Native Americans and the First Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving holiday is when Americans try to spend time with family, eat a tasty meal, and give thanks for the important things in life. This year, the holiday falls on November 25.
The historical facts of the holiday, however, have long been debated.
Ramona Peters is responsible for the historic preservation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in the State of Massachusetts. The Native American group was part of what is said to be the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
She describes the first Thanksgiving thus:
In the fall of 1621, early settlers called Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the New England region of present-day United States. They celebrated by firing guns and cannons at Plymouth. The noise startled the ancestors of the modern Wampanoag Nation. So they went to investigate.
That’s how natives came to experience the first Thanksgiving, Peters said. She added that the era was marked by distrust and tension.
The description of the events suggests that the paintings showing Native Americans sitting for a peaceful meal with colonial families are largely a lie.
The Wampanoag may have shared food with the Pilgrims during their fact-finding mission. But they also hunted for food and likely ate things very different from the foods associated with today’s Thanksgiving holiday.
What was served the first Thanksgiving?
What was actually eaten on that first Thanksgiving was probably very different from turkey, potatoes and Padding that many American families eat today. This information comes from an expert at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
“We… know that turkey was plentiful at Plymouth Colony, but we don’t know for sure that it was served with the meal,” Plimoth Plantation’s Kate Sheehan told VOA in an email. She also thinks that seafood could have been part of the food served. “Mussels, lobster and eel were also available and enjoyed by both the English and the Wampanoag.”
Plimoth Plantation attempts to copy the Plymouth Colony established by English settlers in the 1600s. Modern experts can make educated guesses about what could have been the first Thanksgiving table. It is likely that many types of vegetables and herbs were among the foods available.
“English gardens probably produced cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, beetle (or cabbage), parsnips, turnips, beets, onions, radishes, lettuce, and spinach, as well as sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, fennel, anise and dill,” Sheehan mentioned.
“Wampanoags and English women too cultivated beans and squash, including pumpkins,” she added.
When did they celebrate?
Americans now celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. But historians don’t know the date of the very first Thanksgiving.
“We know it took place over three days between mid-September and early November 1621, and was considered a celebration of the harvest after a successful planting of multicolored flint corn,” Sheehan explained.
It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Some explanations say that President Abraham Lincoln supported the idea of a idealistic Thanksgiving in hopes of bringing the country together.
Peters, of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale played a role in the development of the party. Hale was the editor of an influential women’s magazine. She said Hale told President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving holiday would help unite the war-torn country.
“It was a socio-political decision to try to bring the North and the South together after the Civil War to have this national holiday,” Peters said.
“It was actually a pretty smart decision to establish something to unite families. During the civil war, many families split in two, brother against brother.
How do Native Americans celebrate today?
Today, Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways. Some see it as a day of mourning for the destruction colonization and displacement have wreaked on their people. Others gather with their families, but they do not think of the Pilgrims.
Peters said native people celebrate many thanksgivings throughout the year. They celebrate when certain harvest or when fish return to lay their eggs in nearby waters.
Giving thanks, Peters added, is a big part of the spiritual life of Wampanoag members.
I am Jill Robbins. And I’m Mario Ritter.
Editor’s note: This story is adapted from a VOA report first published on November 22, 2018.
Dora Mekouar reported this story for VOA. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English with additional material. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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words in this story
to guess -not. an attempt to give an opinion or answer about something when you don’t know much about it or are unsure
idealistic –adj. insights from a person who believes it is possible to live by very high standards of behavior and honesty
cultivate -v. grow, raise or develop
table -not. a piece of furniture that has a flat top and one or more legs
certain –adj. used to modify something or someone not specifically named
grass -not. plant or part of plant used as medicine or to prepare food
Padding -not. a mixture of seasoned foods that is often put inside another food