The First Thanksgiving, The Last of Its Kind

It’s nearly 5:00pm. Outside the setting sun reminds me that autumn is here and winter is coming. Each day seems to grow shorter, sometimes colder, and somewhat lonelier. Yet, I remain excited to know that with the season comes end of the year holidays. Despite the meaning, purpose, or history of the upcoming holidays, I’m simply looking forward to the time off with family and friends.

In the meantime, I’m sitting in my sparsely furnished apartment thinking how to approach a blog post about Thanksgiving. Perhaps my struggle to find a solid thread to discuss is not only based on my own ignorance toward the holiday, but the collective ignorance of the majority of Americans.

Thanksgiving - Pilgrim hatI’m fairly certain that the North American mainstream shares the idea of the first Thanksgiving as a joyous communion between Pilgrims and Native Americans. Maybe it was. There is some kind of comfort in thinking of the first Thanksgiving in that way.  It’s possible that, when thinking of the first Thanksgiving that way, we get a glimpse of what could have been. In collective hearts and minds, it represents a moment in early American history where Pilgrims and Native Americans were equal. With this equality, the gifts of the earth were shared and thanks were given for the life that these gifts provided. At least, that’s one way of thinking of it.

Still, remaining with the idea of the first Thanksgiving as peaceful celebration between two different cultures, another thought arises. The first Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the end for Indigenous dominance (Indigenous freedoms maybe), as well as the loss of innocence for the people who would later become known as the first Americans. What a saddening reminder of the true potential of what this country could have been. I romantically think of a genuinely “New” World where Europeans and Indigenous came together to form a better world, maybe even a better humanity. As we know, that wasn’t to be the outcome.

As some of you know, the first Thanksgiving was due mostly in thanks to the Indigenous who showed the starving Pilgrims how to live off the land and survive in their new settlement. However, there are a number of things that the majority of Americans don’t know about the first Thanksgiving…

Despite the gifts, knowledge, and protection that the Wampanoag and other Northeast tribes generously shared with the Pilgrims, Native people were not invited to the Pilgrims’ first harvest celebration.

Thanksgiving - Turkey

 

According to Wampanoag history, the Wampanoag only became a part of the Pilgrims’ first harvest celebration after investigating celebratory gunfire that could have been interpreted as the Pilgrim settlement being attacked. It was only upon discovering the harvest festivities already underway that the Wampanoag were invited to join the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag gifted five deer to the feast as the main protein of the first Thanksgiving. (Sorry, America, there isn’t a definite indication that turkey was even a part of the first Thanksgiving meal.)

Sadly, the first Thanksgiving was probably the last of its kind.

Today, Thanksgiving exists in America as a tradition surrounded by myth and defined by personal and collective significance. It is with mixed emotion that I look back on the collective history and my own personal history of Thanksgiving. I feel the same goes for many people of Native descent.

Since 1970, Thanksgiving has been acknowledged as the National Day of Mourning for many Native Americans. Each Thanksgiving, crowds of Native people gather at Plymouth Rock to mourn all that was lost since that first Thanksgiving.

 

As individuals, I believe we must find our own meanings in these kinds of things. It possibly means arriving at some duality where, at once, we as Native Americans mourn yet celebrate and give thanks to the Creator with close family and friends.

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