Thankful for Whom?
Today, America is celebrating another feasting festival known as Thanksgiving, where supposedly the nation unites with family to feast on turkey and watch the Detroit Lions once again embarrass themselves in their annual nationally televised upset.
This year, 2021, is the 401st Thanksgiving.
Yet each year, more and more people are becoming familiar with the story behind the holiday, and how it is, more than any other American holiday (with the possible exception of July 4), an indictment of white expansionism and colonialism. We see depictions of pilgrims breaking bread with Amerinds (American Indians) wearing full headdress and velum loincloths; men, women and children of both groups harmoniously at feast and play.
Reality, as it is in most cases, is actually ugly and vile, with Thanksgiving having been just one event in a long linear line bestowing grateful benefits to the white descendant prosperity inherent in our cultural mise en scène, while the people who are descended from those few original tribes who were lucky enough to have progeny knew and know sorrow and hardship.
Whether this is by design or by circumstance, by happenstance or chance, may concern us little here. The imposition of structures will be discussed later. But the myth must be busted. The vision of that first Thanksgiving is nothing the people who owned our shores before the arrival of the wooden dragons bearing thieves and disease-carrying theocrats have celebrated since.
Why did the first celebration occur? There are different versions, of course, and as always with history, various interpretations. The one which concerns us here (and the most accurate telling) is the story which needs to be told. The pilgrims landed in 1620, and without the help of the Wampanoaug Indians, they may have starved to death. Although by 1621, they had been watching the visitors, with some time passing before contact between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims of the Mayflower (landed Nov. 11, 1621). Previous to this, the tribes of the Atlantic Northeast had ruinous run-ins with Europeans. Various natives had become enslaved, raped, and murdered by cross-Atlantic traders. At one point 2/3 of Indians in the region suffered from diseases they had no natural immunity to.
Pilgrims had reason to celebrate the harshness of the weather and the unknown land after a year on the new coast. In roughly April of 1621, the Wampanoag showed the pilgrims how to sow squash, corn and beans. In a celebratory feast, a year after landing and after loosing 1/2 their number, pilgrims shot their muskets into the air in celebration. The sounds were misinterpreted by the Indians, who — contrary to popular belief — were not invited. Ousamequin, called Massasoit Sachem, a leader among the Wampanoags thought war was brewing, despite having formed alliances with the invaders.
Taking roughly 90 grown males with him, they visited the pilgrims, to find not war but feast. Although there is no concrete proof that turkey was served during this feast, Separatist Edward Winslow penned a letter describing wild foul, with hens, roosters, grouse, ducks and pheasants being closely related possibilities. It is known the Wampanoag contributed anywhere from 3 to 5 deer for the 3 day festivities.
Again, no Indian women or children were involved.
That celebration left no legacy worthy of memorialization for the Amerinds. One example of this is the stolen land, enacted in multiple ways. There were, of course, forced conversions (turn Xtian or die), and prime land and farming regions were taken in whole by the marauding colonialists. In a recent article, journalist Dana Hedgpeth sets the stage:
The Wampanoags are trying to keep their land. The New England area gets set up into townships, and then, with townships comes taxation. This is all a foreign concept that Native Americans don’t believe in. But, again, they’re forced to do this. But, sadly, they lose some of their land because they’re unable to pay their taxes. They don’t have the income. They live off the land. They don’t make the money to pay the taxes of the system that’s been put on them. So, sadly, that’s how they lose some of their land. And then, it just perpetuates onward to where their land mass really shrinks.1
As the country of the United States grew Westward, Indians were forced out, killed, and given smallpox blankets to decrease their populations. Eventually, the cry of Manifest Destiny enabled and emboldened settlers to claim land which was already owned. Natives were forced multiple times into smaller and smaller claims of land, reservations were set up, reclaimed, and the number of treaties between the county and Indians which were broken is — to this day — a national embarrassment.
Silverman, David J. This Land Is Their Land The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving 2019. New York. Bloomsbury.