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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The April/May Food and Nutrition Conference Circuit

by Kathleen Nay

“With nearly a dozen conferences taking place in and around Boston this month, how should I choose which one(s) to go to?”  If you’ve been asking yourself this question, you’re in luck. Kathleen Nay has the rundown of food and nutrition conferences, seminars and lecture series to check out.

Graduate school is about learning a subject deeply, engaging in research, networking and thinking about the future, whether that’s our future careers or the future of our field. An excellent way to participate in all of these endeavors is to attend conferences that offer meaningful opportunities to make connections with other professionals while observing the work and research up close. As it happens, this April and May are chock-full of conferences, seminars and lecture series about food, environment, nutrition and labor, all taking place in New England or the Northeast. Maybe you recently attended the Just Food? Forum or the Boston Food Tank Summit on April 1, and you’re raring for more. Here’s your official Conference Calendar for the rest of April and May.

 

April 3, April 26 and May 8: Harvard Lecture Series, “The Future of Food: Climate, Crops and Consequences”

Times and locations vary; Cambridge, MA

Cost: Free

Hosted by the Harvard University Center for the Environment, this lecture series will highlight interactions between agriculture and climate. On Monday, April 3, Michael K. Stern, CEO of the Climate Corporation, will give a talk entitled “Trends and Challenges in Global Agriculture: The Opportunity for Digital Ag.” On Wednesday, April 26, listen as Wrigley Fellow David Lobell speaks on “Improving Agriculture in a Warmer World.” Finally, on Monday, May 8, Lisa Ainsworth, a professor with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and USDA ARS researcher, will conclude the series with a discussion about “Understanding and Improving Crop Responses to Global Atmospheric Change.” Learn more about the Harvard University Center for the Environment and watch past recorded lectures from the series here.

 

April 5 – 7: New England Farm to Institution Summit

Leominster, MA

Cost: Registration now closed

The New England Farm to Institution Summit promises two exciting days of learning from and sharing with hundreds of farm-to-institution advocates. The Summit will focus on farm-to-school, farm-to-campus, and farm-to-health care programs. While registration for this event has already closed, it’s worth putting on your calendar for next year! You can learn more about the Summit, speakers, and host organizations (Farm to Institution New England, Health Care Without Harm, and USDA Farm to School) here.

 

April 6: Venture Capital Investment for Food

6:00 – 8:30 PM, Boston, MA

Cost: $25 General Attendance

Branchfood hosts a networking event and panel discussion that will bring venture investors across the food and food-tech industries together to discuss financing food businesses, opportunities for innovation, market trends, and how to launch a successful food startup. Panelists will include Marcia Hooper, Partner at investing firm HooperLewis, Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, and Nick Mccoy, Managing Director at Whipstitch Capital. Attendees will have the chance to network with industry mentors and investors, and to stay for a food tasting. Get the evening’s schedule, registration, and parking information here.

 

April 7: Tufts Food Systems Symposium

10 AM – 2 PM, Medford, MA

Cost: Free, with registration

The first-ever Tufts Food System Symposium’s theme is “Intersections of Waste and Food Insecurity.” It will feature keynote addresses from Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s and founder of Dorchester’s Daily Table, and Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free. These will be followed by a panel discussion with Boston-area advocates, students, and faculty. Attendees are invited to take place in table conversations over lunch, provided by Tufts Dining. A poster session and mini-expo will conclude the afternoon. Participants are asked to register at the Food[at]Tufts website.

 

April 7 – 8: Graduate Student Research Conference

8:30 AM – 5:00 PM, Jaharis Building, Boston, MA

Cost: $15-25 Early Bird Pricing ends April 3 at 5 PM; $25-35 for day-of registration

The 10th Annual Graduate Student Research Conference presents this year’s theme, “The Future of Food and Nutrition.” Graduate students from varied disciplines will gather to present original research relating to food systems and nutrition science. Helena Bottemiller Evich, senior food and agriculture reporter at POLITICO, will give the keynote address, followed by a panel discussion including Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning professor Julian Agyeman, SR Strategy president Sylvia Rowe, and Richard Black, a 25-year veteran of the nutrition field. Participants are also invited to attend a post-conference reception for refreshments and networking. To register or read more, visit the Graduate Student Conference website.

 

April 10: Nature Research Seminar

11:00 AM – 1:00 PM, Sackler 114, Boston, MA

Cost: Free

Sir Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief for the international weekly scientific journal, Nature, will speak about management challenges for principal investigators and researchers looking to publish their work. Topics will include working with editors, post-publication pressures, lab integrity, data management, reproducibility, mentoring, best practices and more. Sir Campbell’s 50-minute presentation will be followed by a Q&A session. Read more about the event from Tufts’ Vice Provost for Research.

 

April 21: 8th Annual WSSS Symposium

9:00 AM – 5:30 PM, Medford, MA

Cost: Free to Tufts students, faculty and staff; $10 for non-Tufts affiliated attendees

Each year, graduate students in the Water: Systems, Science and Society (WSSS) certificate program host a Symposium about water topics. This year’s theme is “Untapped Potential: Making Water Markets Work for All” and will focus on possible public-private solutions for regional water-based issues. Attendees will hear from speakers working in public, private, and non-governmental sectors, and research-track WSSS students will present their work at the lunchtime poster session. In fact, WSSS invites all students working on water-related research to participate in the poster session. Cash prizes will be awarded! To enter, submit your abstract using this form no later than April 7. Check out the Tufts Institute of the Environment website for registration info and to see a list of speakers and schedules.

 

April 23: AllLocal Dinner at Mei Mei Restaurant

5:30 PM, Boston, MA

Cost: $55 – $65

For something a little different to break up your busy conference calendar, consider attending an AllLocal Dinner at Mei Mei Restaurant near Fenway. AllLocal events raise awareness about the benefits and challenges of seasonal cooking while promoting local agriculture and highlighting New England’s regional food system. Attendees will hear from Chef Irene Li and a local farmer, while enjoying eight family-style dishes and locally crafted libations. Mei Mei Restaurant is committed to sourcing local, pasture-raised, and humanely slaughtered meats and sustainably grown foods from family-based producers. Proceeds from the dinner will support the Boston Local Food Program. For details about the dinner and to buy tickets, visit the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts’ events page.

 

April 25: Food Hub Forum

8:30 AM – 5:00 PM, Boston Public Market, Boston, MA

Cost: Free to students and seniors; $25 General Admission

For anyone interested in urban agriculture and regional distribution, the Boston Public Market’s Food Hub Forum is a must-attend event. Topics will include urban hubs, regional food systems, the history and future of Boston’s market district, economies of local restaurant and food retail businesses, and incubator services. Attendees are invited to partake in libations and networking after the event. Find full details and register here by April 22.

 

April 28 – 29: New England Meat Conference

April 28, 10:00 AM – April 29, 3:00 PM, Manchester, NH

Cost: $45 – $349 (several packages offered)

The New England Meat Conference brings farmers, processors, butchers, value-added producers and chefs together to discuss the economies, infrastructure, and potential for growth of the New England meat industry. Topics will include production, processing and pricing, whole-animal purchasing, emerging markets, inventory management, scalability, and more. Attend educational sessions, network with industry stakeholders at the trade show, and attend the Meat Ball, a competition where chefs will offer live demos. Registrants can opt to attend one or both days. Special pricing is available for students. More information at the New England Meat Conference website.

 

And if meat isn’t your thing…

 

May 20 – 21: Reducetarian Summit

May 20, 8:00 AM – May 21, 6:00 PM, Manhattan, NY

Cost: $99 Advance Student Admission; $199-399 General Admission

The central question of this first-of-its-kind event is, “How do we as individuals, organizations, communities, and societies work to systematically decrease meat consumption?” Join and share with more than three dozen high-profile food industry leaders in workshops, breakout sessions, panel discussions, and delicious meals. Topics will include the impacts of animal agriculture, using strategic communication tools to change attitudes and behaviors, the politics of meat, strategies for internalizing the external costs of factory farming, and more. For a complete list of presenters and moderators and to register, visit the Summit’s website.

Are there any conferences, seminars, or similar events missing from this list? Let us know in the comments below!

Kathleen Nay is a second-year AFE/UEP student. You can catch her volunteering at the Food Tank Summit on April 1, in attendance at the Tufts Food Systems Symposium on April 7, and at the Food Hub Forum on April 25.