390 years ago, a group of religious refugees landed on the shores of Massachusetts in the general vicinity of modern day Plymouth. Contrary to popular American folklore, religious persecution was not the primary motive for the emigration of the Pilgrims from Europe. This first wave of Puritans to reach North American was intent on establishing a “holy kingdom” on Earth, while they awaited Armageddon, which they were convinced, was imminent. The Puritans were political as well as religious radicals in their homeland and attempts to overthrow parliamentary rule in the United Kingdom to create a utopian theocracy had repeatedly failed. So they ventured to the New World intent on creating their Shangri-La.
The Pilgrims firmly believed they were God’s chosen people and that others who did not share their version of religious purity were instruments of Satan. While victims of bigotry themselves, they spared no judgment for their non-Puritan fellow men. Being God’s chosen, they assumed God would shelter them on their journey and provide for them upon their arrival in America. One can but imagine their dismay and surprise when as many as half their numbers perished in the Atlantic crossing and immediate aftermath from starvation and disease. God must have been testing them.
Although the Pilgrims were to form the first permanent English settlement in the current territory of the United States (the Spanish had settled Florida more than 50 years earlier), the Pilgrims were not the first Englishmen to arrive on the North American shores. Numerous expeditions and trade ships had preceded the landing at Plymouth, so by the time the Puritans arrived, the native Wampanoag Indian population had already been decimated by a robust slave trade and exotic diseases like measles and small pox.
The Native American star of the Thanksgiving story, Sqanto (who’s real name was Tisquantum), had several years previously befriended an English ship captain and sailed to Europe where he gained employment as a ship builder. Upon his return home however, Tisquantum was apprehended by a slave trader and sold to a Spanish Caribbean colony. While enslaved, he was rescued by a Franciscan monk, who managed to find passage for Tisquantum to Europe. From Europe, he finally made his way back to his familial home in New England in 1619 to find his tribe and people annihilated.
Roughly a year later, the Pilgrims arrived and attempted to make a living for themselves off a landscape they were woefully unequipped to deal with. In the age of year-round produce from around the world, it is difficult to imagine the Pilgrims would have been completely unfamiliar with the native North American flora and fauna. The seeds they brought with them for crops, like wheat, were not suited to the New England climate and soils, and they could not distinguish edible wild foods from toxic ones.
Given Tisquantum’s previous experience with Europeans, and the personal tragedy of his people, our contemporary, individualist, every man for himself mentality might beg the question, “Why on Earth did Squanto help the Pilgrims?” If he had left them to themselves, they all would have almost assuredly, died. But the Wampanoag people were constructed of a different moral standard than the Europeans who displaced them. Tisquantum and his people had an irrevocable tradition of sharing with those in need. Not offering food and support to the starving Pilgrims would have been paramount to murdering them in Wampanoag culture, so Squanto helped them. He taught them how to build shelters (wigwams) from trees and bark. He shared the native seeds of the three sisters, corn, squash and bean and taught them how to fertilize the soil with fish. He taught them to find wild foods and natural medicines and to identify poisonous plants. The Pilgrims survived.
In order to give thanks for enduring the first difficult year, the Pilgrims invited the Indians to a feast of Thanksgiving in 1621. When the Indians arrived en masse, it was evident the feast was pathetically under rationed, so the Indians sent a party to secure more provisions. Consequently, the Indians provided most of the food at this “first” Thanksgiving. The fare would have included wild turkey, but also fish, deer, squash, beans and corn and a variety of wild foods. The feast lasted for three days and was to mark a peace treaty of sorts. The Wampanoag granted to the Pilgrims the land area of their Plymouth colony and presumed that was the end of that.
But the puritanical Pilgrims had other ideas. When desperate, they were happy to accept the help of the satanic savages, but once restored to health and vitality, they were free to pursue their agenda of the spiritual purification of their new holy kingdom. More Puritans arrived in boatloads from Europe. As their numbers increased, the Puritans began a campaign to rid the land of its native people. Colonists repeatedly ransacked and pilfered Indian food stores and established colonies throughout the New England territory driving the native people from the land. Perceiving themselves as God’s chosen people, the Puritans felt entitled to the land and justified in all their unscrupulous actions.
Eventually the perpetual conflict between the different cultures erupted in all out warfare. The King Phillip’s War, named for the Wampanoag Sachem, Pometacom (derisively named King Phillip by the settlers), ended badly for the Indians and resulted in massive exodus of the native people from their land into the Canadian territories. The rest, as they say, is history.
The ritual of Thanksgiving is as old as the history of the human species and transcends all cultures and places. At the time of the landing at Plymouth, The Wampanoag and other Native American peoples of the region participated in six annual celebrations of Thanksgiving to commemorate the seasons of the year and the bounty of nature. Thanksgiving for America’s indigenous cultures is a ritual of sharing and gratitude.
Sadly, this Thanksgiving, many Americans continue in the Puritan tradition, believing themselves to be a chosen people entitled to all the spoils they can accumulate. Those of us who have ample food on the table, heat for our homes, medical care and adequate finances for our children’s educations should be truly thankful, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day. We are a minority in the world, and we should never forget our wealth comes at the profound expense of others.
‘And a voice said, “All over the universe they have finished a day of happiness.” And looking down, I saw that the whole wide circle of the day was beautiful and green, with all fruits growing and all things kind and happy. Then a voice said, “Behold this day, for it is yours to make…” And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy (Black Elk, The Great Vision).’