Separating myth from reality

M.V. Museum hosts David Silverman and David Vanderhoop in discussion of Thanksgiving myths.


On Tuesday, Nov. 17, families around Massachusetts joined the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for a virtual presentation, “This Land Is Their Land: A Conversation with David Silverman and David Vanderhoop Around the Troubled History and Pervasive Myths Around Thanksgiving.”

Each speaker was introduced by M.V. Museum manager of exhibitions and programming Anna Barber. Silverman, a professor of history at George Washington University, has dedicated a great deal of work to Native American and Colonial American history. His published writings, including the 2019 book, “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” have generated critical acclaim.

Vanderhoop is an Aquinnah Wampanoag elder, raised on the island of Noepe, now known to many of us as Martha’s Vineyard. Vanderhoop and his wife, Saskia, are the founders of Sassafras Earth Education, which strives to reconnect young people with nature and teach skills in leadership. Through this nonprofit and various other pursuits, Vanderhoop has worked to spread education and understanding regarding topics in history, race, and culture.

Silverman and Vanderhoop each began by expressing gratitude for both the presence of the attendees and their own invitation to speak. “I’m thankful for this Wampanoag territory that we’re all on, and I want to acknowledge that this Wampanoag land that we’re all on is still here,” said Vanderhoop.

Silverman spoke first with a discussion of the pre-history and post-history of the Thanksgiving holiday. “Without this before-and-after context, we can’t understand the significance, and insignificance, of that mythic Thanksgiving,” Silverman said.

Silverman explained that contrary to common belief, the first interactions between the Wampanoag people and Europeans occurred at least a century before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. This included frequent instances of trade between the Wampanoag and Europeans, starting as early as 1602. These interactions often escalated to violence, and the Wampanoag came to associate the English with danger and malice, Silverman said.

It was an epidemic that drew the Wampanoag and Europeans into closer quarters. This unidentified virus swept through Southeastern New England, devastating the native tribes there. “The depopulation was enormous,” Silverman said. “In some communities, native people said they had lost nine-tenths of the population.”

Wampanoag leader Ousamequin, also known by his title of Massasoit, was under pressure to hold his power after this tragedy, due to tributary efforts by the Narragansett tribe. He allowed the Europeans to camp on Wampanoag land in exchange for trade and mutual aid when needed.

SIlverman explained that after a difficult winter, the Europeans celebrated their survival with a few days of leisure. A few Englishmen fired their guns out of joy, and as promised, the Wampanoag people arrived, armed and prepared to aid their allies. Upon realizing there was no danger, the Wampanoag stayed and feasted with the Europeans.

Neither side considered this event significant at the time. “English records dedicated two paragraphs to it,” Silverman said. In fact, it wasn’t until the year 1840, when Alexander Young published an account of this feast, that it was associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. This, Young wrote in a footnote, “was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.”

What followed this feast is far from the peaceful alliance it suggests. While Ousamequin’s decision did allow him to overcome Narragansett pressure, he eventually lost power to the English. Europeans began arriving in great numbers, and the women who settled had an average of eight children in their lifetimes, explained Silverman.

The Wampanoag were overwhelmed, and the English took advantage of this. They forced the native people into surrendering their own land. Oftentimes, the English would force Wampanoag individuals into slavery as a means of paying off debts created by the English themselves.

After years of continuous threats to their livelihood, the Wampanoag rebelled under the leadership of Ousamequin’s son, Mettacom. Known as King Philip’s War, the Wampanoag people suffered a brutal defeat, losing thousands of men to captivity or death.

According to Silverman, it is dishonest to paint the history of Thanksgiving Day as anything less than this. The myth, Silverman said, “is a whitewash story of bloodless colonialism.” Still, Silverman said, we teach this lie to our children, and allow adults to turn a blind eye. “The Thanksgiving myth made white Protestant ancestors the Founding Fathers of America,” Silverman said.

While Silverman was able to share this history due to his years of extensive research, Vanderhoop offered the group a new perspective of personal experience. “I am appalled by this history, but it is history, and I have to live today and deal with that,” Vanderhoop said. “Noepe, right here where I sit, now known as Martha’s Vineyard, is our territory. It is Wampanoag territory. We, the Wampanoag people, are still here, and we will remain.”

Vanderhoop described a lifestyle characteristic of the Wampanoag people that was taken from them with the intrusion of the English. He asked that we imagine a time in which the Island had trails and seasonal villages, families and warriors of the tribe. “We were known as a force to reckon with,” Vanderhoop said, explaining the tenacity of the Wampanoag. An empowered people, the Wampanoag tribe was known to protect themselves in times of need.

“That lifestyle did come to an end,” Vanderhoop said. Between 1615 and 1619, the tribe suffered a great deal of death and disease, Vanderhoop explained. “My ancestors knew what was coming because they were tuned in. They were spiritually aware for a long time before this happened,” Vanderhoop said. “I am so thankful that I am here today and can call myself an ancestor from that maybe 5 percent that survived.”

In his own life, Vanderhoop has been greatly affected by his heritage. “The culture that they had was still here when I grew up,” Vanderhoop said, remembering blueberry fields and cranberries growing in the common lands. According to Vanderhoop, these elements of Wampanoag culture are still intact because they have been tended to, even now, by the Wampanoag people. Cultural practices, such as hunting and gathering for survival, were also an integral part of Vanderhoop’s upbringing.

“It wasn’t until I bused down-Island in fifth grade that I encountered who I was, and the negativity around it,” Vanderhoop said. He recounted fights on the elementary school playground, and conflict with teachers when requesting more challenging material.

Vanderhoop agreed with Silverman that this mythological Thanksgiving that society has created brings only harm. “For us Wampanoag people, it’s the beginning of the genocide, the dispossession of land, and the constant war that was brought on us,” Vanderhoop said.

In his work at Sassafras Earth Education, Vanderhoop hopes to educate a new generation of children, not with falsehoods and stories, but with truth. “It’s time to start giving back what has been stolen — what has been taken with force,” Vanderhoop said. He hopes to empower his people with the knowledge of what they have given to this Island.

At this time, Vanderhoop invited his daughter, Nanauwe, onto the call. As an up and coming Wampanoag singer and songwriter, Nanauwe performed an a capella rendition of her single, “I Am My Spirit,” which was released in October.

The evening closed with a couple of questions, though time constraints cut this section of the event short. The question of one attendee seemed to perfectly summarize the evening’s theme: How do we move forward together?

Silverman explained that moving forward requires confrontation of our collective past. Many Americans, he suggested, do not want to experience the guilt of these historical truths. He compared the country to a house in need of repairs. “You don’t need to feel guilty about those repairs, but you do need to acknowledge the need to make those repairs,” Silverman said.

Vanderhoop agreed that moving forward will take the effort of all. “During these next few weeks, where families gather in celebration to give thanks, an expression of thanks to the first people of Turtle Island, this land where we live today, is the first step in acknowledgment of what went on,” Vanderhoop said. He encouraged the group to find this acknowledgement in any way possible. “We’re all walking on the blood of my ancestors — of the indigenous people of this land,” Vanderhoop said.

“We have to be understanding with each other to be able to move on, and to pass on to the next generation the truth — that we need to live together. Just be honest, and that’s a beginning,” Vanderhoop said. “In the next generations to come, we will be as one, as we should be, with Earth and with our ancestors.”