November 26, 2003

THANKSGIVING: A Day of Mourning

By Roy Cook

Most school children are taught that Native Americans helped the Pilgrims and were invited to the first Thanksgiving feast. Young children’s conceptions of Native Americans often develop out of media portrayals and classroom role playing of the events of the First Thanksgiving. The conception of Native Americans gained from such early exposure is both inaccurate and potentially damaging to others. Therefore, most children do not know the following facts, which explain why many American Indians today call Thanksgiving a “Day of Mourning”.

Text of Plaque on Cole's Hill: "Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in a National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

Traditional hospitality and generosity have and continue to be constant Tribal virtues to be practiced at all times. One of a series of feasts reaching back into the group memory has been seized upon by the current modern society. The Wampanoag feast, called Nikkomosachmiawene, or Grand Sachem’s Council Feast. It was because of this feast in 1621 that the Wampanoags had amassed the food to help the Pilgrims thereby creating a new tradition European tradition known today as “Thanksgiving Day.” This Wampanog feast is marked by traditional food and games, telling of stories and legends, sacred ceremonies and councils on the affairs of the nation. Massasoit came with 90 Wampanog men and brought five deer, fish, all the food and Wampanog cooks.

Before the Pilgrims arrived Plymouth had been the site of a Pawtuxet village which was wiped out by a plague (introduced by English explorers looking to grab a piece of the New World land) five years before the Pilgrims landed These Native peoples had met Europeans before the Pilgrims arrived. One such European was Captain Thomas Hunt, who started trading with the Native people in 1614. He captured 20 Pawtuxcts and seven Naugassets, selling them as slaves in Spain. Many other European expeditions also lured Native people onto ships and then imprisoned and enslaved them. These expeditions carried smallpox, typhus, measles and other European diseases to this continent. Native people had no immunity and some groups were totally wiped out while others were severely decimated. An estimated 72,000 to 90,000 people lived in southern New England before contact with Europeans.

The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry. (Suppressed 1970 Speech of Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag.) To the native people who had observed these actions, it was a serious desecration and insult to their dead. The angry Wampanoags attacked with a small group, but were frightened off with gunfire. When the Pilgrims had settled in and were working in the fields, they saw a group of Native people approaching. Running away to get their guns, the Pilgrims left their tools behind and the Native people took them. Not long after, in February of 1621, Samoset, a leader of the Wabnaki peoples, walked into the village saying “Welcome,” in English. Samoset was from Maine, where he had met English fishing boats and according to some accounts was taken prisoner to England, finally managing to return to the Plymouth area, six months before the Pilgrims arrived. Samoset told the Pilgrims about all the Native nations in the area and about the Wampanoag people and their leader. Massasoit. He also told of the experience of the Pawtuxet and Nauset people with Europeans. Samoset spoke about a friend of his called Tisquantum (Squanto), who also spoke English. Samoset left, promising the Pilgrims he would arrange for a return of their tools.

The key figure in the treaty talks and in later encounters was Tisquantum. He was Pawtuxet who had been kidnapped and taken to England in 1605. He managed to return to New England, only to be captured by Captain Hunt and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped and returning to this continent, on board ship he met Samoset. Tisquantum found that all of his people died of the plague, so he stayed with the Wampanoags, some of whom had survived the disease. Tiquantum remained with the Pilgrims for the rest of his life and was in large part responsible for their survival. The Pilgrims were not farmers nor woodsmen. They were city people and mainly artisans. Tisquantum taught them when and how to plant and fertilize corn and other crops. He taught them where the best fish were and how to catch them in traps, and many other survival skills.

Ironically, the first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of English colony men from Mystic, Connecticut. They massacred 600 Pequots that had laid down their weapons and accepted Christianity. They were rewarded with a vicious and cowardly slaughter by their new “brothers in Christ.

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