Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The very idea of an American Thanksgiving feast is a fairly recent creation. Yes, the term “fairly recent” may call for some definition in today’s short-attention- span, 24 hour news cycle popular culture. Still, the first historical mention of any Indians sharing any meal with any Pilgrims appears to be only 118 years-old. It was only a little later, after the turn of the last century, around the time of World War One, that a version of such a Puritan/Indian partnership took hold in the elementary schools of white people across the American landscape. We can thank the invention of textbooks, and their mass purchase by public schools, as being primarily responsible for embedding this “Thanksgiving” image in our modern culture. Of course, it’s a complete invention, a creation of cultural propaganda, another in a long line of white-Christian inspired nationalistic myths.

Truth be told, the first Thanksgiving Day officially, historically credited to and recorded by the European Puritans of Massachusetts occurred in 1637. It was then that the Colony’s Governor, John Winthrop, proclaimed such a day to celebrate the safe return of a band of heavily armed hunters, colonial volunteers, European Christians, acting in the time honored traditions of Western religion. They had just returned from their journey to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they massacred 700 Pequot Indians. Yes, seven hundred, all dead. Some Thanksgiving.

This day is still remembered today, 371 years later – not by white people or Christians, of course, but by Indians. A group calling themselves the United American Indians of New England, meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill for what they say is a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a stature of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember the men, women and children of the long gone Pequot’s. They do not call it Thanksgiving. There is no football game afterward.

So, what is it we are thankful for and how did all this – this Thanksgiving – come to be? It began with the greatest of misunderstandings, a true clash of cultural values and fundamental principles. Look what happened to the original residents who lived in the area of New York we came to call Brooklyn. A group of them – not Europeans of course - calling themselves Canarsees, obligingly, perhaps even eagerly, accepted assorted pieces of pretty, colored junk from the Dutchman Peter Minuet in 1626. These trinkets have long since been estimated to be worth no more than 60 Dutch guilders at the time. In exchange, the Canarsees gave Peter Minuet the island of Manhattan. What did they care? They were living in Brooklyn. All that’s left to show for it now – a neighborhood in Brooklyn and a subway line.

Of course, all things – especially commercial transactions – need to be taken in perspective. The nearly two dozen tribes of Native Americans living in the New York area in those days (hereinafter called Indians), had a distinctly non-European concept of territorial rights and what we would label – real property. It was common for one tribe to “allow” another to hunt and fish nearby themselves on a regular basis. Fences were not a part of their culture. Naturally, it was polite to ask before setting up operations too close to where others lived, but refusal, in matters of this sort, was rare and rude. As a sign of gratitude, small trinkets were usually offered by the tribe seeking temporary admission and cheerfully accepted by those already there. It was, without a cultural question, a sort of short-term rental arrangement. Sad to say, the unfortunate Brooklynites known as Canarsees, apparently had no idea, and were probably surprised to learn that the Dutch meant to stay, permanently. Worse yet, it must have been unthinkable that they would also be henceforth unwelcome in Manhattan after their deal with Governor Minuet. One thing we can be sure of, their equivalent of today’s buyer’s remorse brought them nothing but grief, humiliation and violence.

Many Indians lived on Long Island in those days. Another Dutchman, named Adrian Block, was the first European to come upon them in 1619. Block was also eager to introduce European commercialism and the Christian concept of real property to these unfortunate innocents. Without exception, they all came out on the short end in their dealings with the Dutch. The market savvy unleashed by the Europeans upon the Indians constituted the first land use policies in the New World. The most damaging of these new ideas was called ownership. In the Seventeenth Century, it was not urban but rather rural renewal. The result, of course, was the same – people of color, who had no money to speak of, got kicked out, and the neighborhood was subsequently gentrified, overrun by white people.

One tribe of about 10,000 Indians lived peacefully in a lovely spot, on a peninsula directly along the ocean. There they fished in the open sea and inland bay, hunted across the pristine shoreline and were well fed and quite happy until they met a man – indeed, yet another Dutchman - named Willem Kieft, the Governor of New Netherland in 1639. They too ended up as unknowing sellers. These poor bastards were called the Rechaweygh (pronounced Rockaway). Soon after meeting Governor Kieft, they became the very first of New York’s homeless. Guess who lives there now.

The white people of New Netherland had a lot in common with the white people of Plymouth Colony. At least it appears so from the way both of these groups of displaced and dissatisfied Europeans interacted with the people they found already here when they arrived, the Indians. The Pilgrims in Plymouth had a hard time for the first couple of years. It was mostly their own fault. Nature was no help either. They hit a drought that cost them dearly in corn and peas, severely reducing their seed stock for future planting. But, poor planning was their downfall. These mostly city dwelling Europeans never thought to include among them persons with the skills needed in settling the American wilderness. Thus, when they reached the forests and fields of Massachusetts they turned out to be pathetic hunters and incompetent butchers. They had no one with knowledge to turn to for help. Game was everywhere, yet in a land of plenty, they went hungry. First, they couldn’t catch it; then when they did, they couldn’t cut it up, prepare it, preserve it and create a storehouse for those days, certain to come, when fresh supplies would run low. If you can’t cut meat, you won’t eat meat.

To compensate for their food shortage, particularly essential protein, they relied upon their European ways and their Christian culture. They instituted a series of religious observances. They could not hunt or farm, but they were damn good at praying.

They quickly developed a taste for something both religious and useful. They called it a Day of Fasting. How convenient. Without food it seemed like a good idea. That single Day often turned into multiple Days and, as food supplies dwindled, the Days of Fasting came in bunches. Each of these episodes was eventually, and thankfully, followed – at last - by a meal. Appropriately enough, the Puritans credited God for this good fortune. They referred to the fact they were allowed to eat again as a “Thanksgiving.” And they wrote it down. Thus, the first mention of the word – Thanksgiving – in what we came to call America. Let there be no mistake here - there was no turkey, no corn, no cranberries, no stuffing or salad. They were lucky to get a piece of fish and a potato. All things considered, it was a Thanksgiving feast.

The myth that the Pilgrims shared their Thanksgiving meal with the local Indians, who were mostly Wampanoag and Peguot, is just that – a myth. It never happened, until its inclusion in the “Thanksgiving story” in 1890, that is.

Let the Wampanoag be a lesson, especially in these troubled economic times. Is it any wonder that the Wampanoag were a people who derived great pleasure from stringing colorful beads together and giving them away to other tribes when hunting or fishing in their territory? These particular Indians had their tribal name slightly altered by the Dutch, who then used it as a reference for all Indian payments – hence, wampum. Contrary to what we’ve been shown in many 20th century movies about the American west, this word – wampum – and its economic usage never made it out of New England.

And it wasn’t until the victorious colonial militia returned from their slaughter of the Pequot that the newly arrived European Christians began their now time-honored Thanksgiving.

Enjoy your turkey.

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