November 25, 2021 Wayne Northey

Commentary on: “The Invention of Thanksgiving”

Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.

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November 18, 2019

image above: The Indians who joined the mistrustful Pilgrims, Wampanoag tradition suggests, were honoring a mutual-defense pact. Illustration by Rui Tenreiro

WN: If the article highlighted below shocks the reader, I suggest gently that you have grown up on a different planet . . .

It is a story of raw and brutal imperialism, enslavement, Grand Larceny and massacre. “How the West was won.” In fact!

So we pray: Lord, have mercy . . .

excerpts:

Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving for nearly four centuries, commemorating that solemn dinner in November, 1621. We know the story well, or think we do. Adorned in funny hats, large belt buckles, and clunky black shoes, the Pilgrims of Plymouth gave thanks to God for his blessings, demonstrated by the survival of their fragile settlement. The local Indians, supporting characters who generously pulled the Pilgrims through the first winter and taught them how to plant corn, joined the feast with gifts of venison. A good time was had by all, before things quietly took their natural course: the American colonies expanded, the Indians gave up their lands and faded from history, and the germ of collective governance found in the Mayflower Compact blossomed into American democracy.

Almost none of this is true, as David J. Silverman points out in This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving (Bloomsbury).

No centuries-long continuity emerged from that 1621 meet-up. New Englanders certainly celebrated Thanksgivings—often in both fall and spring—but they were of the fasting-and-prayer variety. Notable examples took place in 1637 and 1676, following bloody victories over Native people. To mark the second occasion, the Plymouth men mounted the head of Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom above their town on a pike, where it remained for two decades, while his dismembered and unburied body decomposed. The less brutal holiday that we celebrate today took shape two centuries later, as an effort to entrench an imagined American community. In 1841, the Reverend Alexander Young explicitly linked three things: the 1621 “rejoicing,” the tradition of autumnal harvest festivals, and the name Thanksgiving. He did so in a four-line throwaway gesture and a one-line footnote. Of such half thoughts is history made.

…The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.

To mark the second occasion, the Plymouth men mounted the head of Ousamequin’s son Pumetacom above their town on a pike, where it remained for two decades, while his dismembered and unburied body decomposed.

So how does one take on a myth? One might begin by deconstructing the process through which it was made. Silverman sketches a brief account of Hale, Lincoln, and the marketing of a fictionalized New England. Blee and O’Brien reveal how proliferating copies of a Massasoit statue, which we can recognize as not so distant kin to Confederate monuments, do similar cultural work, linking the mythic memory of the 1621 feast with the racial, ethnic, and national-identity politics of 1921, when the original statue was commissioned. One might also wield the historian’s skills to tell a “truer,” better story that exposes the myth for the self-serving fraud that it is. Silverman, in doing so, resists the temptation to offer a countermyth, an ideological narrative better suited to the contemporary moment, and renders the Wampanoags not simply as victims but as strugglers, fighting it out as they confront mischance and aggression, disagreeing with one another, making mistakes, displaying ambition and folly, failing to see their peril until it is too late.

This rejoicing arrives about a third of the way through Silverman’s four-hundred-plus-page book. What follows is a vivid account of the ways the English repaid their new allies. The settlers pressed hard to acquire Indian land through “sales” driven by debt, threat, alliance politics, and violence. They denied the coequal civil and criminal jurisdiction of the alliance, charging Indians under English law and sentencing them to unpayable fines, imprisonment, even executions. They played a constant game of divide and conquer, and they invariably considered Indians their inferiors. Ousamequin’s sons Pumetacom—called King Philip by the English—and Wamsutta began forming a resistance, despite the poor odds. By 1670, the immigrant population had ballooned to sixty or seventy thousand in southern New England—twice the number of Native people.

Thanksgiving’s Pilgrim pageants suggest that good-hearted settlers arrived from pious, civilized England. We could remember it differently: that they came from a land that delighted in displaying heads on poles and letting bodies rot in cages suspended above the roads. They were a warrior tribe.

We falsely remember a Thanksgiving of intercultural harmony. Perhaps we should recall instead how English settlers cheated, abused, killed, and eventually drove Wampanoags into a conflict, known as King Philip’s War, that exploded across the region in 1675 and 1676 and that was one of the most devastating wars in the history of North American settlement. Native soldiers attacked fifty-two towns in New England, destroyed seventeen of them, and killed a substantial portion of the settler population. The region also lost as much as forty per cent of its Native population, who fought on both sides. Confronted by Mohawks to the west, a mixed set of Indian and Colonial foes to the south, and the English to the east, Pumetacom was surrounded on three sides. In the north, the scholar Lisa Brooks argues, Abenaki and other allies continued the struggle for years. In “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” (Yale), Brooks deepens the story considerably, focussing on indigenous geographical and linguistic knowledge, and tracing the life of Weetamoo, the widow of Wamsutta and the saunkskwa, or female leader, of her tribe, the Pocasset. Weetamoo was Pumetacom’s ally, his relative, and a major figure in the fight. In the end, not only Pumetacom’s head was stuck on a pike; hers was, too, displayed for Wampanoag prisoners who were likely soon to be sold to the Caribbean.

Perhaps we should recall instead how English settlers cheated, abused, killed, and eventually drove Wampanoags into a conflict, known as King Philip’s War, that exploded across the region in 1675 and 1676 and that was one of the most devastating wars in the history of North American settlement.

We falsely remember a Thanksgiving of intercultural harmony. Perhaps we should recall instead how English settlers cheated, abused, killed, and eventually drove Wampanoags into a conflict, known as King Philip’s War, that exploded across the region in 1675 and 1676 and that was one of the most devastating wars in the history of North American settlement. Native soldiers attacked fifty-two towns in New England, destroyed seventeen of them, and killed a substantial portion of the settler population. The region also lost as much as forty per cent of its Native population, who fought on both sides. Confronted by Mohawks to the west, a mixed set of Indian and Colonial foes to the south, and the English to the east, Pumetacom was surrounded on three sides. In the north, the scholar Lisa Brooks argues, Abenaki and other allies continued the struggle for years. In “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” (Yale), Brooks deepens the story considerably, focussing on indigenous geographical and linguistic knowledge, and tracing the life of Weetamoo, the widow of Wamsutta and the saunkskwa, or female leader, of her tribe, the Pocasset. Weetamoo was Pumetacom’s ally, his relative, and a major figure in the fight. In the end, not only Pumetacom’s head was stuck on a pike; hers was, too, displayed for Wampanoag prisoners who were likely soon to be sold to the Caribbean.

The Thanksgiving story buries the major cause of King Philip’s War—the relentless seizure of Indian land. It also covers up the consequence. The war split Wampanoags, as well as every other Native group, and ended with indigenous resistance broken, and the colonists giving thanks. Like most Colonial wars, this one was a giant slave expedition, marked by the seizure and sale of Indian people. Wampanoags were judged criminals and—in a foreshadowing of the convict-labor provision of the Thirteenth Amendment—sold into bondage. During the next two centuries, New England Indians also suffered indentured servitude, convict labor, and debt peonage, which often resulted in the enslavement of the debtor’s children. Thanksgiving’s Pilgrim pageants suggest that good-hearted settlers arrived from pious, civilized England. We could remember it differently: that they came from a land that delighted in displaying heads on poles and letting bodies rot in cages suspended above the roads. They were a warrior tribe.

The Thanksgiving story buries the major cause of King Philip’s War—the relentless seizure of Indian land. It also covers up the consequence. The war split Wampanoags, as well as every other Native group, and ended with indigenous resistance broken, and the colonists giving thanks.

Today, Wampanoag people debate whether Thanksgiving should be a day of mourning or a chance to contemplate reconciliation. It’s mighty generous of them.

David Silverman, in his personal reflections, considers how two secular patriotic hymns, “This Land Is Your Land” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” shaped American childhood experiences. When schoolkids sing “Land where my fathers died! Land of the Pilgrim’s pride,” he suggests, they name white, Protestant New England founders. It makes no sense, these days, to ask ethnically diverse students to celebrate those mythic dudes, with their odd hats and big buckles. At the very least, Silverman asks, could we include Indians among “my fathers,” and pay better attention to the ways they died? Could we acknowledge that Indians are not ghosts in the landscape or foils in a delusional nationalist dream, but actual living people?

Please click on: American Thanksgiving’s Delusions

Wayne Northey

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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