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Thanksgiving Day: history’s bitter harvest

Native Indians have mixed views

Merdies Hayes | 11/27/2013, 2:41 p.m.
Native Indians have mixed views

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.

Of course, the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock were not innocent exiles who unjustly had been banished from Europe. Instead, they were political revolutionists belonging to the Puritan movement which was seen as unorthodox and intolerable by England’s King James. William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage to the New World was motivated by “... a great hope for advancing the kingdom of Christ.”

When the Wampanoag watched the Mayflower passengers come ashore at Patuxet, they did not see them as a threat. “The Wampanoag had seen many ships before,” explained Tim Turner, a member of the Cherokee Nation and manager of the Plimouth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite. “They had seen traders and fishermen, but they had not seen women and children before. In the Wampanoag ways, they never would have brought their women and children into harm. So, they saw them as a peaceful people for that reason.”

The Wampanoag did not immediately greet the Pilgrims, still being cautious about the settlers and likely questioning their true motives. Turner explained that the English probably didn’t see any Wampanoag that first winter. It would not be until March 1621 that the Pilgrims entered into their first treaty of “mutual protection” with Ousamequin (Massasoit), the Pokanoket Wampanoag leader. “They didn’t sit down for a big turkey dinner, and it was not an event that the Wampanoag knew about or were invited to in advance,” Turner explained. In September or October, Turner said, the Pilgrims had just harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield. An account of the event was recorded by Pilgrim Edward Winslow who said four men were sent “fowling” (hunting game birds) and “exercised” their arms. “Most historians believe what happened was Massasoit got word that there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village, so he thought they were being attacked, and he was going to bear aid.”

When the Wampanoag followed the gunfire to the village, they were invited to join the Pilgrims in their feast, but there was not enough food to feed the chief and his 90 warriors. “He [Massasoit] sends his men out,” Turner said, “and they brought back five deer, which they presented to the chief of the English town (Bradford). So, there is this whole ceremonial gift-giving as well.”

What did they eat during the three-day feast? Likely venison said Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimouth Plantation. “Not just a a lovely roasted joint of venison, but all the parts of the deer were on the table in who knows how many sorts of ways,” she said.

Was there turkey?

“Fowl” is mentioned in Winslow’s account, so it is possible that wild turkey was served, but not at all the type of hefty, white-meat bird people dine on today. Wall said there was probably a variety of seafood and water fowl served along with maize bread, pumpkin and other squashes. “It was nothing at all like a modern Thanksgiving meal,” Wall said.

The Wampanoag popularized to world culture the famous “three sisters” among vegetables: corn, beans and squash. The vertical corn stalks would support bean stalks, while the squash plant provided an excellent ground cover to retain moisture and provide a delicious addition to the meal. All of these vegetables could be kept for months and were stored quickly for food when needed. Also, the dry seeds could be used for planting the following spring.

Since Tisquantum had been Christianized during his capture and stay in England, the Pilgrims viewed him as an instrument to spread Puritanism among the Wampanoag people. When the natives rebelled, it is said that the Pilgrims used trickery, treason, torment, warfare and genocide to achieve their new end: a new, exclusive nation existing entirely of White men. In fact, Gov. John Winthorp proclaimed the first Thanksgiving as “a celebration for the safe return of the Puritan men” from what is now called Mystic, Conn., after a successful massacre of 700 Pequot men, women and children—known today as the Thanksgiving Massacre.

The Puritans viewed their fight against Native Indians as a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed was labeled a “savage.” This elitist attitude compelled the White settlers to conquer Native Indians and, for succeeding generations, reduce these persons to a mere footnote in history.

Such violent clashes between White men and Native Indians has been a contentious subject throughout America history as regular massacres at the hands of white settlers still resonate on the many Indian reservations throughout the land.

Even the terms “American Indian” and “Native American” are rejected by a new generation who state that Native Indians resided in the New World long before it was called America, therefore it is incorrect to state that the ancestors of today’s native persons were, indeed, Americans.

Hostile feelings between the two parties erupted almost immediately after the first Thanksgiving meal; the Pilgrims reneged on their agreement with the Native Indians because the indigenous people wanted to exchange their harvest for beads and metals and other materials the Europeans owned. Initially expressing willingness, when they accepted the harvest, the White men, in the end, did not follow through on their word.

The Wampanoag and Europeans signed a treaty that day (Thanksgiving) granting the Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the celebration.

Within 20 years after signing the treaty, the Wampanoag had been decimated by disease. Most illnesses came from animals that Europeans had domesticated, and, since the indigenous people had never been exposed to foreign maladies, they quickly contracted deadly illnesses because they had no immunity from them. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of Native Indians, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. By 1623, Mather the Elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to God for the destroying the heathen savages to make way “for better growth,” meaning more prosperity for White men. Among the Native Indians descended from the Wampanoag are: the Chappaquiddick, the Nantuckeket, the Aquinnah and the Mashpee.

Thanksgiving was generally not celebrated en mass for more than 100 years after Gov. Winthorp of Massachusetts Bay Colony observed the day. In November 1777, the Continental Congress made the first national proclamation of Thanksgiving Day. Twelve years later, George Washington proclaimed Nov. 26 as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer. Other governors, from New York to Georgia, celebrated their own day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln became the first president since James Madison to declare a national day of Thanksgiving.

While Thanksgiving may have a different meaning for today’s Wampanoag tribe (numbering between 4,000 and 5,000 persons), the dire circumstance that Native Indians found themselves in has not prevented their descendants from celebrating American holidays. They often do so via oral and written histories passed down through the centuries and resulting in some constraint of enthusiasm. “Thanksgiving is just that ... a time for giving thanks for what we have received during the year,” said Tracy Stanhoff, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Potowatomi Nation. “The Wampanoag helped the settlers live on land, and taught them to survive. Yes, the theft of land, mistreatment and a long list of broken treaties is part of the shameful treatment Native Americans had to endure, but we are American citizens, and Thanksgiving is as much our holiday as anyone.”

Stanhoff said the American government has traditionally fallen short of keeping its pledge to honor various treaties. For instance, when Native Indians were forced onto reservations after the Civil War, there were provisions even then to provide healthcare for persons taken far away from their ancestral homelands. “Healthcare was one of the promises of many treaties that brought our people to the reservations, but this is nonexistent today,” Stanhoff explained. “The same can be said of education—the digital divide—which is vital if our people are to thrive and prosper in the 21st Century. Yes, some of the same stereotypes and mistreatment of American Indians exists today. That first Thanksgiving feast may be revealed in history as a big triumph for the Pilgrims, but today our people know that we taught them to survive, when they had no idea of what life was like in this country. That is an aspect of Thanksgiving that is too often overlooked in school—if it were not for the Native Americans, the Pilgrims would not have survived.”

At noon on every Thanksgiving Day, hundreds of Native Indians from around the country gather at Cole’s Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock, for the National Day of Mourning. It has been an annual tradition for 43 years when Wampanoag Wamsutta (Frank) James was invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to give a speech in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. When organizers discovered James’ speech was an account of the atrocities and broken promises his people had endured, he was promptly disinvited. Since then, Native Indians have converged on the little Massachusetts town. In reference to the Wampanoag welcoming and having friendly relations with the Pilgrims, James wrote in his undelivered speech: “This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the White man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”