Thanksgiving is an American celebration – a national holiday honoring the early settlers and their bountiful harvest. And equally important, it is a celebration of the friendship between these same settlers and the Native Americans.
A lot has happened between then and now. The history of these early Americans and the Native Americans was not always rosy. And, in many ways, it was not only tragic but a disgrace to the humanity for which we are so proud. As you will learn, the Native Americans were run off their land, had their possessions confiscated and were forced to abandon life as they knew it.
Sound familiar? I will say it again: forced to abandon life as they knew it. Are we on the brink of seeing the same thing happen again only this time to middle class American Joe’s and Jane’s?
As we approach this fourth Thursday of November, as families join together for a feast and a day of abundance, I would like to briefly step though history and suggest that the Americans of today are precariously poised for defeat in the same manner as our Native Americans so many years ago.
It started with the Native Americans
Long before settlers came to the east coast of the United States, the area now known as southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island was inhabited by many Native American tribes. Most notably the Wampanoag, these native Americans fished, hunted, farmed and harvested the land for thousands of generations. This was their home and their land, It was all they knew.
And then came the Settlers
One hundred and one men, women and children traveled from Europe to settle in the Plymouth Colony know as Plymouth Rock, These settlers were a group of English Protestants who wanted to break away from the Church of England. Their destination was the area that is now New York City but they actually ended up in the area now knows as Cape Cod. These were independent and brave souls, seeking a better life away from the tyranny of the King.
The original intent of the settlers was to fend for themselves and become self-sufficient. Alas, with winter coming supplies were scarce and history tells us they stole from the Native Americans in order to insure that their own provisions were adequate. Now the Wampanoag were not completely oblivious. They knew what was going on and decided the best thing to do would be to join up so to speak and help the settlers learn to fend for themselves.
The result is that the Wampanoag taught the settlers how to grow corn, fertilize their crops, and generally survive on the lad. Eventually they formed a partnership – really a friendship – where they each watched out for each other and provided protection from other, less friendly peoples and tribes.
Factoid: It is important to note that these English settlers did not call themselves Pilgrims. That term was only applied to them after a few years, and even then didn’t really become popular until 200 years later, when Daniel Webster used it in a speech extolling “Our Pilgrim Fathers” on the bicentennial of their arrival.
The Feast of Friendship and Bounty
In the Fall of 1621, the settlers decided to have a celebration of honor the harvest. While hunting for food, shots were fired and the Wampanoag came running. Long story short, they learned the shots were peaceful in nature and decided to join in the celebration themselves.
And the rest, to use a cliché, is history. Supposedly, the feast lasted for three days. The men, women, and children of both the settlers and the tribe ate together, played games, danced and participated in other frivolities. It was quite the bash with a meal that consisted of deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat.
It is unknown whether there were any prayers at this first harvest celebration and, as a matter of fact, historians claim it was not until centuries later that these few days of celebration in 1621 were referred to as the “first Thanksgiving”.
So What Happened?
The peace and friendship between the Native Americans and settlers lasted for only a generation. Land disputes erupted as more settlers arrived from Europe and as native tribes were forced to relocate to other areas. Basically, they were forced out – kicked out – of their centuries old home.
These days – in modern times – a gathering of Native Americans congregates in a vigil at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving Day to condemn continuing violence and discrimination against Native American people. And, as a matter of record, some Native Americans do not celebrate Thanksgiving at all.
Why Some Natives Don’t Celebrate Thanksgiving
According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum:
“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.”
You can read the full text of Frank James 1970 speech here.
Another reason some Native American’s do not celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday is that in their culture, giving thanks is a year-round process, done as part of their spiritual heritage on a daily basis.
How many Americans, as adults, recall the true story of Thanksgiving, starting with the settlers landing at Plymouth Rock, through their beneficial relationship with the Wampanoag, and the eventual falling out with the Native Americans ten or so years later?
And how many know – or care – that the original caretakers of our land were either booted out, killed or imprisoned by a culture utterly foreign and unacceptable to their way of life?
In researching this article, I was reminded of some old truths and learned some new ones. In my own mind, for better or for worse, I liken the plight of our nation’s 21st century citizens to the Native Americans in the late 1600s and beyond. We are at risk of having our own middle class culture decimated and in fact, for many, their land or homes have already been taken away (stolen?) by the malfeasance of the banking system, Wall Street, the Fed, and big corporate America.
The lessons of that first Thanksgiving and what happened to our Native Americans should not be forgotten. It could happen again. It could happen to us.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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