June 6, 2009.
Russell Means & James Martinez on Indian Culture & the Dissolving of the
Russell Means and James Martinez speak of the
Click HERE to play program
“Weekend Update #16: PBS, The Lies of Omission.”
The following is a critique which first appeared on Oyate.org, discussing the myths and truths of the first Thanksgiving, prominently ignored in We Shall Remain:
Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”
By: Judy Dow (Abenaki) and Beverly Slapin
What is it about the story of “The First Thanksgiving” that makes it essential to be taught in virtually every grade from preschool through high school? What is it about the story that is so seductive? Why has it become an annual elementary school tradition to hold Thanksgiving pageants, with young children dressing up in paper-bag costumes and feather-duster headdresses and marching around the schoolyard? Why is it seen as necessary for fake “pilgrims” and fake “Indians” (portrayed by real children, many of whom are Indian) to sit down every year to a fake feast, acting out fake scenarios and reciting fake dialogue about friendship? And why do teachers all over the country continue (for the most part, unknowingly) to perpetuate this myth year after year after year?
Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human. The realization of these truths untold might crumble the foundation of what many believe is a true democracy. As good people, can we be strong enough to learn the truths of our collective past? Can we learn from our mistakes? This would be our hope.
We offer these myths and facts to assist students, parents and teachers in thinking critically about this holiday, and deconstructing what we have been taught about the history of this continent and the world. (Note: We have based our “fact” sections in large part on the research, both published and unpublished, that Abenaki scholar Margaret M. Bruchac developed in collaboration with the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation. We thank Marge for her generosity. We thank Doris Seale and Lakota Harden for their support.)
Myth #1: “The First Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.
Fact: No one knows when the “first” thanksgiving occurred. People have been giving thanks for as long as people have existed. Indigenous nations all over the world have celebrations of the harvest that come from very old traditions; for Native peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but every day, for all the gifts of life. To refer to the harvest feast of 1621 as “The First Thanksgiving” disappears Indian peoples in the eyes of non-Native children.
Myth #2: The people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims.
Fact: The Plimoth settlers did not refer to themselves as “Pilgrims.” Pilgrims are people who travel for religious reasons, such as Muslims who make a pilgrimage to
Myth #3: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.
Fact: The colonists were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. By 1620, hundreds of Native people had already been to
Myth #4: When the “Pilgrims” landed, they first stepped foot on “Plymouth Rock.”
Fact: When the colonists landed, they sought out a sandy inlet in which to beach the little shallop that carried them from the Mayflower to the mainland. This shallop would have been smashed to smithereens had they docked at a rock, especially a Rock. Although the Plimoth settlers built their homes just up the hill from the Rock, William Bradford in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at
It’s quite possible that the myth about the “Pilgrims” landing on a “Rock” originated as a reference to the New Testament of the Christian bible, in which Jesus says to Peter, “And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The appeal to these scriptures gives credence to the sanctity of colonization and the divine destiny of the dominant culture. Although the colonists were not dominant then, they behaved as though they were.
Myth #5: The Pilgrims found corn.Fact: Just a few days after landing, a party of about 16 settlers led by Captain Myles Standish followed a Nauset trail and came upon an iron kettle and a cache of Indian corn buried in the sand. They made off with the corn and returned a few days later with reinforcements. This larger group “found” a larger store of corn, about ten bushels, and took it. They also “found” several graves, and, according to Mourt’s Relation, “brought sundry of the prettiest things away” from a child’s grave and then covered up the corpse. They also “found” two Indian dwellings and “some of the best things we took away with us.” (5) There is no record that restitution was
Myth #6: Samoset appeared out of nowhere, and along with Squanto became friends with the Pilgrims. Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and joined them at “The First Thanksgiving.”
Fact: Samoset, an eastern Abenaki chief, was the first to contact the Plimoth colonists. He was investigating the settlement to gather information and report to Massasoit, the head sachem in the Wampanoag territory. In his hand, Samoset carried two arrows: one blunt and one pointed. The question to the settlers was: are you friend or foe? Samoset brought Tisquantum (Squanto), one of the few survivors of the original Wampanoag
Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.
Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)
In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)
Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.
Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622 (10), it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal. (11)
Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.
Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump—dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion—cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to
Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.
Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of
Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.
Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.
Live your values. Love your country.
And, remember: TOGETHER, We can make a DIFFERENCE!