Native Americans share long-ignored Thanksgiving truths | Indigenous rights news

Every year on the fourth Thursday in November, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.

National Day – one of the busiest travel times in the United States – is a time for families from across the country to come together for a traditional meal of roast turkey, squash, corn, mash of potatoes and pumpkin pie.

In popular legend, the Thanksgiving feast dates back to a friendly gathering some 400 years ago between English pilgrims – settlers who traveled on the Mayflower ship – and Native Americans in Plymouth, present-day Massachusetts.

But for the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the region for at least 12,000 years, the arrival of British settlers brought the plague, genocide and intergenerational trauma that linger to this day.

“The narrative around Thanksgiving today ignores our history,” said Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee tribe from the Wampanoag in Massachusetts, who considers Thanksgiving a national day of mourning.

“It paints a picture of those helpful Indians who were waiting for the pilgrims to arrive so that we could teach them how to hunt, fish and farm successfully,” Peters told Al Jazeera, stressing, however, that this is not really what. that happened.

“The great interruption”

Today, the Wampanoag are claiming Thanksgiving history amid a nationwide campaign across the United States to recognize – and fight against – the legacy of colonialism and its lasting effects on Indigenous peoples and communities.

When the first European explorers arrived in North America, the Wampanoag were a thriving federation of 70 villages, home to around 100,000 people.

The Wampanoag, whose name means “People of the First Light,” inhabited the west coast of Cape Cod Bay, fertile land populated by deer and elk in the forests, and fish and clams in the rivers. They grew corn, squash and beans. During the cold winters, they moved inland to warmer dwellings, away from the harsh climate of the North Atlantic.

Interior view of a “Weety8”, a winter home at Mashpee Wampanoag, seen in a museum in Mashpee, Massachusetts. [File: Stephan Savoia/AP Photo]

But around 1616, Europeans arriving in the New World brought viruses that devastated the native population.

Villagers began to show signs of illness, yellowing of the skin, fever and blisters, Peters said. The unknown plague has ravaged the Wampanoag Nation. When sick, most died within days. It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the population has been wiped out in three years.

The Wampanoag call it “the Great Interruption”.


A few years before the Mayflower arrived in 1620, a group of English explorers kidnapped around 20 Wampanoag men, who were then sold as slaves in Spain, said Peters, who is today a keeper of the historical narrative of Wampanoag.

Among them was a man named Tisquantum, who traveled from Spain to England and eventually returned home before the Mayflower arrived.

Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, discovered that his village had been wiped out by the plague. But having learned the English language, he served as an interpreter and guide to the early pilgrims, who were religious separatists.

Historians know the first Thanksgiving from a letter written by Edward Winslow, one of the pilgrim leaders.

“Our harvest being in, our governor sent four men out to hunt, so that we may, in a more special way, rejoice together, having reaped the fruits of our labor,” Winslow wrote.

A group of about 90 Wampanoag men, who Peters said were likely warriors, joined the pilgrims for a three-day feast and entertainment, Winslow wrote. The feast raised the specter of famine on the settlers.

Led by a drummer boy, the pilgrims walked to the church after their first Thanksgiving feast in this scene from a 1960 film [AP Photo]

Little is known about this encounter, but the story provides some context.

For 50 years, the settlers and the Wampanoag coexisted in an alliance under the leadership of Chief Wampanoag Massasoit.

But upon Massasoit’s death, his youngest son took over as chief and abandoned the peace deal following settler violations in a story detailed in the 2019 book This Land Is Their Land, by David J Silverman.

“On the verge of extinction”

A devastating war ensued from 1675 to 1678 between the Wampanoag and the settlers. Hundreds of people were killed on both sides and by the end of the conflict the Wampanoag were defeated. Many were executed or sold into slavery.

“Our tongue has been taken from us. Our children were placed in boarding school. Families have been torn apart. Ultimately, we lost our land to taxes. So we ended up with nothing, ”Peters told Al Jazeera.

“There was a time when we were probably only 1,000 people or less. We were on the verge of extinction, ”said Peters.

Mounds of boulders in the woods of the northeastern United States, from Rhode Island to Maine, likely mark the historic Indian burial grounds where 17th-century European settlers and Native Americans waged a brutal war [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

For over two centuries, the legend of Thanksgiving was observed by settlers in the United States as a harvest festival until President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national day of prayer and thanksgiving in 1863. , during the American Civil War.

Some historians believe that the first official Thanksgiving feast in English may have taken place in Virginia around 1619, when a group of settlers were ordered to hold an annual ceremony of thanks for their arrival in the New World.

But the English settlers and the Virginia tribes of the Powhatan nation waged a series of wars. Over time, settlers pushed Native Americans to reservations or west to the Appalachian Mountains.

Wampanoag’s residents number around 10,000 today, Peters said – and the community is growing.

Community leaders are working to develop affordable housing, jobs and education, while efforts to revive the Wampanoag language are underway, including using a text from the Bible that was translated 350 years ago.

The Wampanoag language had largely died out by the mid-1800s as the number of native speakers declined.

The Mashpee Tribe also built a museum in Mashpee, Massachusetts, with exhibits and videos telling the community side of Thanksgiving history.

“We are trying to rebuild something that has been taken from us,” said Peters.

“Through education such as the exhibitions we do, videos, artist performances, we can begin to break down some of the stereotypes and systemic racism that continues to persist in our society today.”

The stories of other Native American groups are also included in tales that once only told the European side of the story in the United States.

In a historic district of Williamsburg, Virginia, once the capital of the English colony, the historical reenactments share the history and knowledge of the native tribes of Virginia in a living history encampment.

The Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Chickahominy tribes were regularly present in Williamsburg in the 18th century and other settlements in Virginia.

“America’s history is incomplete without understanding Indigenous people and the impact they had on our nation-building,” Colonial Williamsburg President Cliff Fleet said in a letter celebrating the month of Native American heritage in November.

Toodie Coombs, from East Falmouth, Mass., Right, hands out prayer brochures written in wampanoag and English [File: Steven Senne/AP Photo]

Like those in Massachusetts, indigenous communities in Virginia achieved greater, albeit belated, recognition of their tribal rights in nation-to-nation relations with the state. For example, in his final order before stepping down in January, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam demanded that state agencies consult with tribes before making decisions that affect important Indigenous lands and waters.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day on the same day as Columbus Day, a holiday that commemorates Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, whom Native Americans have long protested against.

Several statues of Columbus have been removed from American cities in recent years amid a toll with the lasting legacy of colonialism.

A sign of change in the United States, Biden appointed Deb Haaland, a Native American from Arizona and former congresswoman, as secretary of the interior, the US department that governs indigenous affairs.

Most recently, Biden hosted a summit of 570 tribal leaders from across the United States at the White House on November 15. The White House unveiled billions of new infrastructure, social and public security programs for American tribes, including greater recognition of their historic treaty rights.

Nohemi M. Moore