|TRUE THANKSGIVING A Day of Mourning: Roy Cook, Editor
To understand an American Indian perspective on Thanksgiving, you need some
information and some new viewpoints.
Most children know that Native Americans helped the Pilgrims and were invited to the first Thanksgiving feast. But most children do not know the following facts, which explain why many American Indians today call Thanksgiving a "Day of Mourning".
Before the Pilgrims arrived Plymouth had been the site of a Pawtuxet village which was wiped out by a plague (introduced by English explorers) five years before the Pilgrims landed. The nearest other people were the Wampanoag, whose lands stretched from present day Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod. Like most other peoples in the area, the Wampanoag were farmers and hunters.
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 Nausets, 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. One hundred years later, their numbers were reduced by 80%. It was Captain Hunt's expedition that brought the plague, which destroyed the Pawtnxet.
In this same time frame, but much better known, is Capt. John Smith. He was one who participated in this area's bounty, although he would have much preferred to find gold. Capt. John Smith, has been immortalized for his part in founding Virginia. In 1614 Smith explored part of the North American coast-to which he gave the name New England. Disappointed in his search gold, he set his men to fishing for cod while he went exploring in the ship's pinnace, mapping the coastline from Maine to the cape that was named for the fish.
Smith's map and description of New England and his profits from cod fishing encouraged the Pilgrims to seek a charter from the Crown to settle there. Indeed it was the cod that saved the first New Englanders. In 1640, only eleven years after Massachusetts Bay Company had been by the Puritans, it exported three hundred thousand cod to Europe. Cod was soon also being traded to the West Indies, in exchange for rum and molasses.
In addition, plowing in the cod waste greatly increased the agricultural productivity of the stony New England soil. The cod proved a basis of prosperity for New England so considerable that Adam Smith singled it out for praise in his Wealth of Nations. To this day, a wooden sculpture of a cod adorns the Massachusetts Statehouse to remind the legislators of the source of their state's greatness.
After the Pilgrims arrived they spent four days exploring Cape Cod. They found that Native people buried their dead with stores of corn beans. The Pilgrims dug up many graves, taking the food. 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.
Samoset returned with 60 Native people including Massasoit and Tisquantum. Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim, went to present them with gifts and to make a speech saying that King James wished to make an alliance with Massasoit. (This was not true.) Massasbit signed a treaty, which was heavily slanted in favor of the Pilgrims. The treaty said that no Native person would harm a white settler or, should they do so, they would be surrendered to them for punishment. Wampanoags visiting the settlements were to go unarmed; the Wampanoags and the non-Indians agreed to help one another in case of attack; and Massasoit agreed to notify all the neighboring nations about the treaty.
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, met Samoset upon a ship.
He 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 mainly artisans, and 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.
Governor Bradford called Tisquantum "a special instrument sent of God" The Native nations along the eastern seaboard practiced (and some still participate in these traditions) some type of harvest feast and ceremony. The Wampanoag feast, called Nikkomosachmiawene, or Grand Sachem's Council Feast, is marked by traditional food and games, telling of stories and legends, sacred ceremonies and councils on the affairs of the nation. It was because of this feast in 1621 that the Wampanoags had amassed the food to help the Pilgrims, creating a new tradition European tradition known today as "Thanksgiving Day," it lasted three days. Massasoit came with 90 men and brought five deer as well as other food, all 55, only five were women.
Massasoit, who had done so much to help the Pilgrims, had a son named Metacomet. As time went on and more Europeans arrived and took more land, Metacomet or Prince Phillip as he came to known and other tribal people began to take notice of self-serving ethics of the Pilgrims. But, that is yet another story.