Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Roots of Thanksgiving

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” “Enter the Forest” and other books.  He leads courses in the native uses of plants.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year.  It is our uniquely American holiday where the family gathers, shares a meal, and gives thanks for whatever it is we feel thankful for.  Yet everyone complains that it’s become too commercialized, some even calling it “turkey day,” and focusing instead on the great deals in the following day’s Black Friday sales.  How do we get back to the roots of this holiday?

Growing up, I was as ignorant as the next guy as to the origin of all our modern Thanksgiving traditions.  In 3rd grade, we would do little skits, where Indians and Pilgrims met.  The Pilgrims were all dressed up in black and white, and clean, with black powder guns, and the Indians wore loin cloths and feathers, and carried bows.  Somewhere in the back of my  10-year-old mind I knew that a lot of killing went on between the new Pilgrims and the Indians,  but this  was a moment of peace where all came together for some giant feast with turkey and cranberry, in the middle of the forest, on one Thursday in November a very long time ago, presumably,  Indians and Pilgrims alike giving thanks to God for their many blessings.  It was a very comfortable and pleasant image. 

So did it actually happen this way?  Let’s try to explore the roots of this day, and try to be honest with ourselves as we attempt to give thanks where it is due. 

First, the players. There were three main players among the Indians: Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag, the coalition of which controlled southeastern Massachusetts;  Samoset, the leader of a group to the north; and Tisquantum (whom history knows as “Sqanto”), who was there as an interpreter, and who also had plans of his own. Tisquantum had been taken to Britain and had lived there for a year and a half where he learned English. He was not trusted by Massasoit because it was feared he might side with the pilgrims, but Tisquantum was needed as an interpreter. 

The colonists were residing on what had been a Wampanoag village site, but the native inhabitants were wiped out five years earlier by a disease.  On March 21 of 1621, before there was any such thing as the United States of America, the three native men walked into the pilgrim village (actually, more of a hovel by most accounts) to make a deal.

Massasoit was worried that with so many  members of his coalition killed off by disease that he’d be vulnerable to attacks by the Narragansett alliance to the west. His bargain to the European settlers was that they could stay there as long as they aligned with him, against possible battles with the Narraganset. It had been over a hundred years since Columbus “opened” the Americas to Europe, and up to that point, settlers were treated friendly as long as they eventually moved along.  Various colonies had in fact moved on, or been killed off, before then. The leaders of what was then called the Plimouth Colony agreed to the bargain, and Massasoit enjoyed relative peace with his neighbors for the next 50 years.

Later that year, in October of 1621, the pilgrims had had a good harvest, and they held a thanksgiving feast to which Massasoit showed up with 90 of his fellows, mostly men.  The 3 day feast that followed was said to be a somewhat tense celebration, with much firing of blackpowder guns and firing of arrows, probably more of a show of bravado and daring than any sort of mutual sportsmanship. 

The Indians were more skilled at hunting and fishing in their native land, and they brought  fowl, deer, duck, goose, and fish.  Corn bread, wild greens, plums, leeks, and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in this celebration.  Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries  (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu.

The impetus for this so-called “first Thanksgiving” was for Massasoit to cement this tentative political alliance against another tribe.  The gathering was really more of a treaty gathering than it was any sort religious event.  The peace lasted about 50 years, until Massasoit died.  Tisquantum, who is credited with helping the colony with many of its survival skills, only lived another year. 
Interesting side note: school children are taught that Tisquantum taught the pilgrims how to fertilize their crops with an old fish, supposedly a Native custom in the Northeast. Historians, however, have found little evidence that native people ever fertilized that way, and it is more likely that Tisquantum learned that technique during his time in Britain.

Massasoit’s  short term bargain opened the floodgates for the tens of thousands of Europeans who continued to pour into North America in general and New England in particular.   And the settlers of Plimouth certainly didn’t see the October meal as “the first Thanksgiving.”  It was normal for them to have various thanksgiving and harvest festivals, usually held mid-week to differentiate from the religious Sabbaths.  And it wasn’t another 200 years or so before this became formalized as part of the mythosis of America,  as the American Day of Giving Thanks.

Giving thanks is a good thing. Among other things, it helps so we do not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.  But what should we focus upon, and who should we be thanking, on this Thanksgiving day?

With all the talk about the blessings and bounty from God, perhaps it’s time for Americans to realize that had it not been for that small group of indigenous people, that first colony might have not survived and might have been wiped out.  Though not entirely for altruistic purposes,  Plymouth people were  aided  by the native population. 

Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating lots of good food.  More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due -- to the American Indians who have become the “forgotten minority.”    Yes, there are some who have become enriched by casinos, but there are still many more who are struggling.

Americans have created a culture and a society that has become the focal point of nearly everyone else on the globe.  Despite all our unresolved problems, it is a fact that vast numbers of people all over the world aspire to come to the U.S. In the U.S. role as a world leader, we should not forget our national roots. 

Don’t just give lip-service thanks to the Native Americans whose land was taken.  Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans in poverty, such as many of those living in the third world conditions so prevalent on some of  today’s reservations. Support farming and self-sufficiency projects on reservations.

This would be at least one way to give back to the people who “lost everything” as the United Stated came into being. During this Thanksgiving time, the right thing to do is to find ways to uplift and support the native people, where it is needed. 

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