The Thanksgiving pageant has been a staple of grade school lesson plans for about 100 years as youngsters dress up as Pilgrims and Indians to celebrate bounty and good fortune, as well as to usher in the holiday season. And as America celebrates both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage month in November, it is quite fitting to take a look at the history of the event.
Exactly what transpired that fall day more than three centuries ago has been a controversial subject among Native Indians because so many tribes have been mistakenly associated with the so-called harvest feast which has morphed commercially into a day of turkey dinners, parades, football and shopping.
The Pilgrims of 1621, just two years after the first African slaves stepped ashore, found themselves at the mercy of the elements in a strange, new land only to be rescued by the Wampanoag tribe in what is today eastern Massachusetts. The Pilgrims did not know the terrain, therefore they did not know where to hunt for game, fish or how to grow vegetables. When the first set of European settlers landed at Plymouth, Native Indians were apprehensive of having the White-skinned interlopers on their land. One individual within the Wampanoag, Tisquantum, widely recognized as “Squanto” in American history, spoke English and was able to communicate with the Pilgrims, realizing they were sick and hungry.
Tisquantum demonstrated how to survive in the new land via harvesting crops, hunting and fishing. It has been argued how Tisquantum could have it in his heart to help the Pilgrims after thrice being captured by European slave traders prior to 1620; but legend reveals that since the Native Indian knowledge of the land outweighed that of the Pilgrims, it was agreed that a treaty be enacted to allow the land to be “secured” for the arrival of more Pilgrims.
Native Indians had celebrated harvest celebrations for centuries, and with a peaceful coexistence underway, the first Thanksgiving was created. Although these harvest festivals differed for each tribe across North America, there was a common belief among the various tribes that a “spiritual” being or force had blessed them with life and longevity, and the Wampanoag extended this kindness to the Pilgrims.
Puritans, who had crossed the Atlantic in 1620 to dock at Salem, Mass., would be classified as religious fanatics today who would do almost anything to “serve their God.” They held the notion that everything had to be “pure,” and if people’s religious beliefs differed from theirs, the Puritans felt compelled to “purify” others as well. Some of the Pilgrims were religious zealots like the Puritans, and when they witnessed how Native Indians worshiped differently, they forced their strict religious beliefs on the “noble savages” under the guise of being righteous and practicing the “chosen religion.” This was the same behavior that led to the Pilgrim’s exile from England.
It is speculated that the first Thanksgiving occurred in October 1621, with some records reporting it lasted for three days and included fasting, prayer, religious ceremonies and finally, the shared meal. The Wampanoag provided most of the food, but the first Thanksgiving was neither to share “thanks” nor to display “love and affection” but, rather, the negotiation of the treaty granting the Pilgrims the right to the Plymouth land.