Tuesday, November 22, 2011

26 - Thanksgiving

This coming week will mark the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. Plans have been made and are well underway in most families and this annual day of thanks will mark the official beginning of the holiday season. It is a major holiday and is generally a time celebrated by most families.

For those of us here in Massachusetts, the place where this celebration has its origin, this time is especially poignant. Many may be surprised to learn that the actual Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate has its roots in more than one event, but the most famous portion of it of it occurred right here in Massachusetts, just a short drive from where I now live. This place is Plymouth, MA. The fabled story goes that in the late summer of 1621, (the exact date is not known), about a year after the Pilgrims arrived from England on the fabled ship, The Mayflower, a feast of Thanksgiving was celebrated in this very place.
Plymouth Rock, landing place of the Pilgrims in 1620
The native people of the Plymouth area are the Wampanoag, also known as "the people of the first light." Like my Mi'kmaq nation, the Wampanoag are an Algonquin nation and had an established civilization in North America long before the Pilgrims arrived. Other neighboring nations in the area were The Massachuset, Nipmuc, Mohegan, Narraganset and the Pequot. All of these nations spoke different dialects of Algonquin language. These nations had times of peace and war with one another. They were used to having European visitors, but there were no attempts to settle. These visitors did occasionally capture native people and take them as slaves.
Wampanoag woman demonstrating cooking methods in the Wampanoag village

During the years between 1617 - 1619, there were plagues that swept through many of these nations in New England. Many died and left entire villages completely wiped out. One of these Wampanoag villages was Pawtuxet. In December of 1620, after 66 days at sea and 5 weeks at Cape Cod, the newly arrived Pilgrims sent a party of men to explore this area. They came upon the village of Pawtuxet and found human bones, houses in ruins, and in addition, cleared fields on high ground with a view of the harbor. They believed that God had provided this place for them. The Wampanoag, at the urging of their sachem, Massasoit, watched the Pilgrims. They saw women and children who were sickly and starving and the Wampanoag did not see them for the threat they would later become. From the 102 Pilgrims who made the original journey, more than half would be dead by the end of the first winter, including 13 of the 18 women. Miraculously, all of the children survived. They were a weak group in the eyes of the natives who watched.

Wampanoag dugout canoe.

The leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit, was a chief who had the great respect of his people. He led by example and his people had faith in his leadership. The Wampanoag were badly hurt by disease and were fearful of the neighboring Narraganset who had not lost large numbers in the plagues. They needed allies, and judging by the delicate state of the Pilgrims, Massasoit felt he could control the situation. He knew that the Pilgrims came from a country of military might and they had weapons. In early spring of 1621, he sent a party of 60 men and waited until they sent a man for talks. This man was Edward Winslow, a 25 year old with no family. He invited Massasoit to talk with the Governor in Plimoth.

Plimoth Plantation looking over the harbor
Massasoit took a warrior named Tisquantum (Squanto) to the talks. He had been kidnapped by the English years before and could speak some English. This was to be the first official treaty  in the area. They agreed not to harm one another and each would help to defend the other against attacks from other native nations. The Pilgrims needed allies as did the Wampanoag. The day after the treaty was made,  Massasoit sent his people to plant corn on the side of the stream and ceded the village of Pawtuxet to the Pilgrims. They renamed it Plimoth. That same year in July, Edward Winslow made a 40 mile trip to visist Massasoit at Pokanset and presented him with a gift of a chain. Massasoit agreed not to trade with the French and a few weeks later was invited to the Thanksgiving Feast.

When the Wampanoag arrived for the feast, they were not sure how they would be received. They brought with them 5 killed deer to contribute to the feast. The relationship was still very new and fragile and both groups were cautious of one other.  In retrospect, for the Pilgrims it was a time of beginning, but for the Wampanoag, this event would come to represent the beginning of bad times for their people. In the coming decades, as the number of colonists increased and their need for native assistance diminished, the relationship between the two groups would change dramatically. The native way of life would be forever changed.

Each year in Plymouth, thousands flock to this area, and many take part in a feast made up of the traditional foods served there is 1621. This year in this small village, there will be protests by Native Americans as there have been each year for decades. While we are warm inside watching football and enjoying our family and turkey, they will be standing on Cole Hill observing an official day of mourning. My thoughts will be with them and their ancestors on this day. Maybe some who are reading this will take some time and send them a prayer or a thought as well. These collective thoughts have power I think.

There are some wonderful resources on Plimouth Plantation. They have a great website which may be found at www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/thanksgiving-virtual-field-trip This particular link is a virtual field trip that includes both the Pilgrims and Wampanoag and is suitable for young people.

In addition to the Plimoth Plantation site, there is a video that is a part of The American Experience series called We Shall Remain. A more complete story of the Wampanoag and their relationship with early settlers may be found in Episode 1, After The Mayflower. 

Information for this post comes from the film, We Shall Remain Episode 1, The Atlas of the American Indian and my own visit to Plimoth Plantation.

Note: (added 3/ 7/12)

Since writing this post in November, I have learned more information that the "Thanksgiving Feast" that was celebrated, may have in fact been "talks" and not an intended feast at all. Also, Squanto's real name was "Tisquantum" which I have fixed above. That's the great thing about writing this blog. I keep learning, which is the point after all.


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. I'm just starting mine. My Mi'kmaq great-grandmother was brought west with an aunt and uncle at the age of 6. She didn't remember a lot of her culture, but what she did, she passed on. I grew up in Montana, among the Plains tribes. I learned to do both versions of the Fancy Shawl Dance. I stopped it after college because I wanted to do it in full regalia, which I couldn't afford. After 20 years, I'm starting to get back into it. But, I have never seen a shawl that just jumped out to me. I can't sew worth a flip so would have to buy one. I realized when I found your blog what I was missing. -- My own heritage of which I know little. I have an associate's degree in Native American Studies. I know all about the plains tribes, the Pacific Northwest tribes, the southwest, even the southeast tribes. But, NOTHING about my own Mi'kmaq and Cree from the Northeast. I wish I'd have found all of this before my mother passed away. She was always on me to learn more about the Mi'kmaq, but I couldn't find much.

  2. Hi Becky, Oh! I am so glad you found the blog! You are so fortunate to have the education and experiences you have in Native culture! I do understand the need to know who you are and where you come from. :) I knew absolutley nothing or next to nothing about the Mi'kmaq culture or this part of my own family when I started, but it has been incredible and I cannot believe the information that was there to be found or the people who are willing to help me learn. It is a beautiful culture and a strong one. I wish you well in your journey! If I can be of any help at all, please do not hesitate to ask. I can always make some enquiries if you have your great grandmother's name and where she came from. You never know what or who you will find. :)