We think about this holiday while devouring the traditional turkey and similarly delicious baked meats in a family setting, along with fixings of “period-correct” vegetables, nuts, and fruits. We reflect on truth and myth.
Much has been written regarding the actual circumstances that gave us the holiday called Thanksgiving. There are volumes of contradicting evidence and rationalization. It is an overwhelming task to decipher actual history as written by the dominant culture.
Wampanoag perspective is important. If we believe that a collective memory of events could be embedded in our DNA, as some have theorized, then it would tend to validate our contemplation. As a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, I point out what might be understood from historical knowledge. We know that at some point in 1621, according to native accounts, Massasoit, also known as Ousamequin or Yellow Feather, showed up at a Plimoth gathering with almost 100 men, after hearing gunshots and some sort of celebration. What then transpired was the act of providing deer and other game to the gathering. A feast. It is not clear the purpose for the act. Why? Were the “hunters” unable to provide for themselves? Were the Indian natives providing assistance in a time of need? What was going on? Research has concluded that to attribute any singular act to the notion of Thanksgiving is inconclusive and wrongheaded in most respects. This incident highlights one of the most persistent and prominent historical rationalizations. There are many others, but this interpretation will suffice to illustrate the conjecture.
Since none of us were actually present at the events, historical accounts and context are important but inconclusive. Wampanoag people know, and many scholars have pointed out, that the historical perspective of Thanksgiving is probably convenient dominant-society history that includes aspects of tradition and culture that support a celebration. But then some of us also see it as a time for mourning. The effects of colonized thinking and paternalistic behavior, especially when directed at the indigenous people of this country, are also well documented. Truth is a most important element of understanding.
Providing scholarly insight regarding Thanksgiving has been accomplished over the past five decades by many articles and papers debunking the “Pilgrims and Indians” motif, a consequence of that accidental celebration. Research by native and nonnative scholars in journals, newspapers, and national magazines point out multiple dubious assumptions in an unending stream of annotated and footnoted articles. There is much scrutiny regarding events of that time. Although Native Americans tend to be skeptical of a lot of research — I can personally attest to that fact — it’s comforting that even the most disingenuous observer is now aware of the myth of Thanksgiving and its dubious origins. Where does that leave us?
Celebration, feasting, and giving thanks are central to indigenous societies. The native people of North America send prayers through the burning of tobacco, long held as a reminder of the binding of culture, the spirit world, and tradition. By taking every opportunity to give thanks for being here and to participate positively in the collective human experience, we become a respectful society, interconnected, with basic responsibilities that come from the teachings of our elders and medicine people.
When I was young, my fiercely independent Wampanoag grandmother, Minnie Malonson, truly appreciated the time together with family during the holidays, reminding us to be thankful for the simple act of eating together. No philosophy or historical imperative, just common sense. I miss being young. I miss the old ones, people like my grandma.
Donald Widdiss is a wampum artist and resident of Aquinnah. He served as the tribal chairman from 1987 to 1991.