Thanksgiving can be a bittersweet holiday.
On the upside, there’s food, football, family, perhaps a little drink… and more food.
On the downside… well, there’s the little matter of genocide.
With this dichotomy in mind, let us begin to look into the history of Thanksgiving:
When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the rocky shores of a territory that had been previously inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam pa NO ag) Indians. The Wampanoags were part of the Algonkian-speaking peoples, a large group that was part of the Woodland Culture area. These Indians lived in villages along the coast of what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They lived in round-roofed houses called wigwams. These were made of poles covered with flat sheets of elm or birch bark. Wigwams differ in construction from tipis that were used by Indians of the Great Plains.
The Wampanoags moved several times during each year in order to get food. In the spring they would fish in the rivers for salmon and herring. In the planting season they moved to the forest to hunt deer and other animals. After the end of the hunting season people moved inland where there was greater protection from the weather. From December to April they lived on food that they stored during the earlier months.
The basic dress for men was the breech clout, a length of deerskin looped over a belt in back and in front. Women wore deerskin wrap-around skirts. Deerskin leggings and fur capes made from deer, beaver, otter, and bear skins gave protection during the colder seasons, and deerskin moccasins were worn on the feet. Both men and women usually braided their hair and a single feather was often worn in the back of the hair by men. They did not have the large feathered headdresses worn by people in the Plains Culture area.
There were two language groups of Indians in New England at this time. The Iroquois were neighbors to the Algonkian-speaking people. Leaders of the Algonquin and Iroquois people were called “sachems” (SAY chems). Each village had its own sachem and tribal council. Political power flowed upward from the people. Any individual, man or woman, could participate, but among the Algonquins more political power was held by men. Among the Iroquois, however, women held the deciding vote in the final selection of who would represent the group. Both men and women enforced the laws of the village and helped solve problems. The details of their democratic system were so impressive that about 150 years later Benjamin Franklin invited the Iroquois to Albany, New York, to explain their system to a delegation who then developed the “Albany Plan of Union.” This document later served as a model for the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.
The Wampanoags also treated each other with respect. Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met. We can only guess what the Wampanoags must have thought when they first saw the strange ships of the Pilgrims arriving at the shore. But their custom was to help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with courtesy.
The kindness bestowned by the Wampanoags helped the pilgrims to survive. The wheat the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil. They needed to learn new ways for a new world, and the man who came to help them was called “Tisquantum” (Tis SKWAN tum) or “Squanto” (SKWAN toe). Squanto was originally from the village of Patuxet (Pa TUK et) and a member of the Pokanokit Wampanoag nation. Patuxet once stood on the exact site where the Pilgrims built Plymouth.
In 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims came, Squanto went to England with a friendly English explorer named John Weymouth. He had many adventures and learned to speak English. Squanto came back to New England with Captain Weymouth. Later Squanto was captured by a British slaver who raided the village and sold Squanto to the Spanish in the Caribbean Islands. A Spanish Franciscan priest befriended Squanto and helped him to get to Spain and later on a ship to England. Squanto then found Captain Weymouth, who paid his way back to his homeland. In England Squanto met Samoset of the Wabanake (Wab NAH key) Tribe, who had also left his native home with an English explorer. They both returned together to Patuxet in 1620. When they arrived, the village was deserted and there were skeletons everywhere. Everyone in the village had died from an illness the English slavers had left behind. Squanto and Samoset went to stay with a neighboring village of Wampanoags.
One year later, in the spring, Squanto and Samoset were hunting along the beach near Patuxet. He was startled to see people from England in his deserted village. For several days, he stayed nearby observing the newcomers. Finally he decided to approach them. He walked into the village and said “Welcome,” The Pilgrims were very surprised to meet two Indians who spoke English.
The Pilgrims were not in good condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there was a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died during the winter. They obviously needed help and the two men were a welcome sight. Squanto, who probably knew more English than any other Indian in North America at that time, decided to stay with the Pilgrims for the next few months and teach them how to survive in this new place. He brought them deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival.
By the time fall arrived things were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. The corn they planted had grown well. There was enough food to last the winter. They were living comfortably in their Indian-style wigwams and had also managed to build one European-style building out of squared logs. This was their church. They were now in better health, and they knew more about surviving in this new land. The Pilgrims decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good fortune. They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November as religious obligations in England for many years before coming to the New World.
Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the majority of the food: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries. Captain Standish sat at one end of a long table and the Clan Chief Massasoit sat at the other end. For the first time the Wampanoag people were sitting at a table to eat instead of on mats or furs spread on the ground. The Indian women sat together with the Indian men to eat. The Pilgrim women, however, stood quietly behind the table and waited until after their men had eaten, since that was their custom.
For three days the Wampanoags feasted with the Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship between two very different groups of people. A peace and friendship agreement was made between Massasoit and Miles Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the old Patuxet village once stood to build their new town of Plymouth
It would be very good to say that this friendship lasted a long time; but, unfortunately, that was not to be. More English people came to America, and they were not in need of help from the Indians as were the original Pilgrims. Many of the newcomers forgot the help the Indians had given them. Mistrust started to grow and the friendship weakened. The Pilgrims started telling their Indian neighbors that their Indian religion and Indian customs were wrong.
This time of friendship and peace did not last. Before too long the clashes of culture, and the differences in beliefs, surfaced, creating a hostile environment for both cultures. The Pilgrims could not have survived without the aid and teachings of the Native Americans. The importance of the Indian’s help soon became forgotten in the clashes that occured. Let us today be forever Thankful that the Native Americans that befriended the Pilgrims lived by their own beliefs and teachings of helping those in need. For without their aid, what would have become of the Pilgrims at Plymouth?
The holiday itself came about under interesting circumstances:
The tradition of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth and legend. Few people realize that the Pilgrims did not celebrate Thanksgiving the next year, or any year thereafter, though some of their descendants later made a “Forefather’s Day” that usually occurred on December 21 or 22. Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the instatement of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln’s designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). But the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. The date of Thanksgiving was probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar–it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).
There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving: First is Edward Winslow’s account, which he wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1621. The complete letter was first published in 1622, and is chapter 6 of Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
Many Native Americans are not so festive about the arrival and subsequent proliferation of the Pilgrims:
On Thanksgiving Day, many Native Americans and their supporters gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, for the “National Day of Mourning.”
The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts invited Wampanoag leader Frank James to deliver a speech. When the text of Mr. James’ speech, a powerful statement of anger at the history of oppression of the Native people of America, became known before the event, the Commonwealth “disinvited” him. That silencing of a strong and honest Native voice led to the convening of the National Day of Mourning.
The historical event we know today as the “First Thanksgiving” was a harvest festival held in 1621 by the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors and allies. It has acquired significance beyond the bare historical facts. Thanksgiving has become a much broader symbol of the entirety of the American experience. Many find this a cause for rejoicing. The dissenting view of Native Americans, who have suffered the theft of their lands and the destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the American nation, is equally valid.
To some, the “First Thanksgiving” presents a distorted picture of the history of relations between the European colonists and their descendants and the Native People. The total emphasis is placed on the respect that existed between the Wampanoags led by the sachem Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth, while the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native People across America is nowhere represented.
To others, the event shines forth as an example of the respect that was possible once, if only for the brief span of a single generation in a single place, between two different cultures and as a vision of what may again be possible someday among people of goodwill.
History is not a set of “truths” to be memorized, history is an ongoing process of interpretation and learning. The true richness and depth of history come from multiplicity and complexity, from debate and disagreement and dialogue. There is room for more than one history; there is room for many voices.
All of this, of course, leads up to one of our two favorite Thanksgiving traditions.
The other of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is probably worth mentioning.
And with that… have a great holiday, my friends.
[Crossposted at Spontaneous Arising….]