About Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims, and the Indians
The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving
What do we really know about Thanksgiving? How often do we celebrate the holiday without ever giving real thought to the meaning of giving thanks. As Americans, we are taught in elementary school about the first Thanksgiving in 1621, a harvest celebration that took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Our parents and teachers dress us up like the Pilgrims and the Indians and make us pretend we are friends. But the friendship between the Pilgrims and the Indians was a one-way friendship. The Indians treated the Pilgrims as friends and the Pilgrims stole their land.
Those people who became known as the Pilgrims were a group of people who escaped religious persecution in England on a small ship called the Mayflower and came to America. When they arrived in Plymouth, they soon realized that they were unprepared for the harsh winter and were facing starvation. Had it not been for the kindness and generosity of the Wampanoag Indians, they would not have survived. The Wampanoag taught them to live off the land, to hunt and find food within nature’s bounty. Soon afterwards, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would sign a treaty of friendship.
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims had reason to celebrate. They had survived the winter and applied the lessons of the Wampanoag, resulting in a bountiful autumn harvest. The land had provided food for all and when the harvest was complete, they shared a meal with some of their Wampanoag friends. This, was the first Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving, A Day of Mourning for Native Americans
History has a way of becoming more aesthetic with time and what was forgotten in the history books was the sacrifice of Wampanoag land that would result from their kindness. History has forgotten that the Indians were here when the Mayflower arrived. They lived in harmony with the land, never taking more from it than was needed. The Wampanoag, like all Native Americans, never felt that they were owners of the land. Rather, they saw themselves as caretakers of the land that provided for all their needs. The Treaty of Friendship was perceived by the Wampanoag as a gesture of good will but to the European mind, it was a title of ownership. In the mind of the Pilgrims, they now owned the land. The Treaty would become the method used to steal Indian land across the United States territories and would eventually be the catalyst for forced relocation of Indians on government designated reservations. It is a sad part of our history and for the Indian, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, not a day of celebration.
Where is the truth and what has happened to the true meaning of our holiday traditions?
Historians have rewritten history in favor of the dominant society and commerce has capitalized on the our weakness to own things. Most of our holidays have been reduced to little more than marketing opportunities. Is it any wonder that holidays have lost their real significance? The retail industry fast forwards us from Halloween to Christmas as the skeletons and witches are replaced by reindeer and elves. Christmas jingles appear on our television screens at the end of October and stay until after the New Year. Did someone forget Thanksgiving? No, it wasn’t forgotten. It was ignored because it is not a historical holiday that we should be proud of and, it isn’t a holiday that requires giving gifts. It does not feed the retailers. Only the grocery stores benefit from the Thanksgiving holiday.
- Stop any American on the street and ask them if they know the history of Thanksgiving. Most will tell you it is the day that the Pilgrims and Indians shared a meal.
- Ask them if they spend the day giving thanks and most will tell you no, that they eat too much, watch a football game or the Macy’s Parade, or, go hunting.
- Most, if asked, will tell you that yes, they do say a prayer of gratitude over their Thanksgiving meal but that is about as much “thanks” as any of us put into the holiday we call Thanksgiving.
Forced Relocation, Oppression, and the Future
Obviously, we’ve gotten it all wrong. Perhaps we should reconsider the Thanksgiving holiday and recognize it as the Native Americans do, a day of mourning. The real history of the holiday does not warrant a celebration. Nothing good came from rounding up Native Americans and forcing them to live on reservations. Just ask them. Most reservations are little more than land that has been stripped of its ability to sustain life through mining. For many reservations, the natural water resources have been polluted by big industry. Jobs don’t come to reservation lands because most are located in remote areas without convenient access to major highways, rail, or shipping industries. The only thing that thrives on most reservation land is alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. Education and health care on most reservations are substandard at best. Domestic and sexual abuse are the result of isolation and oppression and access to healthy food doesn’t exist. Most reservation land is incapable of sustaining a healthy life or, a healthy attitude.
So, what is there to celebrate about this holiday? It is a holiday that paved the way for a European invasion of Indian land. It was the first step in forcing the First People of America to give up a lifestyle in which they had lived in harmony with the land; the land that provided their food, clothing, and shelter for centuries.
If we can rewrite history so easily, perhaps we should begin rewriting the script for the holidays. Perhaps we should celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of mourning and designate every day of the year as a day of giving thanks. Until we can rewrite the script, maybe we can begin setting the record straight by modifying our traditions just a bit.
Would it be so difficult to sit down at our Thanksgiving dinner and remember the American Indian who honored the treaty, even though the Europeans did not?
Can you find it in your heart to remember the First People of America in your Thanksgiving prayer; to ask for healing and abundance and life for those whose ancestors sacrificed their homes and land?
Will you teach your children the truth about this holiday? Will you teach them that it is a day of mourning for Native Americans?
New Opportunities to Give Thanks
Our calendar year contains 365 days in which we can celebrate a real day of giving thanks. Pick one. Pick two. Or, embrace every day as a day to give thanks for all the blessings that we have in our lives.
As a dreamer, I dream of a world in which we celebrate each other, the love of family, our relationship to nature, and our ability to feel emotion and passion. There are things in your life that I have no experience with that are blessings in your life. Aren’t they worthy of a day all their own; a day they do not have to share with a football game or a Christmas parade on the television?
Create your own celebration on a day that you choose to be thankful. Prepare a meal and invite someone who is alone to share it with you. Every tradition began with one person doing one thing. This is your chance to start a tradition for your family that can be passed down to future generations. I wish you a blessed day of giving thanks.