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Looking Back to Look Ahead: The First Thanksgiving

Photo of Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags statue on Cole's Hill, Plymouth Massachusetts, by Andrew Todd Phillips

​If you know my family at all, you know my mom loves traditions. We had a program for every holiday when I was growing up. The program was a mashup of worship service and seminar, and it lasted all day.  As a kid, I was mostly interested in the food at Thanksgiving, and less in reading the Thanksgiving proclamation, poems about the Pilgrims, or sitting at the table for two hours while we all shared five things we were thankful for.  There was one story I did particularly like, called “The Town of Thanks”, but other than that I just wanted stuffing. Looking back,I appreciate the effort involved and the community she was trying to build, although I still mainly want to eat stuffing on Thanksgiving, sorry Mom.  

I thought I had a pretty comprehensive understanding of the first thanksgiving, and America's origin story. Then, I started doing some research and reading about the history of Indigenous peoples. We have this habit as humans to focus intensely on the parts of the story that relate to us.  The pilgrims (or those who came soon after the pilgrims) are many of our ancestors. We feel a visceral connection and national pride when we think about our forefathers paving the way for the freedoms and privileges we now enjoy. The part that “Indians” play in our national narrative has been reduced to that of a guest at an ancient meal.  They conveniently fade from view in our stories after this, other than as tropes and caricatures.

Is it any surprise that the Indigenous peoples of this land have different perspectives of historical events?  The story stays the same, but the landscape shifts when we consider them as the main characters, instead of a cameo appearance.  

I’d love if you would humor me for a minute, and see how it feels in your mind and in your body to not be cast as the main character. Pay attention to that feeling. Notice how it informs your thoughts and decisions.  Does it feel unsettling? Wrong even? Think on that as we move forward.

I don’t know about you, but even with all of the history and understanding I had of the Immigrant / Settler side of the first Thanksgiving, I always imagined more Pilgrims than Indians.  Yet, Edward Winslow's records state that only Fifty three pilgrims had survived at this point, and Massasoit brought at least ninety men to the feast. Historically, it's doubtful that the Native Americans were actually invited to the first Thanksgiving. The common conjecture from several historians, including Tim Turner, (Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours) is that Massasoit and his warriors heard the Pilgrims “exercising of arms” and came ready to aide their new allies in a fight.   When they found a feast instead of a fight, they became the most gracious guests.  This feast was the celebration of a tenuous peace treaty. The Pilgrims, unaccustomed to agriculture or hunting for survival were vulnerable, and the numbers of Wampanoag people had greatly diminished due to an outbreak of disease. (A gift from European predecessors of the Pilgrims who also enslaved Indigenous peoples and took them back to Europe in 1614, four years before the Puritans landed.) Both peoples had cultural harvest celebrations, so this was a natural connection point. It only follows that the Pilgrims didn’t have enough food for triple their number, and Massasoit sent his hunters out to bring game and supplement the banquet. I grew up believing the Puritans came to America and fought for religious freedom, having themselves been outcasts of the English Theocracy.  However much of their theology was decidedly harmful to anyone believing differently. The theocratic society they came from also sailed to the New (to them) World. They had learned well how to politicize and weaponize religion.  

England had very recently colonized Ireland, as well as led crusades through the middle east. Their form of conquest was practiced there, and also came with the Separatists, who carried out horrific acts of terror in the name of a Prince of Peace. The Salem Witch Trials are another example of this dynamic.  After a couple short seasons and a tenuous peace, the Puritans forgot the hospitality and forgiveness of the Wampanoags. They began to dehumanize their Native neighbors for their differences in culture, faith, and skin color.  

Dehumanization was necessary to justify the genocide that soon followed in pursuit of land and power. I find it sad and ironic that in our religious history of Christianity, those who had no understanding of our faith carried it out better than those that professed it.

Brene Brown talks about the dangers of dehumanization in her book “Braving the Wilderness” and I find her work applicable in this story. In this excerpt, she makes the point that dehumanization begins with language.  If you’re ready for a shock (and to fall down the rabbit hole) look up the statements about Native American peoples from our founding fathers.  It’s convenient that Thomas Jefferson is most well known for penning

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” and the fight against “taxation without representation”.

Less the complaint that “(The King) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Dehumanizing language is embedded in the very framework of our oldest and most revered political documents, and that was just the beginning.  It’s also likely that Thomas Jefferson was referencing the Proclamation line of 1763, which was an undertaking of the Crown to limit westward expansion, and come to an agreement with the Indigenous peoples on set boundaries.  Our revolutionary war was a revolt on unjust taxation, but a sinister shadow of unchecked pursuit of power through land came behind the rally cry of “Liberty and Justice for All.” I looked up a map, and was amazed at where the Proclamation line fell:

In less than 100 years, from our independence from England in 1776, to 1846 the United States acquired the lower 48 states.  Before colonization, there were roughly estimated to be between 50 and 100 million Indigenous peoples and an estimated 562 autonomous nations.  This was after Columbus and other explorers had brought diseases and taken ships full of captives back to Europe. In America today, with all our cities and urban development, we have approximately 325 million people.  So the number of Indigenous peoples living here before us was potentially a full third of the our current population. 

The UN Genocide convention was formed after the holocaust, and  defines genocide as “Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:Killing members of the group;Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

This was developed long after the US was fully colonized.  However, I haven’t found any other definition that more accurately describes the ways in which Europe and then colonists wrested land and culture from the first inhabitants.  In memorandums of war and historical documents words like “extermination” and the phrase “leave none alive” are used to instruct the killing of Indigenous tribes. Indigenous women have been forcibly sterilized - as recently as 2017.  Native children were often stolen from their families and given to settlers through adoption as an effort to squelch Indigenous heritage, say nothing of the boarding schools that required them to cut their hair and denounce their former identities. These are all forms of genocide that have been committed against Native peoples.

It’s easy to assume, and many history books may lead us to believe that the New World was basically uninhabited and there for claiming.  That was far from the case. Colonization and settling the US territories cost the lives of Indigenous men, women, and children in the millions.  Their civilizations brought us many staples we still enjoy to this day, like the cultivation of corn, beans, and their complex trails and roadways. It’s sad we didn’t also learn their understanding of sustainable game management, forestry, and horticulture, or honor their humanity and cultural identity.

Numbering those with Native descent is hard, especially since many have been naturalized and their heritage has been suppressed.  However the rough estimate currently is 5.2 million, 22% of which live on reservations. Native tribes that supported Britain in the revolutionary war (many looking to preserve their lands and heritage) were hunted afterwards with a vengeance. George Washington’s orders are on record to General John Sullivan, who commanded 5,000 troops to oversee “...the total destruction and devastation of [the Indian] settlements and capture as many prisoners as possible.”

Fast forward to the time of Abraham Lincoln, known for his progressive (for the 1800s) views of equality, and even he withheld money from Sioux to fund a war, while colonies already were taking over their land in Minnesota. When a military clash inevitably happened, he sentenced 39 Native Americans to be hung in the largest mass hanging of our country’s history.   And yet, he was the founder of Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

​Juan Gonzalez of Boston rekindles a small fire — the smoke symbolizing a ritual for healing and a connection with the "creator." He has been attending this day of mourning for 30 years. "We feel the pain of the Wampanoag," said Gonzalez. United American Indians of New England gather for the National Day of Mourning across from Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, MA on Thursday, November 25, 2010. The day signifies the deaths of American Indians at the hands of early settlers and colonists and the independence of American Indians. Boston Globe Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s not surprising to me that now, many Indigenous peoples see Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.  Many of us descended from settlers and immigrants, enjoy the nostalgia in the birth of a country brimming with wealth and opportunity. But many others understand it as the foreshadowing of genocide and generational trauma they are still working to heal.

So where do we go from here?  What do we actually DO with this information?  I’m not suggesting we forgo the turkey, stuffing, or thankfulness.  I am suggesting that in 2018 maybe it’s time to bring some awareness to the main characters of the First Thanksgiving, and how things have gone for them since.  

I suggest that those of us who identify as Christian research and understand how our faith has been weaponized by colonization, and remember that the sins of our fathers are visited on us. How often do we prioritize the thing we want, whether it’s land, power, or security, over the REAL tenets of our faith, and the humanity of others?

I suggest we raise our awareness of dehumanizing language being accepted in our current culture, and commit to calling it out, and not spreading it.  (Yes, memes count here!) I suggest we actively work to support Indigenous artists, non-profits, and foundations in understanding and empathy of their history and resilience. (Check out my post that details specific organizations supporting Indigenous women and combating violence against them)

I suggest that we research the tribes whose land we now occupy, that we travel on, and look for ways to honor their history. (I currently live on Quinnipiac land.)

I suggest that we learn to navigate the vast chasm between the discomfort of deepening our understanding, and the constant threat of physical harm and oppression our ignorance creates for Indigenous Americans and other people of color.

I suggest that we read books by Indigenous authors, follow Indigenous peoples on social media, and actively work to educate ourselves around a topic that has been silenced for centuries.

This Thanksgiving, I am humbled by the story of Massasoit.  A plague had just decimated his people, another number had been shipped off as slaves.  And yet he still offered the struggling pilgrims aide. They had raided new, sacred graves of his people, and yet he offered peace. 

I mourn how our ancestors and founding fathers repaid Native kindnesses. It disturbs and unnerves me that my country was built out of the decimation of Indigenous peoples.  I get a bit nauseous when I remember the faith I practice gained political strength and power through the same events. Sometimes, when we thank God for our freedom to practice our religion during church services I get a chill.  I wonder if that's what we really mean, or if we are actually grateful that our religion holds unholy social and political power.

I think I was 15 or so when I started trying to reconcile the teachings of Jesus with organized Christianity.   I read “Blue Like Jazz”, and I found the first description of faith that felt like home.  Don Miller is witty and conversational, but above all authentic and vulnerable. As I was writing this post, I kept remembering Don’s story about building a confession booth during Ren Fayre at Reed College.

For those of you not familiar, Don and his friends confessed to the students of Reed.  They confessed their own bias, times they had been unloving, as well as more expansive collective sins like the crusades.  As Don explains to his first visitor:

“What are you confessing?” he asked. I shook my head and looked at the ground.  “Everything,” I told him. “Explain.” he said. “There’s a lot, I will keep it short,” I started.  “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that.  Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened.  Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.  There’s a lot more, you know.”

“It’s all right, man” Jake said, very tenderly.  His eyes were starting to water.

“Well, I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.” “I forgive you” Jake said.  And he meant it”

Don goes on to say that over 100 students participated, and it opened doors for community outreach and growth like they had never seen before, on one of the most secular campuses in the US. 

Maybe another  thing that we can do to heal our collective histories is set aside our egos, our tightly held national narratives, and confess*.  

I would like to thank Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for her brilliant and detailed work in her books:

they have inspired me to research further and greatly informed this post.

*Something I think we Christians can get wrong about confession is the expectation of forgiveness.  God may forgive us, but people are never required to.   Confession isn't a means to rid ourselves of guilt or discomfort.  Confession is acknowledgement of wrong and causing harm.

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