Generations of Americans have told themselves a patriotic story of the supposed first Thanksgiving that misrepresents colonization as consensual and bloodless.
The story goes like this: English Pilgrims cram aboard the Mayflower and brave the stormy Atlantic to seek religious freedom in America. They disembark at Plymouth Rock and enter the howling wilderness equipped with their proto-Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and the confidence that they are God’s chosen people. Yet sickness and starvation halve their population during the first winter and challenges their faith.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Indians (rarely identified by tribe), with whom the English desperately wish to trade for food, keep a wary distance. Just when Plymouth seems destined to become another lost colony, miraculously, the Natives make contact through the interpreters Samoset and Squanto (the story sidesteps how these figures learned English, nor does it explain why the Indians suddenly became so friendly). The sachem (or chief), Ousamequin (whom the English know, from his title, as “Massasoit”), even agrees to a treaty of alliance with Plymouth.
Over the spring and summer, the Indians feed the Pilgrims and teach them how to plant corn; the colony begins to thrive. In the fall, the two parties seal their friendship with the first Thanksgiving. The subsequent 50-year peace allows colonial New England and, by extension, the United States to become a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty.
As for what happens to the Indians next, this story has nothing to say. The Indians’ legacy is to present America as a gift to white people — or in other words, to concede to colonialism. Like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, the other famous Indians of American history, they help the colonizers and then move offstage.
The Wampanoags, who are the Indians in this tale, have long contended that the Thanksgiving myth sugarcoats the viciousness of colonial history for Native people. It does. The Pilgrims did not enter an empty wilderness ripe for the taking. Human civilization in the Americas was every bit as ancient and rich as in Europe. That is why Wampanoag country was full of villages, roads, cornfields, monuments, cemeteries and forests cleared of underbrush. Generations of Native people had made it that way with the expectation of passing along their land to their descendants. [Continue reading…]