What do we celebrate when we celebrate Thanksgiving?

We are all so ready for some celebration. We have almost made it through the fall term, miss our friends and family, and long for a sense of normalcy, to help orient ourselves in this disorienting time.

How do we celebrate, when not everyone is celebrating? This year, we are truly thankful for another journey around the sun. To celebrate in the midst of so much loss, when the earth is calling for a time of introspection and healing, means holding our families close.  From closeness comes comfort and calm.

Our community’s outpouring of generosity in this time of need, by actions such as giving food to the Peoples’ Pantry, is a start at widening the circle of love and support to our neighbors. Part of what we celebrate with sharing is that the Indians in what is now Plymouth, MA  gave “essential survival knowledge to the Pilgrims and taught them how to cultivate the land, including teaching them which crops grew well, how to avoid dangerous and poisonous plants, and how to extract sap from maple trees.”

Do we see the mercy and the generosity of people who did not see the “other” as an enemy, but as a human being? Do you know what became of Ousamequin, know as Massasoit or great sachem (leader), and Tisquantum  (Squanto), and how this generosity was repaid?

 Art by Jesus Barraza 

The “First Thanksgiving”

In a speech planned for the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth rock in 1970, Wampanoag Wamsutta James wrote these remarks:

It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.

Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry.

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

National Day of Mourning

Instead, James was not allowed to speak these words. Since the year his speech was suppressed, this day has marked a National Day of Mourning. Moonanum James and Mahtowin Munro explain:

Every year since 1970, United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning observance in Plymouth at noon on Thanksgiving Day. Every year, hundreds of Native people and our supporters from all four directions join us. Every year, including this year, Native people from throughout the Americas will speak the truth about our history and about current issues and struggles we are involved in.

Why do hundreds of people stand out in the cold rather than sit home eating turkey and watching football? Do we have something against a harvest festival?

Of course not. But Thanksgiving in this country—and in particular in Plymouth—is much more than a harvest home festival. It is a celebration of the Pilgrim mythology.

According to this mythology, the pilgrims arrived, the Native people fed them and welcomed them, the Indians promptly faded into the background, and everyone lived happily ever after.

The truth is a sharp contrast to that mythology.

Telling the Story is Teaching the Story

In eighth grade American history, our students learn about Revolution—the French Revolution, American Revolution, French and Indian Wars, the so-called Beaver Wars, and the Industrial Revolution. To the victor go the spoils. The victors also control the story, which includes the stories in children’s books and textbooks.

Sachem HawkStorm of the Schaghticoke First Nations, a direct descendant of Massasoit, visited our school in 2018.

So consider the story of the “First Thanksgiving” as just that, a story—the New York times recently called it a myth. American Indian Movement activist Russell Means called Thanksgiving “Thankstaking.”  He also points out that there were many feasts in Plymouth when the Indians shared food with their starving neighbors, but that the first “official” Thanksgiving Governor William Bradford declared was in gratitude for the massacre of an Indian village. Even Parenting Magazine writes, “Thanksgiving signifies a whitewashing of history, and an attempt to deflect from the atrocious harm caused to indigenous groups by European settlers.” 

True History of U.S. (Us)

On First Nations Day this year, Pumpkin Patch kindergarten teacher and member of the BWS Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) Committee Christianna Riley visited the New England Peace Pagoda. She writes:

I had the great privilege of being invited to the New England Peace Pagoda’s 35th Inauguration Ceremony (socially distanced and responsible). I am including the link to a livestream that was taken. This is for parents only. The part I would like to share with you begins around 48 minutes into the livestream, a beautiful song and then a speech given by Sonia Little of the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, located in what we now call Cape Cod, Mass. Sonia is the granddaughter of the late Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag People, Slow Turtle. She gives a heartbreaking, clear and concise truth about the history of the USA and the First Nations of Turtle Island. I believe that hearing Sonia speak is a deed of great courage. This is the history of the USA and of Humanity. We are all related and connected. This is an offering to raise our awareness and to know history so that we can make a better future for our children and the Earth.

We are Grateful

So you might be wondering, What do I tell my children about Thanksgiving? 

Start with learning about Thanksgiving and ways to practice gratitude from Indian writers and storytellers. Learn about food sovereignty, and consider adding diversity to your celebration with a dish that includes rich indigenous flavors like corn, beans and squash. Some resources are listed below. 

While it’s important that parents know and listen to the truth of history, third grade teacher Victoria Cartier points out that you will want to tune what you say to your children’s age and development.  For example, with early childhood students, the focus is on making the food and saying a blessing for all the good gifts of the earth.  “And I would add gratitude to nature,” Mrs. Riley suggests. “Taking walks in nature, being in wonder and admiring its beauty. Young children are so good at finding ordinary rocks or sticks as beautiful and special treasures. We can learn from them.”  With third graders, Ms. Cartier says she would emphasize generosity, working together for the good of all, and gratitude. In eighth grade, children are ready for and seek the truth, and that’s a time to share more details. In high school, students will want to act for justice.

Making Space for Listening

Some believe that the world will not heal until the earth can heal, and that in order to restore health, nations who have been “removed” must return to their sacred homelands. The water protectors, as you know, stood at Standing Rock for all of us—people and animals alike. The Lenape, who traded Manhattan for trinkets because they couldn’t conceive of selling the earth, are beginning to return to New York, working to teach what they know to save the earth for all. Once again, we are hungry in so many ways, and winter is approaching. Can we listen, and return generosity and mercy with respect and dignity? Can we change the end of the story this time, so all life can flourish? Let our celebration be a commitment to hearing all voices, leaving a space for silence so we can hear what the world is asking of us.

Some Resources:

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell

Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace

The Thanksgiving Myth Gets a Deeper Look This Year

How to Celebrate Native Americans This Thanksgiving

Listen to Indigenous American Podcasts

Cook 10 Essential Indigenous Foods with The Sioux Chef

Faces of the Lenape Tribe, the Original Inhabitants of Manhattan

Massasoit’s Strategic Diplomacy Kept Peace With the Pilgrims for Decades