The story of Thanksgiving for non-Americans

It is Thanksgiving in the USA today. Regarding my thoughts following, I want to quote Moonaum James, the organiser of the National Day Of Mourning ceremony in Plymouth,  and say that like him I am

“not against Thanksgiving, but rather want to correct the history of the holiday that suggests that the Pilgrims and Native Americans coexisted peacefully. We’re not there to condemn, and not there to do anything other than point out some truths.”

Most people get the next two days off work, and it is traditional to have a big turkey dinner with the family and over eat. For children, there are often school plays where some of the kids get to play Pilgrims, whereas others have to darken their faces, and wear brown paper bags to play the ‘indians’. It’s all very sanitised, and not even remotely accurate. While the true bloody history may be too much to land on a young kid, I think that these plays reinforce the idea that everything was amicable. It wouldn’t so bad if they later taught the truth, but they don’t. The comments you can see on media posts on this topic highlight just how entrenched the ignorance is. Comments of “the liberals are trying to ruin our holiday”, and “send the indians back to where they came from” are indicative of the refusal to acknowledge the past, a lack of empathy, and incredibly levels of ignorance.

Elsewhere in the country, there are families of Native Americans that are seeing this holiday from a completely different perspective.

Before you cry that these children’s plays are harmless, think on how Indians are portrayed, and the fact that these actions and images affect the American children’s view of Indian culture for the rest of their lives. The costumes worn in the school plays trivialise and degrade the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy. Americans are very adept at rearranging history so that it reflects upon them as a just people, a caring people.  They tend to sweep under the rug anything their ancestors did that the current more enlightened generation feels puts the nation under a bad light.

Around 1614, the Spanish destroyed a Patuxet village and kidnapped many of its inhabitants. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of the Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves.

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One of the natives captured by the Spanish, Squanto, had been sold to slavery in England, where he worked for a ship building company and learned English. He joined an expedition to explore the New England coast and so made his way back to his homeland. Squanto was introduced to the struggling pilgrims, where he taught them how to hunt and fish, how to plant corn and squash, aiding their survival. Wampanoag is the collective name of the indigenous people of southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The name has been translated as ‘People of the Dawn’. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, had also given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.

The native tribes of New England already had a harvest festival where they gave thanks to the Great Spirit for the bounty long before the settlers arrived. In 1621, after their first successful harvest, the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, decided to pick up this tradition and had a three day feast. Ninety warriors of the Wampanoag joined the pilgrims and brought with them venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup – very different to the foods seen on a modern Thanksgiving table.

On May 26 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined colonist forces. A mere 16 years after they gave thanks the Wampanoag for their survival, aid that without which all those that had landed with the Mayflower would have died, they betrayed their new world friends. The reason for this betrayal was greed. They wanted the land. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place as an estimated 300’000 Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England alone over the next few decades.

In the following wars, the natives put up a good fight, but were no match for the white man’s superior firearms. As surely as scissors cuts paper, and rock smashes scissors, gun beats arrow. While there is no denying that European settlers took the land by force, weapons alone can’t account for the breathtaking speed with which the indigenous population of the new world were almost completely wiped out. A little known fact is that in the decades between Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. By the time the pilgrims started New England’s written history, the plague had wiped out about 96% of the Indians in Massachusetts. Academics estimate that approximately 20 million people may have died in the years following the European invasion – up to 95% of the population of the Americas, killed by and epidemic of Smallpox, brought over by the Spanish.

I like to think that a full population of Native Americans would have effectively called a halt to the proposed invasion of the ‘pale faces’. They had done it before. We know now that the Spanish were not the first Europeans to land in the Americas, that honour goes to the vikings. This fearsome warrior race however, had their butts handed to them on a plate by the Native Americans. The vikings made a go of settling North America in 1005. After landing there with livestock, supplies and between 100 and 300 settlers, they set up the first successful European American colony … for two years. And then the Native Americans kicked their ass out of the country, shooting the head viking in the heart with an arrow.

The eradication of the indigenous people continued for many years. Conservative estimates are that around 12 million Native Americans have been killed since Columbus landed in 1462.  The current population has been reduced to approximately 5 million that claim full or partial native heritage. And this is after numbers have increased significantly. To put it in perspective, it makes up less than 2% of the total population of the USA.

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The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget. I fear it already has.

The reason I titled this post as for non-Americans is because I’m sure Americans reading this will think I am pissing on their holiday, but that’s not true. I believe that you should be thankful everyday for what you have.
 
Also, I just want people to consider what was taken from others in order for you to have your holiday – not to make light of it. To acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and look to ensuring they do not happen again. That while you are gorging on the food mountain that is your Thanksgiving dinner, remember the Native American population, who are one of the poorest members of American society, are mourning the death of their ancestors, their culture, and their way of life.
Yes, I am British, and many of the early settlers were British, and while I feel some remorse for what happened, I feel no guilt. My ancestors did not go to America, my ancestors did not partake in the genocide.

 

 

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