Thanksgiving: A Misunderstood History

by Sam Jones

The holiday that many of us are looking forward to this month is actually based on a complicated history of conflict and controversy. As disease threatened the very existence of Native American tribes across New England, the Mayflower pilgrims were dying of starvation. Sam Jones recounts how the social history of Thanksgiving saved some and devastated others in order to give celebrators a new perspective on tradition.

As a kid, I was always taught that Thanksgiving is an American tradition based on a feast held a long time ago between the Native Americans and my European ancestors. As the tale goes, the pilgrims welcomed the Native Americans to their celebratory harvest feast and the two communities lived harmoniously for years. I was also taught that the Native Americans felt, or should have felt, grateful for the pilgrims’ generosity and help. Even today, this narrative is still presented in schools and households from the point of view of the pilgrims, portraying the Native Americans as dependent and voiceless. However, a closer look at the history of the first Thanksgiving reveals that the opposite may have been true—the European settlers could not have survived without the Wampanoag tribe of modern-day Massachusetts.

Photo: Sam Jones

The first Europeans to arrive on the eastern shores of what is now the United States of America were not the pilgrims who settled Plymouth in 1620. Europeans from France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy had all been travelling and trading along the eastern coast for over a century prior to colonization. Many of these travelers were trading more than just steel and jewelry. In fact, some travelers killed and captured indigenous people to sell in the slave trade.

One Native American captured by the Englishman Thomas Hunt was a young Wampanoag named Tisquantum. Historical records do not indicate how Tisquantum evaded slavery in Spain, but he managed to learn English on is journey back to Cape Cod. Upon his return, however, the thriving Native American community he had been taken from several years before was nothing more than a burial ground extending north and south along the entire coast of New England.

Photo: Sam Jones

Along with their goods, the European traders had brought various diseases, which decimated tribes along the coastline throughout the 1500s and early 1600s—90% of the region’s indigenous population died between 1616 and 1619 alone. The Wampanoag tribe was one such group that was considerably weakened by disease—their numbers were reduced from 20,000 to 1,000. When Tisquantum finally returned to what was left of his tribe, he was met with suspicion and treated as a servant to his own people.

The pilgrims arrived shortly after Tisquantum’s reunion with the Wampanoag, but nearly half of them died during their first winter in New England. Without food or a proper shelter, the pilgrims resorted to ransacking the graves and storehouses of the Native American tribes that had lived on Cape Cod prior to being wiped out by disease. In the spring of 1621, the pilgrims first interacted with the Wampanoag tribe with the help of Tisquantum who was able to use his English language skills to translate. An unprecedented treaty-like partnership was formulated between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe because both parties viewed cooperation as mutually beneficial for several reasons.

The weakened Wampanoag tribe needed to bolster its strength and resilience to defend against a rival tribe known as the Narraganset, which remained untouched by the spreading disease. The Wampanoag tribe strategically garnered a trading partnership with the pilgrims as a means for their tribe to exert power in the region as middlemen between the Europeans and other tribes as well as to deter the Narraganset from implementing an attack.

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe gathered for a feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. This occasion is now commonly referred to as the first thanksgiving. The partnership between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims continued in a similar fashion for the next 50 years. During that time, several ships arrived in Plymouth to settle the new colony. While the pilgrims’ numbers and territory exponentially increased, the Native American tribes throughout the region dwindled as death and disease remained rampant. In 1675 one of the sons of the Wampanoag leader, fed up with the colonists’ laws and encroaching settlements, launched an attack against the colonists. In the end, the European settlers won at the cost of over 5,000 lives. Not only was their manpower and weaponry far superior, but the diseases they brought from their homeland certainly played an active role in weakening the Native American people as well.

The history of Thanksgiving that I was taught as a kid is simplistic and revisionist as it does not acknowledge that the Native Americans had strict intentions in interacting with the pilgrims. They were not, as I was led to believe, a helplessly ignorant group of people. They did not foolishly welcome the white man onto their shores, nor did they gratefully accept help from their future oppressors. In their weakened state, the Wampanoag tribe orchestrated a mutually beneficial partnership with the pilgrims that lasted for roughly half of a century. They arguably saved the remaining pilgrims’ lives, only to be incrementally pushed off their land and killed by foreign pathogens and pistols.

It is unknowable who would have followed the Mayflower pilgrims and in what state the Wampanoag and other New England tribes would have been in had a partnership not been formed. Although in the end, the arrival of the pilgrims in 1620 eventually did lead to the death of tens of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of disease and warfare. This is the history upon which we base our most cherished of American holidays.

Photo: Sam Jones

This year, Thanksgiving will be commemorated as a Day of Mourning for those who died as a result of colonization and as recognition of the continued oppression and racism against their people. Every year since 1970 atop Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, indigenous and non-indigenous people have gathered at noon for a spiritual ceremony followed by select speeches about the history of their people as well as the issues facing indigenous populations across the country today. The ceremony is followed by a march through Plymouth and concludes with a feast.

For my Thanksgiving celebration this year, I will still sit with friends and family to a meal of ham and roasted vegetables, corn bread and pumpkin pie, stuffing and mashed potatoes. I will still express my gratitude for all that I have to be thankful for. But this year, I will also be adding a new tradition—a moment of silence for all of the people at whose expense my successes lie. Because I do not think that the purpose of engaging with the painful history of this country is to make those of us here today feel guilty and ashamed or angry and resentful. Instead, I believe it is to acknowledge the voices that have been silenced and the backs that have been walked on. It is also to impress the need for more tolerance, greater acceptance, and heightened awareness. As we begin another holiday season, our traditions may not change, but the intentions behind them just might.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a specialization in sustainable agricultural development. She loves to cook and frequently enjoys a brisk walk in the woods. Her goals include getting a dog, growing all of her own food, and eating her way around the world.

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On the Present Past and the Struggle for Land Justice

by Kathleen Nay

On Wednesday, September 20th, Grassroots International hosted a reading and panel discussion with authors of a new book from Food First, entitled Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons at the Tufts Health Sciences Campus. The event was co-sponsored in part by the Tufts Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy (UEP) program, Friedman Justice League, and Friedman Student Council. Student Kathleen Nay reflects on what she learned. (A version of this article was also published at UEP’s Practical Visionaries blog.)

Land Justice Book Tour. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Land Justice Book Tour. Photo: Kathleen Nay

In undergrad, I had a history professor who liked to remind us that “the past is always present.” He opened each class period with a quirky anecdote tying the distant past to today. We learned things like the origin of the phrase “to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and the ancient beginnings of practices we think of as quite modern: applying makeup or playing table games. He used the phrase as a mnemonic device to encourage students to remember the importance of history. While most of the historical snippets he shared escape me now, the idea that the roots of the past reach like tendrils into the present is something I still think about often.

But history is not always a quirky story about babies and bathwater. For many, historical oppression manifests as inherited present-day trauma. I’ve been reminded of this throughout my time in the Friedman and UEP programs, where I’m not only learning what it means to be an expert in my field (environmental and agricultural policy), but also where I’m learning to confront privilege in my life and practice, so as not to become a policy “expert” who ignores the lived experiences of others.

On the evening of September 20, around sixty people gathered to hear from the editor and coauthors of a new book from Food First, entitled Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons in the United States. Land justice is the idea that people and communities that have been historically oppressed have a right to land and territory. The book’s 20 contributors examine themes of privilege in property ownership; black agrarianism and liberation; women’s work on the land; indigenous leadership; migration and dispossession; the implications of transnational food regimes; land-based racism; and finally, opportunities for activism and healing. Notably, the volume includes a chapter on land access written by Caitlyn Hachmyer, a 2013 alum of Tufts University’s Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy program.

The evening began with a short mistica ceremony that grounded us, leading us to reflect on our relationship with the Earth and our place upon it. We honored those who have sacrificed (and are sacrificing) everything on the front lines of land justice; and reflected upon the ways in which we might continue learning and offering solidarity to those fighting for land justice. On the ground in front of us were seeds, soil, and signifiers of the struggle against capitalist interests and colonialist occupiers of contested land.

Mistica Ceremony. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Mistica ceremony. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Director of Food First and coeditor of the new book, Eric Holt-Gimenez opened with a reading from the volume’s introduction, which reflects on a mythos well-known to Americans and to New Englanders in particular, wherein Squanto [Tisquantum] shows the pilgrims how to plant herring alongside corn, to nourish the crop and ensure a plentiful harvest. What the mythic Thanksgiving story fails to capture, however, is that Tisquantum was a captive of European explorers. While held in Europe for 16 years, his tribes—the Massasoit and Wampanoag peoples of the “New World”—were decimated by disease introduced by the colonists who overtook their homeland.

The story of early America doesn’t offer much more hope for agrarianism. Over the next centuries, dispossessed British, Nordic, and European peasants led the transition from agrarianism to the Industrial Revolution, and over time agriculture became less about feeding people and more about feeding the capitalist machine that is corporate agriculture. Holt-Gimenez’s introduction to the book sets the historical stage by emphasizing that “racial injustice and the stark inequities in property and wealth in the US countryside aren’t just a quirk of history, but a structural feature of capitalist agriculture… In order to succeed in building an alternative agrarian future, today’s social movements will have to dismantle those structures.” When you begin to examine—really examine—the root causes of hunger in our country, he says, it all comes back to the land. The past is always present.

But there are seeds of resistance, and their stories are told in Land Justice.

The first author to speak at Wednesday’s panel was Kirtrina Baxter, whose contribution to the book centers on black women healing through innate agrarian artistry. In her talk, she introduced the concept of women as seed keepers. “Black women’s acts of creating are often relegated to carrying the seeds of the human population,” Baxter and her chapter coauthors write, but “through historical and contemporary narratives of Black women agrarians, activists, and organizers, we describe innate agrarian artistry as the creative, feminine use of land-based resistance to simultaneously preserve the people and soil.” Baxter et al. acknowledge women as creators—not simply as prolific wombs, but also as literal and spiritual seed keepers, carrying on the traditions of seed saving and telling “seed stories,” (the cultural missives that get passed down along with the seeds). Baxter’s chapter in Land Justice celebrates the historical resistance “of which Black women have woven quilts, sang spirituals, and foraged from the land for survival.”

Suyapa Gonzalez was the next panelist to speak. Though not a contributing author, Gonzalez is an organizer with GreenRoots, a community-based organization in Chelsea, Massachusetts committed to achieving environmental justice through collective action, unity, education, and youth leadership. Through a translator, she gave a rousing appeal for land justice in Chelsea, where much of the soil is contaminated from years of chemical dumping, and where 72% of households are renter-occupied. “After God, it is to la madre Tierra that we owe our lives. If [our Mother Earth] dies, we will also die,” she opened, and ended with a call for everyone to demand better protections for the land that gives life.

Panel speakers from left: Eric Holt-Gimenez, Kirtrina Baxter, Hartman Deetz, Suyapa Gonzalez (and Friedman AFE student, Nayla Bezares, translating). Photo: Kathleen Nay

Panel speakers from left: Eric Holt-Gimenez, Kirtrina Baxter, Hartman Deetz, and Suyapa Gonzalez (with Friedman AFE student, Nayla Bezares, translating). Photo: Kathleen Nay

The final coauthor to speak was Hartman Deetz, a member of the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe and an activist for land justice and indigenous rights. Deetz owns two acres of Mashpee land in Cape Cod—two acres of land, he emphasized, which has perpetually been under Mashpee ownership and never owned by white men. He pointed out that North America is entirely stolen land, evidenced by the many places across the continent bearing now-familiar American and Canadian names, but rooted in indigenous words: Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; Narragansett, Rhode Island; Nashua, New Hampshire; the Dakotas; Ottawa, Ontario; Winnipeg, Manitoba; even Massachusetts itself. It’s a long list.

But the taking of indigenous land is not simply a footnote in the distant past. Here too, the past is present. Today the Mashpee-Wampanoag tribe is fighting the government for federal recognition of their tribal status and rights to retain ownership over 11,000 acres of ancestral land. Unfortunately, it’s a situation not unique to the Mashpee; in his Land Justice chapter, Deetz recounts his experience standing alongside the Standing Rock Sioux in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. People are still losing lives and livelihoods in the struggle for land justice.

Small group discussions. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Small group discussions. Photo: Kathleen Nay

The evening closed with a chance for attendees to break into small groups for discussion and reflection. My group took the opportunity to consider just how present the past really is. We reflected on how the histories of indigenous peoples and people of color, so deeply tied to land ownership (or lack thereof), are all but erased in our culture. I left with a deeper resolve to seek out those hidden histories, to use my profession and practice to amplify efforts for democratic community control of land, and to lend my support to organizations that do the same.

Kathleen Nay is a third year AFE/UEP dual degree student. This summer she discovered Native-Land.ca, a resource to help North Americans learn more about the indigenous histories and languages of the region where they live. If you have a zip or postal code, you too can learn more about your home on native land.