The first feast related to our current national holiday, which we call Thanksgiving, was celebrated in either October or November of 1621. The feast included around 50 English Separatists (of Mayflower fame) held at their Plymouth Plantation, and nearly 100 Wampanoag Indians. In addition to Wampanoag oral history, there are just a few original sources for the first Thanksgiving celebration in America but they all seem to agree on several things:
• The Wampanoag, slow to introduce themselves, treated the Pilgrims well when they finally made themselves known to them.
• The Native Americans felt compassion and sympathy for the Pilgrims, sharing their technology. With numerous settlers having died in the winter of 1620, none of the Pilgrims would have likely survived without the Wampanoag teaching them local customs of planting, gathering and preserving foods.
• At that first harvest festival some food was harvested and some hunted. The meals consisted of deer brought by the Wampanoag and foul provided by the settlers (possibly ducks, geese, quail, passenger pigeon, and/or turkey). In addition, the meals probably included walnuts, chestnuts (maybe chestnut bread), seafood (such as lobster, crab, mussels and fish) and whatever had been harvested like corn, beans, pumpkins, other squash, potatoes, sun-chokes, etc. Also present was surely lots of beer since it was the most common drink among the Pilgrims.
• The reason nearly 100 Indians showed up during the English feast that was already in progress, was because the Pilgrims set off a celebratory gun volley and the Wampanoag, who had agreed to a peaceful coexistence with the Pilgrims, thought they were coming to the Pilgrim's aid from an outside attack.
• After arriving and seeing there was not enough food for them all, the Indians hunted five deer (and probably other wild game) and ceremoniously gifted the hosts with their prizes.
• The whole celebration probably lasted for three days.
Beyond the "facts" of history remains the American Myth of Thanksgiving. The myth neglects the rest of the story between English settlers and Indigenous peoples. It presents the "First Thanksgiving" as a template some people would like to lay as a false basis for all Indian-White relations in America. Unfortunately, the attitude of presumed superiority on the part of the English is totally neglected in the myth. The Pilgrim's false claim to have an a priori right to an already occupied land is also missing from the existing myth. Regardless of these other facts, I have to ask, "how many stories do we have in American history of Indigenous peoples and settlers sharing a better start?" Not many.
This year my family and I will celebrate our Thanksgiving somewhat like the first one but on a smaller scale. I'll get up early and smoke a beef brisket (or deer if I get one) and half a turkey, (bake the other half). We will include many of our favorite vegetable dishes from the list above, pick up some seafood (probably mussels) and then add a few pies to the feast like pecan, apple-cranberry and pumpkin. At our home we will host a big table with family and (native and non-native) friends.
Before we eat, we will all sit at the table and each of us will take turns reading the Iroquois Thanksgiving prayer (which is a litany of thanks made for all creation). We will eat (hopefully) for several hours, joke, tell stories and continue to feast throughout the day. Later, we'll all watch the Disney movie Squanto together (until someone makes a better First Thanksgiving movie) and by then, some will have fallen asleep. Over the rest of the weekend many of our guests will stay, snack, joke, watch movies and sports on TV, drink a little beer and sleep. If the weather permits, we will go outside for some games or even just to stretch and give private thanks to Creator during a walk.
I imagine millions of Americans like me will celebrate Thanksgiving in a similar way. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Native Americans who view the holiday as a national day of mourning, will not celebrate Thanksgiving at all. To them, the Thanksgiving Myth amounts to the settler's justification for the genocide of Indigenous peoples and acquiescence to notions of White supremacy. They will once again protest at Plymouth Rock and disseminate stories pointing out the many massacres of Native Americans by the Pilgrims. I don't blame them... but I won't join them either. At least not on Thanksgiving, and here is some of my rationale.
In respect to my Keetoowah ancestors I have over the past several decades, asked myself and others, as we think through our mutual histories, if I should even celebrate Thanksgiving, and if so, how? It is true that the Pilgrims eventually broke the peace with the Wampanoag. Equally true is the fact that those attacks upon the New England tribes, and later hundreds of other tribes across the continent, were often unprovoked, merciless blood-baths enacted upon innocent elders, women and children and motivated by greed for Native American land. This tragic history is true of my own tribe and ancestors as well. The conquest of North America is inexcusable and demands not just an apology, but extensive reparations. The spirit that later fueled the philosophy of Manifest Destiny still continues to oppress Native Americans and others. In spite of our ugly history, no...actually, because of these atrocities, I want to suggest that we all continue to celebrate Thanksgiving, but with a caveat.
Settler folks must be educated to realize that Thanksgiving in America didn't begin with the Pilgrims. For thousands of years many feasts of thanksgiving have been characteristic of all our Indian tribes. This phenomenon continues today. Settler-immigrants should reorient their thinking to view that First Thanksgiving as the first opportunity for them to join millennial old traditions among America's Indigenous peoples to thank God, who was already present before they arrived, and thank the land upon which they were living. They should view the Plymouth feast as the land welcoming them, and as a result an opportunity to express gratitude to all creation, especially those plants and animals that provided the feast and extended their lives another day. They should see themselves as good guest of the Host Peoples of America and rethink their social posture with more humility.
I'm not advocating that Indians replace our current traditional feasts and celebrations with the dominant Thanksgiving holiday, but rather that we add it to our list of current celebrations. Why should we give up any type of festival of thanksgiving? Everything we have comes from the good Mother Earth and the Great Apportioner God. We should always give thanks for everything! I feel our indigenous ancestors would agree with this. Our tribal ancestors woke up every morning and gave thanks to Creator and the land. Our old ones celebrated these days with vigor and gratefulness for life! How then, can I wake up on the day that is designated "Thanksgiving," or any other day for that matter, and not express my gratitude in the best way possible?
Our elders knew that many of the "Christian" settlers did not act like the Jesus whom they claimed to represent. They also knew that in our histories we shared times of peace and friendship that reflected something better than unhappier times. Without ignoring the centuries of injustice, together, we should celebrate those times of friendship and build upon them. After all, isn't the point of a myth to set a good narrative that can be built upon in the present? To me, this is the point of Thanksgiving. It is a time to share stories of both joy and pain and still be thankful for all life. Thanksgiving is a time for us all to share our mutual humanity. If we can use the Thanksgiving holiday as narrative for peace and friendship, then let's build upon that part of the myth without ignoring the historical truth of the big picture.
The holiday can also be used as a grand myth or metaphor of hospitality to the poor, the disenfranchised, the new immigrant and those who we consider "the other." People throughout the whole world who have been the recipients of the devastation brought on by the dominant myth of colonialism and unfair capital theft should be invited to Thanksgiving tables everywhere in order to cultivate new friendships.
As America's Host People, Native Americans are the keepers of the land, that is our sacred duty. Our responsibilities include bringing the land, the people, and the rest of creation back into harmony. Traditionally, we have done this through prayer, ceremony and special festivals. If we are willing, Thanksgiving can be a time of reconciliation and healing of the land. Even though everything within us should compel us to do otherwise, we must begin somewhere. We cannot hate, or even ignore one another and expect to heal the land. By thanking the Creator and showing love to one another, we can actually begin restoring harmony in the land. It can begin with a simple meal.
My family's prayer for all Americans this year is to celebrate and enjoy this time of Thanksgiving. Be thankful and educate yourselves concerning the real history of America and use this time to encourage reconciliation between your family and those who share a different history. By you reaching out to others, this could be an important first step to healing our land and our nation. Please, don't ignore or minimize Thanksgiving, but try embracing the myth as a time for reconciliation and peace. Then later, together, we can all join in the protest of Columbus Day. But that's another story for another day.