Thanksgiving Background and Native Points of View
This page has a variety of articles, please take your time and read them. They give the background of Thanksgiving Day, meeting Tiano, Arawak, Wampanoag and other Natives, from historical documentation to individual thoughts. The you can cut & paste the websites addresses into your Browser.
TRUE THANKSGIVING – A Day of Mourning:
Roy Cook, Editor email@example.com
To understand an American Indian perspective on Thanksgiving, you need some information and some new viewpoints.
Most children know that Native Americans helped the Pilgrims and were invited to the first Thanksgiving feast. But most children do not know the following facts, which explain why many American Indians today call Thanksgiving a “Day of Mourning”.
Before the Pilgrims arrived Plymouth had been the site of a Pawtuxet village which was wiped out by a plague (introduced by English explorers) five years before the Pilgrims landed. The nearest other people were the Wampanoag, whose lands stretched from present day Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. Like most other peoples in the area, the Wampanoag were farmers and hunters.
These Native peoples had met Europeans before the Pilgrims arrived. One such European was Captain Thomas Hunt, who started trading with the Native people in 1614. He captured 20 Pawtuxcts and seven Nausets, selling them as slaves in Spain. Many other European expeditions also lured Native people onto ships and then imprisoned and enslaved them. These expeditions carried smallpox, typhus, measles and other European diseases to this continent. Native people had no immunity and some groups were totally wiped out while others were severely decimated. An estimated 72,000 to 90,000 people lived in southern New England before contact with Europeans. One hundred years later, their numbers were reduced by 80%. It was Captain Hunt’s expedition that brought the plague, which destroyed the Pawtnxet. In this same time frame, but much better known, is Capt. John Smith. He was one who participated in this area’s bounty, although he would have much preferred to find gold. Capt. John Smith, has been immortalized for his part in founding Virginia. In 1614 Smith explored part of the North American coast-to which he gave the name New England. Disappointed in his search gold, he set his men to fishing for cod while he went exploring in the ship’s pinnace, mapping the coastline from Maine to the cape that was named for the fish.
Smith’s map and description of New England and his profits from cod fishing encouraged the Pilgrims to seek a charter from the Crown to settle there. Indeed it was the cod that saved the first New Englanders. In 1640, only eleven years after Massachusetts Bay Company had been by the Puritans, it exported three hundred thousand cod to Europe. Cod was soon also being traded to the West Indies, in exchange for rum and molasses. In addition, plowing in the cod waste greatly increased the agricultural productivity of the stony New England soil. The cod proved a basis of prosperity for New England so considerable that Adam Smith singled it out for praise in his Wealth of Nations. To this day, a wooden sculpture of a cod adorns the Massachusetts Statehouse to remind the legislators of the source of their state’s greatness.
After the Pilgrims arrived they spent four days exploring Cape Cod. They found that Native people buried their dead with stores of corn beans. The Pilgrims dug up many graves, taking the food. To the native people who had observed these actions, it was a serious desecration and insult to their dead.
The angry Wampanoags attacked with a small group, but were frightened off with gunfire. When the Pilgrims had settled in and were working in the fields, they saw a group of Native people approaching. Running away to get their guns, the Pilgrims left their tools behind and the Native people took them. Not long after, in February of 1621, Samoset, a leader of the Wabnaki peoples, walked into the village saying “Welcome,” in English. Samoset was from Maine, where he had met English fishing boats and according to some accounts was taken prisoner to England, finally managing to return to the Plymouth area, six months before the Pilgrims arrived. Samoset told the Pilgrims about all the Native nations in the area and about the Wampanoag people and their leader. Massasoit. He also told of the experience of the Pawtuxet and Nauset people with Europeans. Samoset spoke about a friend of his called Tisquantum (Squanto), who also spoke English. Samoset left, promising the Pilgrims he would arrange for a return of their tools.
Samoset returned with 60 Native people including Massasoit and Tisquantum. Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim, went to present them with gifts and to make a speech saying that King James wished to make an alliance with Massasoit. (This was not true.) Massasbit signed a treaty, which was heavily slanted in favor of the Pilgrims. The treaty said that no Native person would harm a white settler or, should they do so, they would be surrendered to them for punishment. Wampanoags visiting the settlements were to go unarmed; the Wampanoags and the non-Indians agreed to help one another in case of attack; and Massasoit agreed to notify all the neighboring nations about the treaty. The key figure in the treaty talks and in later encounters was Tisquantum. He was Pawtuxet who had been kidnapped and taken to England in 1605. He managed to return to New England, only to be captured by Captain Hunt and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped and returning to this continent, met Samoset upon a ship.
Some of whom had survived the disease. Tiquantum remained with the Pilgrims for the rest of his life and was in large part responsible for their survival. The Pilgrims were mainly artisans, and Tisquantum taught them when and how to plant and fertilize corn and other crops. He taught them where the best fish were and how to catch them in traps, and many other survival skills. Governor Bradford called Tisquantum “a special instrument sent of God” The Native nations along the eastern seaboard practiced (and some still participate in these traditions) some type of harvest feast and ceremony. The Wampanoag feast, called Nikkomosachmiawene, or Grand Sachem’s Council Feast, is marked by traditional food and games, telling of stories and legends, sacred ceremonies and councils on the affairs of the nation. It was because of this feast in 1621 that the Wampanoags had amassed the food to help the Pilgrims, creating a new tradition European tradition known today as “Thanksgiving Day,” it lasted three days. Massasoit came with 90 men and brought five deer as well as other food, all 55, only five were women. Massasoit, who had done so much to help the Pilgrims, had a son named Metacomet. As time went on and more Europeans arrived and took more land, Metacomet or Prince Phillip as he came to known and other tribal people began to take notice of self-serving ethics of the Pilgrims. But, that is yet another story.
First Genocide, Then Lie About It: Why I Hate Thanksgiving
By MITCHEL COHEN TG Day Edition November 27, 2003
With much material contributed by Peter Linebaugh and others whose names have over the years been lost.-
The year was 1492. The Taino-Arawak people of the Bahamas discovered Christopher Columbus on their beach.
Historian Howard Zinn tells us how Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly,
the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote of this in his log.
Here is what he wrote:
“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of sugar cane. They would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
And so the conquest began, and the Thanotocracy — the regime of death — was inaugurated on the continent the Indians called “Turtle Island.”
You probably already know a good piece of the story: How Columbus’s Army took Arawak and Taino people prisoners and insisted that they take him to the source of their gold, which they used in tiny ornaments in their ears. And how, with utter contempt and cruelty, Columbus took many more Indians prisoners and put them aboard the Nina and the Pinta — the Santa Maria having run aground on the island of Hispañola (today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). When some refused to be taken prisoner, they were run through with swords and bled to death. Then the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. During the long voyage, many of the Indian prisoners died. Here’s part of Columbus’s report to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain:
“The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” Columbus concluded his report by asking for a little help from the King and Queen, and in return he would bring them “as much gold as they need, and as many slaves as they ask.”
Columbus returned to the New World — “new” for Europeans, that is — with 17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Their aim was clear: Slaves, and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But word spread ahead of them. By the time they got to Fort Navidad on Haiti, the Taino had risen up and killed all the sailors left behind on the last voyage, after they had roamed the island in gangs raping women and taking children and women as slaves. Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” The Indians began fighting back, but were no match for the Spaniard conquerors, even though they greatly outnumbered them. In eight years, Columbus’s men murdered more than 100,000 Indians on Haiti alone. Overall, dying as slaves in the mines, or directly murdered, or from diseases brought to the Caribbean by the Spaniards, over 3 million Indian people were murdered between 1494 and 1508.
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas and the Taino of the Caribbean, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. Literally millions of native peoples were slaughtered. And the gold, slaves and other resources were used, in Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism. Karl Marx would later call this “the primitive accumulation of capital.” These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system of technology, business, politics and culture that would dominate the world for the next five centuries.
All of this were the preconditions for the first Thanksgiving. In the North American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had set it in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole Indian village.
The Jamestown colony was established in Virginia in 1607, inside the territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan watched the English settle on his people’s land, but did not attack. And the English began starving. Some of them ran away and joined the Indians, where they would at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times tens of thousands of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves — from Wales and Scotland as well as from Africa — ran away to live in Indian communities, intermarry, and raise their children there.
In the summer of 1610 the governor of Jamestown colony asked Powhatan to return the runaways, who were living fully among the Indians. Powhatan left the choice to those who ran away, and none wanted to go back. The governor of Jamestown then sent soldiers to take revenge. They descended on an Indian community, killed 15 or 16 Indians, burned the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the female leader of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing the children overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. The female leader was later taken off the boat and stabbed to death.
By 1621, the atrocities committed by the English had grown, and word spread throughout the Indian villages. The Indians fought back, and killed 347 colonists. From then on it was total war. Not able to enslave the Indians the English aristocracy decided to exterminate them.
And then the Pilgrims arrived.
When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians. The story goes that the Pilgrims, who were Christians of the Puritan sect, were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They had fled England and went to Holland, and from there sailed aboard the Mayflower, where they landed at Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts.
Religious persecution or not, they immediately turned to their religion to rationalize their persecution of others. They appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:8: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”
To justify their use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”
The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians, who occupied what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them out of the way; they wanted their land. And they seemed to want to establish their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area.
In 1636 an armed expedition left Boston to attack the Narragansett Indians on Block Island. The English landed and killed some Indians, but the rest hid in the thick forests of the island and the English went from one deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back to the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying crops again.
The English went on setting fire to wigwams of the village. They burned village after village to the ground. As one of the leading theologians of his day, Dr. Cotton Mather put it: “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.” And Cotton Mather, clutching his bible, spurred the English to slaughter more Indians in the name of Christianity.
Three hundred thousand Indians were murdered in New England over the next few years. It is important to note: The ordinary Englishmen did not want this war and often, very often, refused to fight. Some European intellectuals like Roger Williams spoke out against it. And some erstwhile colonists joined the Indians and even took up arms against the invaders from England. It was the Puritan elite who wanted the war, a war for land, for gold, for power. And, in the end, the Indian population of 10 million that was in North America when Columbus came was reduced to less than one million.
The way the different Indian peoples lived — communally, consensually, making decisions through tribal councils, each tribe having different sexual/marriage relationships, where many different sexualities were practiced as the norm — contrasted dramatically with the Puritan’s Christian fundamentalist values. For the Puritans, men decided everything, whereas in the Iroquois federation of what is now New York state women chose the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils; it was the women who were responsible for deciding on whether or not to go to war. The Christian idea of male dominance and female subordination was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.
There were many other cultural differences: The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment on children. They did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training, but gradually allowed the child to learn to care for themselves. And, they did not believe in ownership of land; they utilized the land, lived on it. The idea of ownership was ridiculous, absurd. The European Christians, on the other hand, in the spirit of the emerging capitalism, wanted to own and control everything — even children and other human beings. The pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners: “And surely there is in all children a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.” That idea sunk in.
One colonist said that the plague that had destroyed the Patuxet people — a combination of slavery, murder by the colonists and disease — was “the Wonderful Preparation of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Providence for His People’s Abode in the Western World.” The Pilgrims robbed Wampanoag graves for the food that had been buried with the dead for religious reasons. Whenever the Pilgrims realized they were being watched, they shot at the Wampanoags, and scalped them. Scalping had been unknown among Native Americans in New England prior to its introduction by the English, who began the practice by offering the heads of their enemies and later accepted scalps.
“What do you think of Western Civilization?” Mahatma Gandhi was asked in the 1940s. To which Gandhi replied: “Western Civilization? I think it would be a good idea.” And so enters “Civilization,” the civilization of Christian Europe, a “civilizing force” that couldn’t have been more threatened by the beautiful anarchy of the Indians they encountered, and so slaughtered them.
These are the Puritans that the Indians “saved”, and whom we celebrate in the holiday, Thanksgiving. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, a member of the Patuxet Indian nation. Samoset, of the Wabonake Indian nation, which lived in Maine. They went to Puritan villages and, having learned to speak English, brought deer meat and beaver skins for the hungry, cold Pilgrims. Tisquantum stayed with them and helped them survive their first years in their New World. He taught them how to navigate the waters, fish and cultivate corn and other vegetables. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicines. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, head chief of the Wampanoags, a treaty that gave the Pilgrims everything and the Indians nothing. And even that treaty was soon broken. All this is celebrated as the First Thanksgiving.
My own feeling? The Indians should have let the Pilgrims die. But they couldn’t do that. Their humanity made them assist other human beings in need. And for that beautiful, human, loving connection they — and those of us who are not Indian as well — paid a terrible price: The genocide of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island, what is now America.
Let’s look at one example of the Puritan values — which were not, I repeat, the values of the English working class values that we “give thanks for” on this holiday. The example of the Maypole, and Mayday.
In 1517, 25 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, the English working class staged a huge revolt. This was done through the guilds. King Henry VIII brought Lombard bankers from Italy and merchants from France in order to undercut wages, lengthen hours, and break the guilds. This alliance between international finance, national capital and military aristocracy was in the process of merging into the imperialist nation-state.
The young workers of London took their revenge upon the merchants. A secret rumor said the commonality — the vision of communal society that would counter the rich, the merchants, the industrialists, the nobility and the landowners — would arise on May Day. The King and Lords got frightened — householders were armed, a curfew was declared. Two guys didn’t hear about the curfew (they missed Dan Rather on t.v.). They were arrested. The shout went out to mobilize, and 700 workers stormed the jails, throwing bricks, hot water, stones. The prisoners were freed. A French capitalist’s house was trashed.
Then came the repression: Cannons were fired into the city. Three hundred were imprisoned, soldiers patrolled the streets, and a proclamation was made that no women were allowed to meet together, and that all men should “keep their wives in their houses.” The prisoners were brought through the streets tied in ropes. Some were children. Eleven sets of gallows were set up throughout the city. Many were hanged. The authorities showed no mercy, but exhibited extreme cruelty.
Thus the dreaded Thanatocracy, the regime of death, was inaugurated in answer to proletarian riot at the beginning of capitalism. The May Day riots were caused by expropriation (people having been uprooted from their lands they had used for centuries in common), and by exploitation(people had no jobs, as the monarchy imported capital). Working class women organizers and healers who posed an alternative to patriarchal capitalism — were burned at the stake as witches. Enclosure, conquest, famine, war and plague ravaged the people who, in losing their commons, also lost a place to put their Maypole.
Suddenly, the Maypole became a symbol of rebellion. In 1550 Parliament ordered the destruction of Maypoles (just as, during the Vietnam war, the U.S.-backed junta in Saigon banned the making of all red cloth, as it was being sewn into the blue, yellow and red flags of the National Liberation Front).
In 1664, near the end of the Puritans’ war against the Pequot Indians, the Puritans in England abolished May Day altogether. They had defeated the Indians, and they were attempting to defeat the growing proletarian insurgency at home as well.
Although translators of the Bible were burned, its last book, Revelation, became an anti-authoritarian manual useful to those who would turn the Puritan world upside down, such as the Family of Love, the Anabaptists, the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, and Thomas Morton, the man who in 1626 went to Merry Mount in Quincy Mass, and with his Indian friends put up the first Maypole in America, in contempt of Puritan rule.
The Puritans destroyed it, exiled him, plagued the Indians, and hanged gay people and Quakers. Morton had come over on his own, a boat person, an immigrant. So was Anna Lee, who came over a few years later, the Manchester proletarian who founded the communal living, gender separated Shakers, who praised God in ecstatic dance, and who drove the Puritans up the wall.
The story of the Maypole as a symbol of revolt continued. It crossed cultures and continued through the ages. In the late 1800s, the Sioux began the Ghost Dance in a circle, “with a large pine tree in the center, which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns, all offerings to the Great Spirit.” They didn’t call it a Maypole and they danced for the unity of all Indians, the return of the dead, and the expulsion of the invaders on a particular day, the 4th of July, but otherwise it might as well have been a Mayday!
Wovoka, a Nevada Paiute, started it. Expropriated, he cut his hair. To buy watermelon he rode boxcars to work in the Oregon hop fields for small wages, exploited. The Puget Sound Indians had a new religion — they stopped drinking alcohol, became entranced, and danced for five days, jerking twitching, calling for their land back, just like the Shakers! Wovoka took this back to Nevada: “All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing.” Soon they were. Porcupine took the dance across the Rockies to the Sioux. Red Cloud and Sitting Bull advanced the left foot following with the right, hardly lifting the feet from the ground. The Federal Agents banned the Ghost Dance! They claimed it was a cause of the last Sioux outbreak, just as the Puritans had claimed the Maypole had caused the May Day proletarian riots, just as the Shakers were dancing people into communality and out of Puritanism.
On December 29 1890 the Government (with Hotchkiss guns throwing 2 pound explosive shells at 50 a minute — always developing new weapons!) massacred more than 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee. As in the Waco holocaust, or the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia, the State disclaimed responsibility. The Bureau of Ethnology sent out James Mooney to investigate. Amid Janet Reno-like tears, he wrote: “The Indians were responsible for the engagement.”
In 1970, the town of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts held, as it does each year, a Thanksgiving Ceremony given by the townspeople. There are many speeches for the crowds who attend. That year — the year of Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia; the year 4 students were massacred at Kent
State and 13 wounded for opposing the war; the year they tried to electrocute Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins — the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, and the first Thanksgiving.
Frank James, who is a Wampanoag, was selected. But before he was allowed to speak he was told to show a copy of his speech to the white people in charge of the ceremony. When they saw what he had written, they would not allow him to read it.
First, the genocide. Then, the suppression of all discussion about it.
What do Indian people find to be Thankful for in this America? What does anyone have to be Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that this “holyday” commemorates? As we sit with our families on Thanksgiving, taking any opportunity we can to get out of work or off the streets and be in a warm place with people we love, we realize that all the things we have to be thankful for have nothing at all to do with the Pilgrims, nothing at all to do with Amerikan history, and everything to do with the alternative, anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led, before they were massacred by the colonists, in the name of privatization of property and the lust for gold and labor.
Yes, I am an American. But I am an American in revolt. I am revolted by the holiday known as Thanksgiving. I have been accused of wanting to go backwards in time, of being against progress. To those charges, I plead guilty. I want to go back in time to when people lived communally, before the colonists’ Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify their terrorism, their slavery, their hatred of children, their oppression of women, their holocausts. But that is impossible. So all I look forward to the utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika — not the people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery, the State, the capitalism, the Christianity and all that it stands for. I look forward to a future where I will have children with Amerika, and they will be the new Indians.
Mitchel Cohen is co-editor of “Green Politix”, the national newspaper of the Greens/Green Party USA,, and organizes with the NoSpray Coalition and the Brooklyn Greens. He can be reached at:
In memorium. Lest we forget. The First Thanksgiving
From the Community Endeavor News, November, 1995, as reprinted in Healing Global Wounds, Fall, 1996
The first official Thanksgiving wasn’t a festive gathering of Indians and Pilgrims, but rather a celebration of the massacre of 700 Pequot men, women and children, an anthropologist says. Due to age and illness his voice cracks as he talks about the holiday, but William B. Newell, 84, talks with force as he discusses Thanksgiving. Newell, a Penobscot, has degrees from two universities, and was the former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut.
“Thanksgiving Day was first officially proclaimed by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 to commemorate the massacre of 700 men, women and children who were celebrating their annual green corn dance-Thanksgiving Day to them-in their own house,” Newell said.
“Gathered in this place of meeting they were attacked by mercenaries and Dutch and English. The Indians were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were shot down. The rest were burned alive in the building,” he said.
Newell based his research on studies of Holland Documents and the 13 volume Colonial Documentary History, both thick sets of letters and reports from colonial officials to their superiors and the king in England, and the private papers of Sir William Johnson, British Indian agent for the New York colony for 30 years in the mid-1600s.
“My research is authentic because it is documentary,” Newell said. “You can’t get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand. It is not hearsay.”
Newell said the next 100 Thanksgivings commemorated the killing of the Indians at what is now Groton, Ct. [home of a nuclear submarine base] rather than a celebration with them. He said the image of Indians and Pilgrims sitting around a large table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day was “fictitious” although Indians did share food with the first settlers.
I CELEBRATE THE HOLIDAY OF THANKSGIVING
This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people. Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” in “America the Beautiful.” Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing “Land of the Indian’s pride” instead.
I was proud to sing the new lyrics in school, but I sang softly. It was enough for me to know the difference. At six, I felt I had learned something very important. As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors, and I learned that my family possessed some “inside” knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses came to our homes.
When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, they were poor and hungry –half of them died within a few months from disease and hunger. When Squanto, a Wampanoag man, found them, they were in a pitiful state. He spoke English, having traveled to Europe, and took pity on them. Their English crops had failed. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow their food.
These were not merely “friendly Indians.” They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary — but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect. Among the Dakota, my father’s people, they say, when asked to give, “Are we not Dakota and alive?” It was believed that by giving there would be enough for all — the exact opposite of the system we live in now, which is based on selling, not giving.
To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were heathens, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves.
Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples. I sometimes wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes? And at the “first Thanksgiving” the Wampanoags provided most of the food — and signed a treaty granting Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the first Thanksgiving.
What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoags. Most diseases then came from animals that Europeans had domesticated. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of our people, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. Some estimate that diseases accounted for a death toll reaching 90 percent in some Native American communities. By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way “for a better growth,” meaning his people.
In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.
I see, in the “First Thanksgiving” story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.
Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.
Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.
AND THE HEALING CAN BEGIN.
Celebrating Native Americans Means Honoring Hundreds of Cultures
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind., Nov. 1 (A Scribe Newswire) — When recognizing November’s Native American Heritage Month, it is important to remember the hundreds of nations that are part of the Native American culture, says a Purdue University history professor.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that all Native Americans are the same and there is some general way of talking about a single Native American response to anything,” said Dawn Marsh Riggs, an assistant professor in the Department of History. “We are talking about more than 600 nations with unique cultural foundations.”
Marsh Riggs, who studies Native American history, says this assumption is often the result of how Native Americans are portrayed in entertainment.
“Movies and books are often loaded with stereotypes and misinformation,” she says. “The most common stereotypes are that all Native Americans are like Plains Indians, chasing buffalo and living in teepees. This and the Thanksgiving tradition overshadow indigenous cultures from other regions in the United States.
“For some Native Americans, Thanksgiving is very important historically, and the public needs to be reeducated about the role Native Americans played in that early encounter because their role was more than providing food. For other groups it is a political rallying point to remind us that Native Americans are still living under the strain of colonization, fighting to preserve their culture and independence. And of course, there is a plethora of feelings in between.”