This is the first Thanksgiving without my brother, who died in May, so it will be a melancholy holiday for my family. It was Jeff’s favorite holiday, as it is mine, and we will try to honor what he loved in it, and why he and Anne hosted our family feasts on the day for over two decades. Still, we will feel who is missing, and what, by his absence – such a big personality. Still, we will be thankful for those who remain to surround us.
This mixture of feelings would not be a bad model for Thanksgiving in general. As a cultural expression, established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it has come to embody much that is good in the country, including its secularity. But the mythos of Thanksgiving, drawing on that celebration shared by the Puritans of the Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag in the late summer of 1621, masks a darker history and cultural truth.
The colonists had lost nearly half their number during the first winter of 1620-21, and the Wamganoag helped them survive. In an approach contrarily friendly and strategically wary, the Wampanoag sought to live in peaceful and economic alliance with the newcomers. Yet the entire history of European colonization of North America is reflected – the future foreshadowed – in the acts and policies of those early, permanent New England settlements.
What became New England was well populated when the first Puritans landed, not just by Wampanoag, but Massachusett, Narraganset, Pequot, Nipmuck, and other Alquonquian tribes. The early and later colonists saw them and came in contact with them regularly. New England was not the empty wilderness of colonial excuse making. In order to expand, the colonists needed to acquire land from the tribes, which they did however they could – through show of fair and honest dealing if possible, deceitfully and aggressively if necessary. By 1675, most Wampanoag land had been lost to the colonists and three quarters of the population lost to disease and other pressures of the colonial presence, including an aggressive and patronizing effort at religious conversion. In a last effort to stave off the total subjugation and annihilation of his people, the Wampanoag chief Metacomet (King Philip), son of Massasoit, who led the Wampanoag in aiding the first settlers and in their presence at that 1621 feast, began what became known as King Philip’s War, from 1675-76 – ironically, a century to the year of the coming nation’s founding idealistic document.
When the Wampanoag were defeated, Metacomet’s wife and nine-year old son were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Metacomet’s body was dismembered, the parts dispersed, and his head – in an exhibition of our nation’s own founding heart of darkness – displayed on a pike in the town of Plymouth for the next two decades.
For what should American Indians give thanks? As Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Brooklyn-based Redhawk Native American Arts Council tells us in MetroFocus, WNET’s new online magazine, while Native peoples all themselves celebrated various harvest festivals, of which the American Thanksgiving is just one iteration, the Wampanoag observe that holiday as a day of mourning.
As with Columbus Day, a clear truth of the nation’s history and present can never be constructively engaged until we acknowledge the complex nature of the holidays we celebrate. Friend Maureen Doallas, at Writing Without Paper, engages in just that kind of rich acknowedgement today with “The Wampanoag – ‘We Still Live Here.’”
- Wampanoags and Plimouth Plantation, Home of the First Thanksgiving (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- Revisiting the feast (boston.com)
- Thanksgiving Is Un-American (krugman.blogs.nytimes.com)