more focus on American history. Just 5% would ditch the holiday entirely.
Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between November 14 and November 16, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, and region based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3% for the overall sample.
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