Thursday, November 26, 2009

but did they bother to leave a tip?...

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the American colonies. This harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans. Although this feast is considered by many to the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with a long tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for a successful bounty of crops. Native American groups throughout the Americas, including the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and many others organized harvest festivals, ceremonial dances, and other celebrations of thanks for centuries before the arrival of Europeans in North America.

The colonists didn’t even call the day Thanksgiving. To them, a "thanksgiving" was a religious holiday in which they would go to church and thank God for a specific event, such as the winning of a battle or landing on terra firma after months at sea. On such a religious day, the types of recreational activities that the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians participated in during the 1621 harvest feast – dancing, singing secular songs, playing games – wouldn’t have been allowed. The feast was a secular celebration, so it never would have been considered a thanksgiving in the pilgrims minds. During the next fifteen years, additional epidemics, most of which we know to have been smallpox, struck repeatedly. Europeans caught smallpox and the other maladies, to be sure, but most recovered, including, in a later century, the "heavily pockmarked George Washington". Indians usually died.

In his "History of Plymouth Plantation," five-time governor of the [Massachusetts] colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years because they refused to work in the fields, preferring instead to steal. Bradford recalled for posterity that the colony was riddled with "corruption and discontent". The crops were small because "much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable".

Today we consider that event our "First Thanksgiving," but the holiday that we celebrate today is actually a combination of two different and long-standing holidays that were celebrated by various cultures around the world: the harvest-home festival or feast that was celebrated when the main crops were harvested; and a formal day of thanksgiving, which could be declared for any occasion. Various "days of thanksgiving" were declared at various times in the New World, ranging from a day set aside by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541, to a day honoring the arrival of supply ships in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610. So, competing claims for the "first Thanksgiving" have arisen.

What is beyond debate is the fact that the Pilgrims did not introduce the Native Americans to the tradition; Eastern Indians had observed autumnal harvest celebrations for centuries. Thanksgiving's modern celebration dates back only to 1863; not until the 1890s did the Pilgrims get included in the tradition; no one even called them "Pilgrims" until the 1870s. Plymouth Rock achieved ichnographic status only in the nineteenth century, when some enterprising residents of the town moved it down to the water so its significance as the "holy soil" the Pilgrims first touched might seem more plausible. The Rock has become a shrine, the Mayflower Compact a sacred text, and our textbooks play the same function as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, teaching us the rudiments of the civil religion of Thanksgiving.

Indians are marginalized in this civic ritual. Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best and the almost-naked Indian guests. Thanksgiving silliness reaches some sort of zenith in the handouts that school children have carried home for decades, with captions like, "They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast! However, the Pilgrims had literally never seen "such a feast", since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided by [or with the aid of] the local tribe.

To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, treacherous, and Satanic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in Engl

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not fifty, have put themselves under our protect…

The ugly truth is that many Pilgrims were thankful and grateful that the Native population was decreasing. Even worse, there was the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which started after the colonists found a murdered white man in his boat. Ninety armed settlers burned a Native village, along with their crops, and then demanded the Natives to turn in the murderers. When the Natives refused, a massacre followed.

Captain John Mason and his colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village and reportedly shouted: “We must burn them! Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord Judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies”. The surviving Pequot were hunted and slain.

The Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, further elaborates:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

Perhaps most disturbingly, it is strongly argued by many historians that the Pequot Massacre led to the “Thanksgiving” festivities. The day after the massacre, the aforementioned Governor Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

As human beings, I do feel that it’s important for us to approach history with honesty and sensitivity. Perhaps some of you as you set down to dine with your families today do not believe this history is relevant to you, but I would strongly argue that a history that is not inclusive is a dangerously racist and prejudice one. Yes, we should spend time with our families and Loved ones, and yes, we should be grateful and thankful for all that we have, but not at the expense of ignoring an entire race of people, their culture, and their history. The fact that history textbooks and schools try to glorify the Pilgrims while omitting significant facts about the Natives represents that there is a lot to improve in the United States. Let us not become blinded by super-patriotism or blowout sales of “Black Friday.” Let us give some thought to the Native people, learn from their struggles, and embolden ourselves to stand up against racism and genocide in all forms.

Origin myths do not come cheaply. To solely glorify the Pilgrims is dangerous. The genial omissions and false details our texts use to retail the Pilgrim legend promote Anglocentrism, which only handicaps us when dealing with all those whose culture is not distinctively Anglo. Surely, in history, "truth should be held sacred, at whatever cost."

They [Natives] deserve your attention...and your thanks!

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