History is never simple. One reason is that spinning an artful narrative out of the messy details of a conquering people can sometimes lead to very much heat and very little light. Take the Pilgrims, for example. In 1620, Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower naming the land Plymouth Rock, but the village was already named Patuxet and the Wampanoag Indians had lived there for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims' arrival.We like to believe in a festive first Thanksgiving celebrating shared life in the 'New' world between the Indians and the Plymouth settlers, yet the truth, as much as it can be ferreted out from the revisions and counter-revisions of historians appears dramatically different.
In 1621, Pilgrims did have a feast but it was not repeated years thereafter. Nor as Rick Shenkman, editor of HNN (History News Network), announces was Thanksgiving about religion. Had it been, he says,
“the Pilgrims never would have invited the Indians to join them. Besides, the Pilgrims would never have tolerated festivities at a true religious event. Indeed, what we think of as Thanksgiving was really a harvest festival. Actual ‘Thanksgivings’ were religious affairs; everybody spent the day praying..."
So, it wasn't the beginning of a Thanksgiving tradition nor did Pilgrims call it a Thanksgiving feast. Pilgrims perceived Indians in relation to the Devil (in Governor William Bradford's words, they (the Indians) were "savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.") and the more probable reason they were invited to the feast was for the purpose of eventually negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands for the Pilgrims. Perhaps one reason we have so many myths about Thanksgiving is that it is more an invented tradition, than an historically specific one, an amalgam of the first tense meeting in 1621 for primarily political purposes and a more horrific event that took place nearly 16 year later in 1637: The Pequot Massacre.
From Colonial Times down to the present, the story of the "Pequot Massacre" has been told and retold. Virtually every text on North American Indian wars or colonization covers it in the first or second chapter. As the story goes:
In 1636 ninety armed settlers went to raid Block Island, off the coast, because a white man had been found killed on his boat nearby Whet the armed party landed, they found that the Indians of Block Island had gone into hiding; they burned the villages and crops and returned to the mainland, where for good measure they burned down some Pequot villages. The English went after these Pequots and told them that they were held responsible for the murder. The Pequots had to hand over 'the remaining murderers' and provide assurances about future behavior. The Pequots 'obstinately' refused (in the words of an English eyewitness) and in the resulting fight several Pequots were killed and wounded, and their belongings destroyed or carried off. Thus started the Pequot War...
But the incident that might have begun our Thanksgiving festivities was much less a war than a massacre.
The historian Francis Jennings writes:
Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy's will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.
The colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village on the Mystic River. At sunrise, as the inhabitants slept, the Puritan soldiers set the village on fire.
'We must burn them!' Mason is reported as having shouted, running around with a firebrand and lighting the wigwams. 'Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies, ' he reported afterward:
"The surviving Pequots were hunted but could make little haste because of their children, Mason wrote, They were literally-run to ground...tramped into the mud and buried in the swamp. ' The last of them were shipped to the West Indies as slaves...John Winthrop.. .governor once more, ...[offered] ...forty pounds sterling for the scalp of an Indian man, twenty for the scalps of women and children. The name 'Pequot' was officially erased from the map. The Pequot River became the Thames and their town became New London."
(7 History Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, (1876), Heckewelder, John, p. 53.)
William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, wrote: "Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire...horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them."
Mason himself wrote: "It may be demanded...Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? But...sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents.... We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings."
The next day, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared:
"A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children." It was signed into law that, "This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots."
As one of the leading theologians of his day, Dr. Cotton Mather put it: "It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day."
In 1975 the official number of Pequot living in Connecticut was 21.
From what I can gather, the present Thanksgiving 'celebration' is based historically on some mixture of the 1621 meeting between the Indians the new Pilgrim colony, and the commemoration of the Pequot massacre (with perhaps some conviviality and cuisine thrown in from the Jamestown, VA colony's annual celebrations).
In 1970, the town of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts held, as it does each year, a Thanksgiving Ceremony given by the townspeople. There are many speeches for the crowds who attend. That year -- the year of Nixon's secret invasion of Cambodia; the year 4 students were massacred at Kent State and 13 wounded for opposing the war; the year they tried to electrocute Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins -- the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival, and the first Thanksgiving.
Frank James, who is a Wampanoag, was selected. But before he was allowed to speak he was told to show a copy of his speech to the white people in charge of the ceremony. When they saw what he had written, they would not allow him to read it.
Something to consider as you dine on Thanksgiving Turkey: this land once belonged to another people; our celebration is in part a victory dance on the graves of those we have almost entirely extinquished. Their remaining voices, that should be public, have been suppressed -- but not entirely.
When I read Frank James's speech, it struck me as surprisingly civil and humane considering our strained history. Please take a moment today to read his Thanksgiving message.
THE SUPPRESSED SPEECH OF
WAMSUTTA (FRANK B.) JAMES, WAMPANOAG
To have been delivered at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1970
ABOUT THE DOCUMENT:
Three hundred fifty years after the Pilgrims began their invasion of the land of the Wampanoag, their "American" descendants planned an anniversary celebration. Still clinging to the white schoolbook myth of friendly relations between their forefathers and the Wampanoag, the anniversary planners thought it would be nice to have an Indian make an appreciative and complimentary speech at their state dinner. Frank James was asked to speak at the celebration. He accepted. The planners, however , asked to see his speech in advance of the occasion, and it turned out that Frank James' views — based on history rather than mythology — were not what the Pilgrims' descendants wanted to hear. Frank James refused to deliver a speech written by a public relations person. Frank James did not speak at the anniversary celebration. If he had spoken, this is what he would have said:
I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction ("You must succeed - your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!"). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases. I, and my brothers and sisters, have painfully overcome, and to some extent we have earned the respect of our community. We are Indians first - but we are termed "good citizens." Sometimes we are arrogant but only because society has pressured us to be so.
It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.
Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years? History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were broken promises - and most of these centered around land ownership. Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls. But the white man had a need to prove his worth by the amount of land that he owned. Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the so-called "savages." Although the Puritans were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other "witch."
And so down through the years there is record after record of Indian lands taken and, in token, reservations set up for him upon which to live. The Indian, having been stripped of his power, could only stand by and watch while the white man took his land and used it for his personal gain. This the Indian could not understand; for to him, land was survival, to farm, to hunt, to be enjoyed. It was not to be abused. We see incident after incident, where the white man sought to tame the "savage" and convert him to the Christian ways of life. The early Pilgrim settlers led the Indian to believe that if he did not behave, they would dig up the ground and unleash the great epidemic again.
The white man used the Indian's nautical skills and abilities. They let him be only a seaman -- but never a captain. Time and time again, in the white man's society, we Indians have been termed "low man on the totem pole."
Has the Wampanoag really disappeared? There is still an aura of mystery. We know there was an epidemic that took many Indian lives - some Wampanoags moved west and joined the Cherokee and Cheyenne. They were forced to move. Some even went north to Canada! Many Wampanoag put aside their Indian heritage and accepted the white man's way for their own survival. There are some Wampanoag who do not wish it known they are Indian for social or economic reasons.
What happened to those Wampanoags who chose to remain and live among the early settlers? What kind of existence did they live as "civilized" people? True, living was not as complex as life today, but they dealt with the confusion and the change. Honesty, trust, concern, pride, and politics wove themselves in and out of their [the Wampanoags'] daily living. Hence, he was termed crafty, cunning, rapacious, and dirty.
History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood.
The white man in the presence of the Indian is still mystified by his uncanny ability to make him feel uncomfortable. This may be the image the white man has created of the Indian; his "savageness" has boomeranged and isn't a mystery; it is fear; fear of the Indian's temperament!
High on a hill, overlooking the famed Plymouth Rock, stands the statue of our great Sachem, Massasoit. Massasoit has stood there many years in silence. We the descendants of this great Sachem have been a silent people. The necessity of making a living in this materialistic society of the white man caused us to be silent. Today, I and many of my people are choosing to face the truth. We ARE Indians!
Although time has drained our culture, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States Government, until only recently.
Our spirit refuses to die. Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting We're standing not in our wigwams but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass we'll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.
We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.
You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.
There are some factors concerning the Wampanoags and other Indians across this vast nation. We now have 350 years of experience living amongst the white man. We can now speak his language. We can now think as a white man thinks. We can now compete with him for the top jobs. We're being heard; we are now being listened to. The important point is that along with these necessities of everyday living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture, we still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians. We are determined, and our presence here this evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.
September 10, 1970