With the belief that our nation becomes stronger as we examine the times that we’ve failed, sometimes grievously, to live up to our ideals, I’m providing this story assembled by The Washington Post.
“The Myth of Thanksgiving” explores the storied first Thanksgiving dinner between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts on the anniversary of its 400-year occurrence. The article places the events in context and brings us up to date on the fate of the tribe–and of Indigenous people in the US generally.
The Post‘s effort to correct the record came to life when Dana Hedgpeth, a reporter who is Native American, recalled being asked by a colleague what her Thanksgiving plans were.
She replied that Thanksgiving is “not the most favorite holiday for my people. There’s, you know, genocide, taking of our land, disease, war.” The holiday, she said dryly, hadn’t worked out well for her people.
The Indigenous people, the first Americans, had been cultivating the land for 10,000 years. Before the settlers arrived, the Mashpee Wampanoag reportedly numbered between 30,000 and 100,000, in land stretching from Massachusetts through Rhode Island. Now, there are 2800 of them–and they are still fighting legal battles for a sliver of their historical land.
The tribe had both traded with European explorers and fought with them for nearly a century. When the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower, the Indians watched them for months. The fact that the English brought women and children made the tribal leaders hopeful.
Hedgpeth conjectures that their leader, Ousamequin, may have thought: “‘Maybe they will cause me no harm. Maybe they would be better allies. They clearly have better weapons than I. They have guns. I have bows and arrows.’
“He was a great leader. He was no fool. He strategically reached out to them. Months after they had arrived — they arrived in 1620 — they lost half the Pilgrims in the winter.
“In the spring, he reaches out to them, sort of trying to figure out what is their purpose, not knowing that this is going to be what Frank James, a well-known Wampanoag activist, called the beginning of the end. But he reaches out to them strategically, thinking, ‘Better to be allies than to be enemies.'”
The Wampanoag taught the pilgrims how to plant beans, corns, and squash and to use fish as fertilizer. However, when the Pilgrims had their first feast, they did not invite the Wampanoags.
But when the tribal leaders heard the Pilgrims fire muskets, they approached, ready for war. Informed it was a celebration, they brought deer they’d killed and joined in. From that encounter, the myth of Thanksgiving has been embellished.
In reality, notes Darius Coombs, a Wampanoag Mashpee member who does cultural outreach, Thanksgiving “kicked off colonization. Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude, and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.”
Ironically, The Post article notes, without the help of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims–severely weakened by disease during their first year as settlers–may not have survived the second year. But the Wampanoags’ efforts may have led to their own near destruction.
In the 1700s, The English passed a law that made teaching a Mashpee Wampanoag Indian to read or write “punishable by death.” They forced them off their land and insisted that many convert to Christianity.
“If you didn’t become a Christian, you had to run away or be killed,” said Anita Peters, whose tribal name is Mother Bear.
At 71, she is a repository of the tribe’s history and spends much of her time in the Wampanoag museum in Mashpee, which she helps run.
The Mashpee Wampanoags sued the government to regain their lands in 1970. Their suit was denied by a federal judge who said they weren’t a recognized tribe. They did receive recognition in 2007.
Eight years later, under President Obama, about 300 acres were put into a federal trust for them. However, the land is scattered throughout Cape Cod and amounts to one-half of one percent of their original land.
The Trump administration tried to remove that land from the trust. Today, tribal officials have been awaiting word from the Interior Department, now headed by Deb Haaland, the first Native American in charge, about their land’s status.
Despite the dreadful history and harsh present circumstances, the people The Post cites in this story show considerable generosity of spirit.
Said Mother Bear: “It’s hard to say that we shouldn’t have helped them because we’re human beings, and that’s what we do. We would naturally try to help people.
“But I think we let them get away with too much stuff. I mean, there were plenty of times we could have wiped them all out, you know, but we’re human beings. I think we can hold our heads up and say that we did not take that route. You know, we kept our humanness.”
And here’s what reporter Dana Hedgpeth says:
“I feel passionate about the word ‘regret.’ I regret history was unkind to my people. So I think it’s okay to regret. I think it’s okay to acknowledge there’s nothing harmful in stopping and pausing at remembering our history.
“Nobody has to feel bad. Eat your turkey, have a second helping of mashed potatoes. I’m not saying people should have white guilt. I’m saying pause, remember, and reflect. Reflect. Just pause, remember, reflect, respect those Wampanoags for the people, who they are. Listen to their story. That’s all. Just think about it.”
If you click on The Post link, you can listen to a reading of the transcript that includes The Post reporters and Wampanoag officials who participated in the article’s compilation. You can also read the complete transcript or view the article with photographs.