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The Real First "Thanksgiving"

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs

b2ap3_thumbnail_066-Hearty-Thanksgiving-Greetings.jpgThe diplomatic event between an Indigenous nation (the Wampanoag) and English settlers in 1621, in a seaside Native town called Patuxet in present-day Massachusetts, has taken dramatic and far-flung turns in the mainstream American version of what became the holiday known as Thanksgiving. 

In the autumn of 1621, Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and a large contingency of Indigenous soldiers engaged in diplomatic meetings with the settlers over a three-day feast that included women and children. Before this contingency of leaders met with the settlers, the People surely held lengthy council meetings, consulted their nation's rules of law in dealing with foreigners, and engaged in consensus-style voting before any action was taken. Determining the intentions of the uninvited English squatters would have been a top priority.

An Abenaki leader named Samoset visited the settlers carrying two arrows and a message: one arrow blunt and one sharp--will it be war or peace? Eventually, the two groups made an agreement to form an alliance and a feast ensued.

Unfortunately, the widespread American version of Thanksgiving as depicted today shows generic "Indians" hanging in the shadows of paintings and stories of the First Thanksgiving, as if the Wampanoag and Abenaki people were not central players. Native women float mysteriously along the margins of the images as well, dismissing the central roles they played in their nations' governing and societies. Worse, however, is the underlying belief in these "First Thanksgiving" histories that Indigenous peoples have vanished and are just a people of the past--artifacts of American history. This is utterly false and damaging to contemporary Native communities.

Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands celebrated "Thanksgivings" for centuries as part of the cycle of the year. Feasting and celebrations for the Strawberry Festival and Green Corn Ceremony are just two examples of Thanksgivings already in place in Native cultures. The Haudenosaunee people (known also as the Iroquois) have an ancient oratorical/prayer practice known as One Good Mind or the Thanksgiving Address. This prayer, that is offered before ceremonies and councils, gathers in the minds of all living beings (people, animals, plants, the stars--everything) and the Speaker then transmits or brings the entire biosphere into the decision-making process of the council. You see, "Thanksgiving" has been in North America long before the settlers arrived!

This Thanksgiving all Americans should take time to be thankful to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas who are the bedrock of American history and culture from the past and present. Today, they are a pivotal voice in the sustainability movement and present ancient ways to live correctly upon the land that America would do wise to heed. The Sacred Sisters (corn, beans, squash) appear on the Thanksgiving table alongside the eastern giveaway bird: Turkey. There is no where the Americans can turn without facing the influence of the First Nations.

An excellent book from National Geographic about the first Thanksgiving is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac.


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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


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