It is that time of the year again when we get together with relatives and close friends over a feast. As children, many of us remember hearing the story about the first Thanksgiving and dressing up as "Indians." We wore paper bag vests, feathered headbands, and made paper plate turkeys. November is National Native American Heritage Month. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and former director of the Museum of Arts and Science in Rochester, N.Y., initially proposed this idea. He persuaded the Boy Scouts of America to set a day to honor the "First Americans."
This label casts them as immigrants versus the first inhabitants. Nation is the more appropriate term to use than tribe because it acknowledges their long existence in this country. On September 28, 1915, Rev. Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe and president of the American Indian Association, proclaimed the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. New York became the first state to acknowledge this holiday. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush declared November as the National American Indian Heritage Month.
Native Americans were the first inhabitants of this country, which is why it is crucial to acknowledge their contributions to America. We must first address the false narratives taught in school. It is hard to determine how many were here before colonization and exploration; regardless, they currently only represent 1.5 percent of the U.S. population since the displacement and depletion by diseases and the Europeans' determination to move westward.
Although they have many commonalities, each tribe has its unique history and cultural traditions. In 2020, we had a racial reckoning, forcing many of us to question the past. Many schools and universities developed anti-racism initiatives to bring more truths to school curriculums. In response, some parents established organizations to challenge these initiatives to prevent their children from experiencing white guilt. However, we cannot become this perfect union if we do not confront our past by banning books.
Tony Ten Fingers, the author of Lakota Wisdom, says, “Historical trauma is entirely different than consciously holding the past when it resides in your ancestral memory and DNA. “It results in numerous defense mechanisms, development malfunctions, and behavioral issues.” There are so many untold stories that we need to reveal. For example, anti-wokeness movements affect school board composition and state legislation, and many of these organizations won their battles during this past election cycle.
Last year, the Cleveland Indians renamed themselves the Cleveland Guardians. Although a derogatory, red-skinned caricature is offensive to Native Americans, some are unwilling to embrace the new Block C logo. Change is hard, especially when some have a fear of losing something that they love.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning (started in 1970 in Plymouth, Massachusetts) and a constant reminder of the heinous acts committed against their people. We must revisit the past to understand why current relations are the way they are.
When other countries heard of Christopher Columbus' voyages, they sent explorers to claim new territories, gold, silver, and spices. As the population of Catholics, Muslims, and Jewish people increased in Europe, some Christians, like the Puritans, searched for a place to practice their faith freely. They developed the "pureblood" movement to maintain their status in Europe. The more individuals could trace their Christian heritage, the purer they were. This practice influenced the caste system in the Americas; color replaced bloodlines.
In Mexico, artists painted casta paintings with sixteen vignettes of a mother, father, and child on a single canvas. They illustrated the varying degrees of the intermixing of Africans, Native Americans, and Spaniards. The panels ranged from light to dark skin tones. The first panel was European-born Spaniards, and those of African descent were at the bottom of the canvas.
When the Puritans arrived in the "New World," they rebranded themselves as Pilgrims in 1621. The Puritans wanted land for homes, farms, and businesses they could not have in their home countries. They considered the land limitless for growing cash crops and free of their taking. Britain and the rest of Europe grew crops and grazed livestock on large land areas that no one owned. As a result, land went from being accessible to privately owned. The plantation system was like medieval Europe's social system called feudalism. Monarchy on the top, nobility second, knights third, and peasants last.
That social class system influenced America's hierarchy on plantations: enslavers were at the top, and enslaved people were at the bottom. This philosophy of "land" is still evident today in Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land lyrics:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said, "No Trespassing"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me
The first winter was harsh because the settlement was in a graveyard, and many died. The Wampanoags' Massasoit, Ousamequin, established a mutual-defense act with the Pilgrims because they needed protection against the Narragansetts. For months, they pondered whether to destroy or build an alliance with the newcomers. Some disagreed with Ousamequin's decision and undermined the alliance. However, with great hesitancy, Wampanonags decided on the latter because many of their tribe members died from the 1616-1619 epidemic, and they needed additional protection against their enemies.
Tisquantum, referred to as Squanto by the English, and Epnew served as interpreters for the Pilgrims and Wampanoags and was instrumental in promoting diplomacy. Years prior, those two were captured and held in bondage in Great Britain before escaping back across the Atlantic. The fifty colonists had difficulty surviving because they did not know how to tend the land. The Wampanoags taught them how to grow crops, hunt, and fish.
One day when the Wampanoags heard gunfire, they thought the Pilgrims were under attack. Instead, Ousamequin arrived uninvitedly with ninety men to help protect the pilgrims. This event marked the beginning of the Thanksgiving myth.
Violence is not the first thought that comes to mind when one thinks about Thanksgiving. However, in some instances, the English used "thanksgiving" to celebrate the bloody victories over the Natives. One notable example is King Philip's War. This war was one of the bloodiest wars in American History. As a child, Metacomet (King Philip or Pumetacom) saw his father, Chief Massasoit, helping Puritans adjust to the "New World" by offering advice and showing them how to plant crops.
Over the years, those relations began to tether because the Pilgrims were adamant about moving westward. Debt, threat, and violence were the tactics to divide, conquer, and acquire land. The immigrant population grew between 6,000 and 7,000, and the Wampanoags became outnumbered. Native Americans believed that people belonged to the land and not the land belonging to the people. When you have two different ideologies concerning land, battles are inevitable. Metacomet saw injustices happening to his people and wanted to build an alliance with local tribes. The age of twenty-four was a turning point for him; the colonists poisoned his brother, Wamsutta (Alexander). He wanted the local tribes to put aside their differences to establish a strong militia to combat the English colonists. The death of the Native American Christian informer ignited the war, and three Wampanoags were tried and murdered for his death.
In response, on June 24, 1675, Metacomet ordered a raid before he established the alliance. Nipmuc, Narragansett, and other sympathetic tribes tried to help the Wampanoags with the war. In early 1676, the English captured King Philip and his wife and son in Mount Hope, Rhode Island. On August 12, 1676, they assassinated King Philip at the Bridgewater Swamp Fight by John Alderman. His killers dismembered him and took his body parts as trophies. They mounted his head above their town on a pike for decades while letting his unburied body decompose. Metacomet's son and wife were sold into slavery in the West Indies by the scalpers.
Thomas Jefferson once said, "It is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will… cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, in similar laws."
Timeline of Thanksgiving
1789: George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving on November 26 by the national government to celebrate our country's independence from Great Britain and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
1846: Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of one of most children's books, Mary Had a Little Lamb, sent letters to governors, missionaries, and navy commanders to make Thanksgiving avert the possibility of a civil war.
1863: President Abraham proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving. Since it was the Civil War, the Confederate States of America refused to acknowledge Lincoln's proclamation of the holiday. Later on, that year, Lincoln received a Christmas turkey. Tad, Lincoln's son, was fond of animals and adopted Jack, the turkey, as a pet. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln informed Tad that they took Jack to the White House to become Christmas dinner. Tad pleaded with his father to spare the life of the turkey. Eventually, he gave in to his request by writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card.
1917: During World War I and the flu pandemic, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to provide a unifying message during a difficult time to be grateful. He stated that this should be "A custom we can follow now even in the midst of the tragedy of a world shaken by war and immeasurable disaster, in the midst of sorrow and great peril, because even amidst the darkness that has gathered about us we can see the great blessings God has bestowed upon us, blessings that are better than mere peace of mind and prosperity of enterprise."
1939: President Theodore Roosevelt was the first to romanticize the 1621 First Thanksgiving Story about the Pilgrims and Native Americans.
1941: Congress finally established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
1989: President George H.W. Bush was the first to issue a presidential pardon to the holiday turkey. The turkey could live the rest of his days at a nearby farm.
President Calvin Coolidge granted Native Americans citizenship on June 2, 1924, because many enlisted during World War I. Citizenship did not grant voting rights. In 1948, Arizona and New Mexico were the last two states that gave them voting rights.
Today, many people think about Native Americans in the past instead of the present. As a result, many organizations are conducting land acknowledgments to recognize Native Americans as the land's first inhabitants. This month, take the time to broaden your knowledge of Native American History by reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young Adults and David J. Silverman's This Land is Their Land books. Unfortunately, Disney's Pocahontas is an incorrect depiction of want actually happened between her and John Smith.
These romanticized versions can be detrimental because they promote untruths. Many Native American tribal names and historical figures' names in the textbook are incorrect; Europeans gave them their names. For example, the Iroquois real tribal name is Haudenosaunee. The Great Law of Peace influenced our Constitution. Teachers must expose their students to diverse historical perspectives to help them become informed citizens, great critical thinkers, and justice warriors.
It is unclear which event signified the Thanksgiving holiday in America. For centuries, Wampanoag gave thanks for the Creator's gifts. Also, the Europeans had harvest festivals and feasts. Whatever the case, the true intention of this holiday is accepted by most, which is to practice gratitude. These past three years have been tough on many of us; some will see empty seats at our dining room table on Thanksgiving. These times make it hard to be grateful. However, tomorrow is not promised, and it is essential to cherish every moment. Although many of us are experiencing the anxiety of this day because of those missing faces and invisible voices, let us think about how we plan to honor and continue their legacy.
Native American Prayer
I give you this; one thought to keep.
I am with you still; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on the ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush,
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that
Shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone-
I am with you still in each new dawn.