On Thanksgiving, some celebrate and some mourn

Thanksgiving talk raises awareness of tribulations faced by indigenous people.

Members of the Wampanoag Tribe tell the true story of the first Thanksgiving and give a historical perspective on the current American holiday. - Courtesy Liz Dengenis

Thanksgiving for some evokes visions of roasted turkey, stuffing, large family gatherings, and football; but for indigenous people, the holiday feast is not only a time for celebration, but of mourning and somber remembrance.

Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) spoke at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall about what Thanksgiving means to indigenous people in Massachusetts and across the country. 

A fire crackled in front of a colorful arrangement of gourds and squash as the room filled with Islanders of all backgrounds. Many Wampanoag tribe members sat in the audience and greeted the speakers in the Wôpanâak language. 

According to guest speaker Ramona Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Wampanoags held thanksgivings long before the Americanized holiday became common.

Villages would give thanks with food and merriment after auspicious occasions, like at the end of a bountiful harvest, an arrival of a migrating animal species, or to celebrate a new birth.

“Thanksgiving is more than just a meal,” Peters said. “It celebrates the gifts that the Creator has given us.”

Peters explained how the Thanksgiving non-indigenous people celebrate was created by President Abraham Lincoln to try and bring the North and the South together in harmony. 

“Although the original meaning has been lost, Thanksgiving is a good holiday because it reminds people of all they can be thankful for,” Peters said. “Thanksgiving is a celebration of identity, which for some is as important as food itself.”

Aside from short journal entries, the only documented depictions of the first Thanksgiving are a scattering of correspondences from Plymouth Governor William Bradford and chronicler Edward Winslow.

But Peters said the true history of Thanksgiving is not what is commonly taught in schools across the nation. Peters said the story starts with a treaty between England and the Wampanoag Nation, where colonists and indigenous people would be able to live together in peace. 

“Those landing in our territory were not attacked, not molested, not disturbed. We are a people of compassion and peace,” Peters said.

The actual celebration, according to Peters, was in recognition of the colonists’ first successful harvest after Tisquantum (commonly known as Squanto), a member of the Patuxet Tribe, taught them how to plant and grow corn.

The Plymouth colonists were celebrating by shooting guns and cannons into the air, and Peters said the sachem (leader) of the Wampanoags, Massassoit, heard the gunfire and sent 90 warriors to investigate. 

“They didn’t know what was going on or who they were shooting at. They wanted to make sure our people weren’t being taken or killed,” Peters said.

When the warriors arrived, Peters said it was explained that the shooting was part of a celebration of a good harvest, so they stayed nearby

Although the warriors did go out and gather deer for venison for the feast, Peters said the atmosphere in Plymouth was one of vulnerability and unease.

With the colonists having undergone a deadly voyage to settle in unknown territory, and the Wampanoags having suffered enslavement and immense catastrophe during the Great Dying, both groups were in a sensitive position.

Under threat by the neighboring Nauset Tribe, Massasoit sent a peace delegation to the Pilgrims only as a last resort.

According to Peters, that period of relative peace lasted for about 50 years, until the pact disintegrated and the Europeans gained enough numbers in New England to establish a military foothold.

Peters thanked everyone in the room for having the courage to listen and acknowledge the suffering and oppression inflicted on indigenous people by white settlers. 

“The Pilgrims weren’t at all interested in Wampanoag culture, but I am thrilled to see that you all are,” Peters said.

David Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said that during King Phillip’s War, colonists would celebrate a thanksgiving feast after invading villages and killing those who resided there.

“These invaders had a choice, and they chose violence,” Vanderhoop said. “All these words I say are documented — If you can stomach this information, it is available to you.”

At the end of the talk, Vanderhoop’s wife, Saskia, read a formal acknowledgement and condolence to the Wampanoag people, apologizing for the perpetuation of oppression against native people.

She left the room with words of positivity and encouragement.

“We want this evening to be a forum for positive and constructive discussion,” Vanderhoop said. “Make a friend tonight, say something meaningful, and be thankful for each other.”