Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning

Massoit, Wampanoag leader

Jennings: Indian massacre or mythology?
Originally printed at

By Julianne Jennings
November 23, 2010
The first historical gathering between the Indians and the Pilgrims occurred in 1621. By 1622, the book “Mourt’s Relation” records a rich compendium of Pilgrim life which includes a visit from the Massisoit, Ousa Mequin, of the Pokanokets then having difficulties with the neighboring Narragansetts.

However, the harsh winter caused the Pilgrims to rob winter corn stores and take Indian grave goods that provoked hostilities; and in 1623, Captain Myles Standish chopped off the head of a local sachem and posted the first Indian head at Plymouth as a warning to others. The colonists received his head “with joy.” Thus, the much noted first “Thanksgiving” of 1621 must be contextualized.

According to the “Journal of John Winthrop (1630-1649),” the first official day of “thanks” was celebrated on Oct. 12, 1637, when the Massachusetts Bay governor proclaimed “A day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots. …”

Captains John Underhill and John Masson, with 400 fighting men, including Narragansett and Mohegan allies conducted a full scale “ethnic cleansing” of the Pequots by setting fire to the sleeping village shortly before dawn. English sources estimated that 400 – 700 people were killed in the Mystic fort attack. The men “had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings,” according to the journal.

The favorable issue of the Pequot War (1636-1637) was in large measure due to Roger Williams’ intelligences, aided by Canonicus, and his knowledge of the Indian language, customs and character. Williams sent word to Gov. John Winthrop from Massachusetts Bay Colony “To assault at night, by which the English, being armed, may enter their [Pequot] houses and do what execution they please.”

In 1638, John Winthrop’s journal also notes the earliest recorded account of Negro trafficking in colonial New England. On a return trip to Boston, Captain William Pierce, who piloted the Salem ship “Desire,” the first slave ship to start the trade and lead Massachusetts to economic independence, had gone to Providence and Tortugas in the West Indies with a cargo including Pequot combatants captured in the Pequot War to be sold as slaves. According to John Winthrop, Pierce brought back “salt, cotton, tobacco and Negros. ...” Some anthropologists assert that the arrival of African slaves would help assure the survival of some Indian communities into the 21st century – while also setting the stage for some of the racial tension today. English troops would later repeat the approach learned at the Pequot Massacre against the Narragansetts.

Narragansett sachem Canonicus and his successor Miantinomo gifted Williams land to establish the tiny New English settlement, Providence Plantations. Their generosity and kindness would soon be forgotten. On June 24, King Philip’s War broke out at Mount Hope and Swansea and swept across that area and on to Rhode Island where Providence, Cranston and Warwick were all attacked including Roger Williams’ house and papers. Many towns were burned, such as Taunton, Middleborough, Brookfield, Deerfield, Northampton, Springfield, Groton, Medfield and 16 houses in Plymouth. More than half the 90 towns of New England were attacked in this campaign in the bloodiest war in America until that time.

Colonists decided to make a punitive strike against the neutral Narragansetts for fear of uprisings. A culminating event was on Dec. 19, 1675 during the Great Swamp Fight, when 700 Narragansetts, mostly women and children were killed near Kingstown, Rhode Island by English forces of 1,500 soldiers from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and Connecticut Colony lead by General Winslow and Indian fighter Benjamin Church. English losses numbered 93 and some 500 Indians were killed or captured for sale as slaves in New England for exportation to the Caribbean, Spain, Portugal, and in some cases Africa to refill coffers drained by military costs and rebuild Providence.

Later, under the authority of Gov. Josiah Winslow of Plymouth, 1,000 men attacked a defending force of 2,000 Narragansetts in their palisade fort at Mount Hope; and on Aug. 12, 1676, Philip fled to the Miry Swamp where he was assassinated by one of Captain Benjamin Church’s Indian Rangers, John Alderman. Upon inspection of Philip’s body, Church is quoted as saying “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast.”

Philip was then butchered in a manner standard with English punishment for treason by drawing and quartering. He was left unburied and beheaded. His head was put on a pike and left there for 20 years at Plymouth, his hand was nailed up in Boston. King Phillip’s War was officially over.

In the fall of 1676 the sailing ship “Seaflower” departed from Boston Harbor for the Caribbean, its cargo hold filled with nearly 200 “heathen Malefactors men, women and children” sentenced to “Perpetual Servitude & slavery.”

The essential mythology of the contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is based on what appeared to be amicable relationships between the Wampanoags led by the Massasoit and the first generation of Pilgrims in Plymouth. The realities of the first encounter and the long history of subsequent violence and discrimination suffered by Native people across this Great Turtle Island (what is now called the United States of America) has been ignored or inaccurately represented.

America has attempted to right some of these wrongs, as have the other nations whose indigenous peoples suffered the same or similar fates, such as Canada and Australia. Canada has ceded to its indigenous population a huge autonomous territory, Nunavit, while Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has formally apologized to its aboriginal population. In 1998, President William J. Clinton signed an official proclamation designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month. The proclamation urges Americans, as well as their elected representatives at the federal, state, local and tribal levels to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.

American Indians and their allies who commemorate Thanksgiving as a “Day of Mourning” do not advocate abolishing the cherished American holiday. It was after the declaration of a war of independence by General George Washington and his comrades that really nudged this forward as an expression of national unity and purpose to rally the American troops against the English king. And with a war to fight, constitution to write and a busy nation-building agenda he did not get around to declaring it a holiday until 1789; 168 years after the “first” Thanksgiving.

Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War was so desperate to win that he “freed the slaves” and declared Thanksgiving both in the same year right in the middle of the war. His Thanksgiving Proclamation said that forever more, the last Thursday of November would be devoted to this celebration that was, by that time fairly confounded about date, place and purpose. Then it was World War II and the depression that brought Thanksgiving close to its present status. We were again in the middle of a major war and an economic collapse when in 1939, 1940 and 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt tried to unify the nation (and extend the Christmas shopping season to get the economy rolling) proposed that Thanksgiving should be on the third Thursday in November, Congress approved but designated the fourth Thursday instead.

American Indians do ask that America face its history with a candor and compassion that admits and honors the truth of what really happened to the New England Indians, the first who encountered the Europeans in North America.

Myths as powerful as that on which Thanksgiving rests are hard to confront and deconstruct. But, in reconstructing the reality of that historic meeting, based on the words of the actors themselves, the holiday is freed to offer thanks for the real legacy of the Indian-European encounter and exchange. The contributions, influences and legacies of American Indians can be seen in all aspects of our lives, and all over the continent of America – from democratic government, place names, loan words, conservation, child rearing, warfare, clothing, to the foods we eat; much thanks is owed to American Indians.

Julianne Jennings is a Nottoway Cheroenhaka artist and educator. She is an adjunct professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.

A True Story of Thanksgiving

Richard GreenerNovelist and award-winning essayist
Posted: November 25, 2010 10:04 AM
The True Story Of Thanksgiving

The idea of the American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent fiction. The idyllic partnership of 17th Century European Pilgrims and New England Indians sharing a celebratory meal appears to be less than 120 years-old. And it was only after the First World War that a version of such a Puritan-Indian partnership took hold in elementary schools across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks and their mass purchase by public schools for embedding this "Thanksgiving" image in our modern minds. It was, of course, a complete invention, a cleverly created slice of cultural propaganda, just another in a long line of inspired nationalistic myths.

The first Thanksgiving Day did occur in the year 1637, but it was nothing like our Thanksgiving today. On that day the Massachusetts Colony Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a "Thanksgiving" to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, all colonial volunteers. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Seven hundred Indians - men, women and children - all murdered.

This day is still remembered today, 373 years later. No, it's been long forgotten by white people, by European Christians. But it is still fresh in the mind of many Indians. A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a stature of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the long gone Pequot. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.

How then did our modern, festive Thanksgiving come to be? It began with the greatest of misunderstandings, a true clash of cultural values and fundamental principles. What are we thankful for if not - being here, living on this land, surviving and prospering? But in our thankfulness might we have overlooked something? Look what happened to the original residents who lived in the area of New York we have come to call Brooklyn. A group of them called Canarsees obligingly, perhaps even eagerly, accepted various pieces of pretty colored junk from the Dutchman Peter Minuet in 1626. These trinkets have long since been estimated to be worth no more than 60 Dutch guilders at the time - $24 dollars in modern American money. In exchange, the Canarsees "gave" Peter Minuet the island of Manhattan. What did they care? They were living in Brooklyn.

Of course, all things - especially commercial transactions - need to be viewed in perspective. The nearly two-dozen tribes of Native Americans living in the New York area in those days had a distinctly non-European concept of territorial rights. They were strangers to the idea of "real property." It was common for one tribe to grant permission to another to hunt and fish nearby themselves on a regular basis. Fences, real and imagined, were not a part of their culture. Naturally, it was polite to ask before setting up operations too close to where others lived, but refusal in matters of this sort was considered rude. As a sign of gratitude, small trinkets were usually offered by the tribe seeking temporary admission and cheerfully accepted by those already there. It was clearly understood to be a sort of short-term rental arrangement. Sad to say, the unfortunate Canarsees apparently had no idea the Dutch meant to settle in. Worse yet for them, it must have been unthinkable that they would also be unwelcome in Manhattan after their deal. One thing we can be sure of. Their equivalent of today's buyer's remorse brought the Canarsees nothing but grief, humiliation and violence.

Many Indians lived on Long Island in those days. Another Dutchman, Adrian Block, was the first European to come upon them in 1619. Block was also eager to introduce European commercialism and the Christian concept of "real estate" to these unfortunate innocents. Without exception, these Indians too came out on the short end in their dealings with the Dutch.

The market savvy unleashed by the Europeans upon the Indians constituted the first land use policies in the New World. In the 17th Century it was not urban but rather rural renewal. The result was of course the same. People of color with no money to speak of got booted out and the neighborhood which was subsequently gentrified and overrun by white people.

Not far from Manhattan, one tribe of about 10,000 Indians lived peacefully in a lovely spot on a peninsula directly along the ocean. There they fished in the open sea and inland bay. They hunted across the pristine shoreline and they were quite happy until they met a man - another Dutchman - named Willem Kieft. He was the Governor of New Netherland in 1639. These poor bastards were called the Rechaweygh (pronounced Rockaway). Soon after meeting Governor Kieft, they became the very first of New York's homeless.

The people of New Netherland had a lot in common with the people of Plymouth Colony. At least it appears so from the way both of these groups of displaced and dissatisfied Europeans interacted with the local Indians. The Pilgrims in Plymouth had a hard time for the first couple of years. While nature was no friend, their troubles were mostly their own doing. Poor planning was their downfall. These mostly city dwelling Europeans failed to include among them persons with the skills needed in settling the North American wilderness. Having reached the forests and fields of Massachusetts they turned out to be pathetic hunters and incompetent butchers. With game everywhere, they went hungry. First, they couldn't catch and kill it. Then they couldn't cut it up, prepare it, preserve it and create a storehouse for those days when fresh supplies would run low. To compensate for their shortage of essential protein they turned to their European ways and their Christian culture. They instituted a series of religious observances. They could not hunt or farm well, but they seemed skilled at praying.

They developed a taste for something both religious and useful. They called it a Day of Fasting. Without food it seemed like a good idea. From necessity, that single Day became multiple Days. As food supplies dwindled the Days of Fasting came in bunches. Each of these episodes was eventually and thankfully followed by a meal. Appropriately enough, the Puritans credited God for this good fortune. They referred to the fact they were allowed to eat again as a "Thanksgiving." And they wrote it down. Thus, the first mention of the word - "Thanksgiving." Let there be no mistake here. On that first Thanksgiving there was no turkey, no corn, no cranberries, no stuffing. And no dessert. Those fortunate Pilgrims were lucky to get a piece of fish and a potato. All things considered, it was a Thanksgiving feast.

Did the Pilgrims share their Thanksgiving meal with the local Indians, the Wampanoag and Pequot? No. That never happened. That is, until its inclusion in the "Thanksgiving Story" in 1890.

Let the Wampanoag be a lesson to us especially in these troubled economic times. These particular Indians, with a bent for colorful jewelry, had their tribal name altered slightly by the Dutch, who then used it as a reference for all Indian payments. Hence, wampum. Contrary to what we've been shown in our Western movies, this word - wampum - and its economic meaning never made it out of New England.

Unlike wampum, Thanksgiving Day has indeed spread across the continent. It would serve us well to remember that it wasn't until the victorious colonial militia returned from their slaughter of the Pequot that the New Americans began their now time-honored and cherished Thanksgiving.

Enjoy your turkey.