Many Native Americans are ambivalent about the holiday, according to Dennis Zotigh in his blog post, ‘Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving.’ As with all true history, it’s complicated.
The popular story most of us learn as children is that the first Thanksgiving was one of peaceful sharing and welcome between cultures. The historic facts are less comfortable but more interesting. In the original story told to American school children, the Pilgrims are suffering from disease and starvation. In fact, the Pilgrims, who landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts suffered terribly, with approximately half of the original 102 settlers surviving the winter. According to the story, in 1621, a friendly, English-speaking Native American, Squanto, visits the small English outpost of Plymouth, with a group of friends, and generously teaches the English settlers how to grow native foods and survive in their new environment. The friends include Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag; and Samoset, a sachem from a group to the north. That fall the Indians and the Pilgrims both contribute food for a shared thanksgiving feast, what we celebrate as this first Thanksgiving.
The actual history is somewhat different and worth telling. One question is, how did Squanto, a Patuxet whose real name is Tisquantum, learn English? The answer in part: Tisquantum had been kidnapped by Captain John Smith’s Lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, along with some fellow Native Americans, and taken by ship to Europe. Hunt stopped in Spain, hoping to sell the captives as slaves. Tisquantum was not sold, but instead was freed by the Spanish church. From there he was able to sail to England, and then to Newfoundland and back to Patuxet, according to Charles Mann, in his 2005 article in the Smithsonian Magazine.
And, why did the English settle at Plymouth? Plymouth appears to have been the remains of an abandoned village, Patuxet, the home of Tisquantum. The inhabitants of Patuxet, like thousands of others along the eastern seaboard, had died from disease, leaving empty villages. According to Arthur Spiess, Senior Archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the deaths were likely from viral hepatitis which had spread through the native communities.
We are lucky to have an eye-witness account of that first thanksgiving, written by Edward Winslow, and published as part of Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622 in London by George Mourt.
Winslow describes the encounter: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Today there are approximately 58,000 people of Native American heritage in Maryland, according to the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. More than 3,600 Native Americans live in Montgomery County. In January 2012, Governor O’Malley signed Executive Order 01.01.2012.02, Recognition of the Maryland Indian Status of the Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway-Conoy, and the Cedarville Band of the Piscataways, the first step towards status as a federally recognized tribe.
I enjoyed my Thanksgiving, baking pies, eating turkey, and spending the day with friends and family. But it’s always worth knowing the complicated truth that created our nation.
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