Thanksgiving Day is the most observed holiday in the USA, which is celebrated by people of all races, colors, ethnicities and even religions. It is a day in which family members gather to eat turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving holiday falls on the last Thursday of November. There is even a White House event in which the President pardons a turkey on Wednesday. That lucky turkey gets to live - and fly first class to Disneyland, where it is grand marshal in the Thanksgiving Day parade. Unfortunately, another nameless bird gets slaughtered in his place.
Like every other major popular celebration in our world, Thanksgiving has its history, not a pleasant one though - the kind that we often hear which associates it with the "Pilgrims" that landed in the New World. According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as "Thanksgiving," with giving thanks to God for the harvests of the land, the Pilgrims never called it that.
So, what did really happen in Plymouth in 1621? For that we have to dig deeper into history, away from popular myths and traditions -- the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony -- and come to terms with some of the most terrifying bloodsheds in New World history.
We are told that on September 6, 1620 the Pilgrims had set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. They sailed from Plymouth, England. When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean they landed on the rocky shores of a territory that was inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam pa NO ag) Indians. It was there that the Pilgrims decide to settle. The Pilgrims biggest concern was attack by the local Native American Indians. But the latter were a peaceful group and did not prove to be a threat. Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met.
We can only guess what the Wampanoags must have thought when they first saw the strange ships of the Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their custom was to help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the Pilgrims survived at all. The wheat the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil.
On March 16, 1621, what was to become an important event took place, an Indian brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. The Pilgrims were frightened until the Indian called out "Welcome" (in English). His name was Samoset and he was an Abnaki Indian. He had learned English from the captains of fishing boats that had sailed off the coast. After staying the night Samoset left the next day. He soon returned with another Indian named Squanto who spoke better English than Samoset. Squanto told the Pilgrims of his voyages across the ocean and his visits to England and Spain. It was in England where he had learned English. Squanto's importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help.
The Pilgrims needed to learn new ways for a new world. They were not in good condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there was a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died during the winter. They obviously needed help. Squanto brought them deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival. By the time fall arrived things were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. The Pilgrims decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good fortune.
Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for a celebration. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the majority of the food.
Contrary to the fabricated lore of storyteller generations no Pilgrims prayed at the meal. What's more, they consumed a good deal of home brew. In fact, each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of beer a day, which they preferred even to water. This daily inebriation led their governor, William Bradford, to comment on his people's "notorious sin," which included their "drunkenness and uncleanliness" and rampant "sodomy".
Later as the pilgrims grew in number they started showing intolerance to the Indians and their religion. The relationship deteriorated. Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder. The Pilgrims further advertised their evil intentions when they mounted five cannons on a hill around their settlement, constructed a platform for artillery, and then organized their soldiers into four companies - all in preparation for the military destruction of the Native American Indians.
Pilgrim Miles Standish went to the Indians, pretended to be a trader, and then beheaded an Indian man named Wituwamet. He brought the head to Plymouth, where it was displayed on a wooden spike for many years. Standish had the Indian man's young brother hanged from the rafters for good measure. From that time on, the whites were known to the Indians of Massachusetts by the name "Wotowquenange," which in their tongue meant cutthroats and stabbers. A monument in Weymouth, rededicated in 1923 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of settlement, still bears testimony to the encounter between the natives and the white settlers under Miles Standish that killed Indian chiefs Pecksuot and Wituwamet in March, 1623.
By the mid 1630s, a new group of 700 even holier Europeans, calling themselves Puritans, had arrived on 11 ships and settled in Boston, which only served to accelerate the brutality against the Indians.
In one incident in 1637, a force of whites trapped and killed some seven hundred Pequot Indians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, who had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival near the mouth of the Mystic River. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day of Thanksgiving" because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. This event marked the first actual Thanksgiving.
In just 10 years 12,000 whites had invaded New England, and as their numbers grew they pressed for all-out extermination of the Indian. Euro-diseases had reduced the population of the Massachusetts nation from over 24,000 to less than 750; meanwhile, the number of European settlers in Massachusetts rose to more than 20,000 by 1646.
By 1675, the Massachusetts Englishmen were in a full-scale war with the great Indian chief of the Wampanoags, Metacomet. Renamed "King Philip" by the white man, Metacomet watched the steady erosion of the lifestyle and culture of his people as European-imposed laws and values engulfed them.
As the Native American Holocaust continued, several official Thanksgiving Days were proclaimed. Governor Joseph Dudley declared in 1704 a "General Thanksgiving"-not in celebration of the brotherhood of man - but for [God's] infinite Goodness to extend His Favors...In defeating and disappointing... the Expeditions of the Enemy [Indians] against us, And the good Success given us against them, by delivering so many of them into our hands.
Just two years later one could reap a 50 reward in Massachusetts for the scalp of an Indian-demonstrating that the practice of scalping was a European tradition. According to one scholar, "Hunting redskins became...a popular sport in New England, especially since prisoners were worth good money..." [The Hidden History of Massachusetts: A Guide for Black Folks Dr. Tingba Apidta]
At the end of that conflict most of the New England Indians were either exterminated or made refugees among the French in Canada, or they were sold into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. So successful was these early trade in Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston began the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of the South, thus founding the American-based slave trade.
The killings became more and more frenzied, with days of thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. George Washington finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre. Later Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War -- on the same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota.
So how and why this contemporary mix of myth and history about the "First" Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed? According to Chuck Larsen (a teacher and Native American), it developed "in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. This was the era of the "melting pot" theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898."
Today the town of Plymouth Rock has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, they asked one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival. Frank B. James, president of the Federated Eastern Indian League, prepared a speech. But he was not allowed to deliver it; the Massachusetts officials told him to write another. James declined to speak. Here is part of what James wrote: "Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people. Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important."
Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored nine books. His book: "Democracy, Politics and Terrorism - America's Quest for Security in the Age of Insecurity" is available at Amazon.com.
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