Dismantling Thanksgiving myths: a Native American story
The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863- 1930)
In less than two weeks, Thanksgiving will arrive. The need for celebration may not come as easily for those who have lost their homes and have suffered many misfortunes throughout the year. However, one should be thankful for just being alive, shouldn’t they?
Nonetheless, I view Thanksgiving differently from others, even before this current economic crisis. While I always have expressed "thanks" for the many blessings God has bestowed upon me, with underserved communities experiencing destitution, living in substandard housing, being unable to properly care for their children; to afford health care; or to just overall survive, how could I be happy? To know many people would be homeless or starving on Thanksgiving certainly does evoke a "warm, light-hearted feeling".
The lives many Americans have experienced within the past few years, especially within the past year, have been the “ordinary” lives of many individuals for quite some time. Yes, the desolate life of others does intensify my gratefulness; however, as is the case with many middle-class Americans, my family has always been two or three paychecks away from homelessness. Still, this suffering of which I think on Thanksgiving does not discriminate me from others, as I am quite certain other Americans share the same sentiment. My view of Thanksgiving differs given my ethnic background as an individual of both African- and Native American descent. It is for this reason I always have held a jaded view concerning Thanksgiving, knowing its true history— or the true Native American story-- has yet to be published in many American history books.
In my eyes, Thanksgiving has never been about the Pilgrims-- and to many Americans, I question if this is their sole source of celebration, as many people blindly celebrate holidays and have no clue of their history. Although I am sure many people celebrate Thanksgiving as a way to express “thanks,” for me, Thanksgiving serves as another remembrance of how my Native American ancestors were maltreated; annihilated; ousted from their land; and consigned to reservations, eradicating every trace of their pre-existing life.
Thanksgiving rehashes memories of how the hospital staff, in its refusal to treat my great-great grandfather, sent him home to die from pneumonia because he was Native American. Thanksgiving reminds me of how my great-grandmother had “to pass” as a light-skinned black person to avoid being forced on a reservation. When thinking of Thanksgiving, I recall how my Nation, the Cherokees, was forced from its land in Georgia, leaving a “Trail of Tears.” As I sit around with my family and share thoughts while eating on Thanksgiving, I think of how the very ingredients with which my food was prepared, had been once picked by the hands of my Native American ancestors who served as slaves in North Carolina and the Caribbean. Needless to say, I also think of my African ancestors who toiled away in the fields to pick the very foods with which my food was prepared. America, to me, is not the “Land of Pilgrim’s pride," but should be and is to me, the "Land of Native American pride".
The national holiday, “Thanksgiving,” was not initially created in the way most Americans have come to know it.
The history of Thanksgiving
Prior to European settlers, North America consisted of 10-16 million Native Americans. Some researchers say there may have been nearly 30 million Native Americans, prior to European settlers. Long before Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed the first Thanksgiving, Native Americans of North America had harvest celebrations for centuries, praising the “Earth Mother” who bestowed upon them herds for hunting, aquatic bodies for fishing, and plentiful crops for harvesting. Although these harvest celebrations differed for each tribe across North America, there was still a common belief amongst Native Americans that a “spiritual” being or force had blessed them with life and longevity.
For hundreds of years, before Pilgrims had arrived in the “New Land” in 1620, Native Americans of North America encountered English and Spanish slave traders, who had raided their villages. Needless to say, when the first set of European settlers landed on Plymouth, Native Americans were a bit apprehensive of having the Europeans on their land. However, Tisquantum, who is widely recognized as "Squanto" in American history, spoke English and was able to communicate with the Pilgrims, realizing they were sick and hungry. Thus, Tisquantum decided to show the Pilgrims how to survive in America through harvesting crops, hunting, and fishing. It has been argued how Tisquantum could have it in his heart to help the Pilgrims after being thrice captured by European slaver traders, prior to the Pilgrims' arrival. However, it is in Native American culture to have good will and a generous heart. It is through these actions the Natives believed they would receive blessings.
It is speculated the first Thanksgiving occurred in October 1621; however, there are major date discrepancies. Some records report it lasted for three days and included: fasting, prayer, religious ceremonies, and finally, the shared meal. The Wampanoag people, the tribe to which Tisquantum belonged, provided most of the food. However, the first Thanksgiving was neither to share “thanks” nor to display “love and affection” for one another as stories claim. The Wampanoag were actually invited to the first Thanksgiving to negotiate a treaty that would grant the Pilgrims rights to the Plymouth land. Since the Native American population and its knowledge of America’s lands outweighed that of the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims viewed Native Americans as a threat. By creating a treaty, the Pilgrims would have the land “secured” for when more Pilgrims reached the “New World”. Once more Pilgrims arrived, they could begin to conquer the Native Americans and pillage their land. Until then, the Pilgrims would “play nice” until the shift of power was transferred to them. Hence, the first Thanksgiving is created.
Religion and a broken promise
The Pilgrims who settled in America were not innocent exiles who unjustly had been banished from their country. Instead, they were “political revolutionist” belonging to the Puritan movement, which was seen as unorthodox and intolerable by the King of the Church of England. The Puritan Pilgrims viewed themselves as being the “chosen elect,” linking themselves to the Book of Revelations, and decided to travel to America to build a “Kingdom of God”. Pilgrim leader, 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." Also, it should be noted the Puritans did eventually overthrow the England government in 1649.
The Puritans, if living today, would be classified as religious fanatics who would do anything "to serve their God”. They held the notion everything had to be “pure”. If people’s religious beliefs differed from Puritan values, the Puritans felt compelled to “purify” others, as well. Needless to say, once the Pilgrims witnessed how Native Americans worshipped differently, the Pilgrims enforced their religious beliefs upon Native Americans as being “righteous” and “the chosen religion”. This was the same behavior that led to the Pilgrims' exile from England.
The Pilgrims neglected to see the spirituality Native Americans possessed, particularly when involving their connection to the land. In their attempt to spread Puritanism, the Puritan Pilgrims were not always very peaceful. Furthermore, since Tisquantum had been christianized during his capture and stay in England, the Pilgrims viewed him as an instrument to spread Puritanism amongst the Wampanoag people. However, when the Natives rebelled, the Puritans used trickery, treason, torment, warfare, and genocide to achieve their end: a new, exclusive nation existing predominantly of Puritans. The Puritans viewed their fight against Native Americans as a “holy war against Satan,” as everyone who disagreed was labeled “savages”— the word often used to describe Native Americans. The Puritan’s elitist attitudes and behaviors were transported to the “New World,” and it was this attitude and behavior that compelled them to conquer Native Americans. In fact, when Governor Winthrop proclaimed the first Thanksgiving, it was a celebration for the safe return of the Puritan men from what is now called Mystic, Connecticut after a successful massacre of 700 Pequot men, women, and children, which is known as the Thanksgiving Massacre.
Furthermore, hostile feelings further erupted because the Pilgrims reneged on their agreement with the Native Americans established during the first Thanksgiving meal. Since the Pilgrims’ harvest was meager, Native Americans wanted to exchange their harvest for beads and metals, and other materials the Europeans owned. Initially expressing willingness, as the Pilgrims accepted the Native’s harvest, the Pilgrims in the end, did not follow through with their word. With Native American leaders being men of their word, they were angered by the Pilgrims’ bad faith.
The Thanksgiving we know and how it was formed
The first Thanksgiving was the first and last celebrated amongst the Pilgrims, and it was definitely the last for Native Americans. The widely held notion of Pilgrims sitting around eating pumpkin pie years thereafter is false. President George Washington occasionally made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the permanent reinstatement of a Thanksgiving holiday. However, this was not achieved until President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation to promote a more unified nation, which had been divided by the Civil War. It was later modified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 and approved by Congress in 1941, by which it now would take place on the last Thursday in November.
A generation after the first Thanksgiving, the balance of power had shifted to the Pilgrims or New Englanders: Native American and white descendants were at complete war with one another. This genocidal war was known as King Philip’s War. At the end of this war, Native Americans had either been annihilated or exiled and made refugees among the French in Canada or sold into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. In fact, this slavery trade was so popular that Boston Puritans who owned ships decided to raid the Ivory Coast of Africa, and we all know how that ended. Can we say approximately 465 years of African Americans enslaved?
A new Thanksgiving story?
Americans should know the history behind Thanksgiving. The images of Pilgrims continually celebrating Thanksgiving, and Native Americans being invited out of goodwill is false-- as tension mounted and wars broke out between Native Americans and Pilgrims, there were no future Thanksgivings. Native American history involves successive colonization, intrusion of colonists' beliefs, sacrilege of lands and sacred burial sites, and the unjust force of Native Americans further west. However, this was not always the story of Native Americans. Native Americans used to live in a harmonious society. "Earth Mother" or "Mother Earth" was respected and she in return, blessed Native Americans with bountiful crops, peace, and health. Since then, America has become a place of corruption, racism, segregation, and capitalism-- all due to the foundation on which America was built. As Abigail Adams once questioned how any good could come from a White House that was built by half-hungry slaves, how can America be a place of good will, liberty, and welfare without acknowledging the bloodshed and tragedy of its native peoples?
What many of us eat today, including our Thanksgiving menu, comes from the harvest crop initially cultivated by Natives. Nearly 70 percent of all crop, including corn, potatoes, tomatoes, come from Native Americans. It is important that we teach our children the truth on which America was founded. The images, the story, the history of Native Americans must be changed. What we have all learned is based on both truth and myth. It is our duty as parents to educate our children and teach them the real story of not only Thanksgiving, but also America, wholly. How can races/ethnicities ever heal unless we are able to address the problems and move on together to face them?
Yet, the true theme existing behind Thanksgiving should not be ignored, as everyone should be thankful for his or her blessings and this is something we must instill in all children: the acknowledgment of your blessings and being grateful for them. But most importantly, we must instill in them, the truth.