I had originally intended to write a rather cynical post-Thanksgiving article, pointing out that the Indian tribes at that first thanksgiving feast made a big mistake in helping Europeans figure out how to live and prosper in the new world. Their reward, ultimately, was slavery, scalp bounties, smallpox (sometimes deliberately spread) and in the end, genocide. But it turns out that the history of America’s first thanksgiving has an interesting twist:
The Puritans were religious radicals being driven into exile out of England. Since their story is well known, I will not repeat it here. They settled and built a colony which they called the “Plymouth Plantation”, near the ruins of a former Native village of the Pawtuxet Nation. Only one Pawtuxet had survived, a man named Squanto, who had spent time as a slave to the English. Since he understood the language and customs of the Puritans, he taught them to use the corn growing wild from the abandoned fields of the village, taught them to fish, and about the foods, herbs and fruits of this land. Squanto also negotiated a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag Nation, a very large Native nation which totally surrounded the new Plymouth Plantation. Because of Squanto’s efforts, the Puritans enjoyed almost 15 years of peaceful harmony with the surrounding Natives, and they prospered.
At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a great feast following the harvest of their new farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoags. The feast was followed by 3 days of “thanksgiving” celebrating their good fortune. This feast produced the image of the first Thanksgiving that we all grew up with as children. However, things were doomed to change.
Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. The Puritans came from the belief of individual needs and prosperity, and had no concept of tribal living, or group sharing. It was clear that these heathen savages had no claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated and farmed in the European manner, and there were no fences or other boundaries marked.
The land was clearly “public domain”, and there for the taking. This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans who held their Native benefactors in high regard. These first Puritan settlers were summarily excommunicated and expelled from the church.
I always assumed that those who had been saved, had been helped, by the natives, had turned against them. It seems that wasn’t the case.
Later on different types of Thanksgiving days occurred:
In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. This was the 2nd Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.
The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions. It was George Washington who finally brought a system and a schedule to thanksgiving when he declared one day to be celebrated across the nation as Thanksgiving Day.
I don’t generally dwell on the fact that the US and Canada are countries based on the destruction of the original inhabitants of the land. Genocide, for all that we act as if it were suddenly invented in the 20th century by the Nazis, or perhaps by the Turks, is nearly as ancient as recorded history. The Roman destruction of Carthage, perhaps the most famous genocide of ancient history, was hardly the first. Nor is modern weaponry necessary, as both Genghis Khan, who had entire cities slaughtered, and the Hutus, with their slaughter of half a million to a million Tutsis primarily with machetes, could attest. Sharp objects don’t run out of bullets, after all.
Yet there is no question that the natives would have been wiser to have never helped Europeans learn how to survive the new world, even if one can argue that in the end, the result probably would have been the same.
Still, I come back to this: the Puritans who were helped by the Indians resisted, to the point of excommunication, the destruction of their benefactors. Such a penalty, at the time, was the equivalent of being ostracized from their communities, as other puritans were forbidden to have any civil communication with them whatsoever, including eating with them.
This is the point in an essay where I’d normally draw a lesson, but I don’t know that I have one. What I do know, from my own personal experience, is that many people aren’t even as thankful as those pilgrims: helping someone often creates resentment. And certainly one should never expect thankfulness to extend to those not directly helped, even if they indirectly benefit.
But the effect of gratitude runs both ways. As a child, one of the first full novels I ever read was Ernest Thomas Seton’s ”œRolf In the Woods” about a white teenager effectively adopted by an Indian in early 19th century America. The Indian helps him, and then, as Seton notes, feels both kindly towards him and a sense of responsibility for the young man’s continued wellbeing.
We tend to look well upon those we’ve helped, especially if they respond with gratitude and make good use of what we’ve given, be it knowledge or material goods. Helping people makes us feel better about ourselves. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is as naturally human as is callousness, let alone empathy’s dark twin of schadenfreude, the enjoyment of the pain of others. When we feel another’s pain we either wish to relieve it, or we close ourselves off to the other person. Closing ourselves off requires making that person, or those people, into something other than ourselves. It’s much easier not to feel for those who aren’t like you, who are lesser, who are, indeed, nothing but uncivilized beasts or savages, little more than animals.
The Puritans who had personally been helped by, feasted with, and befriended by the Indians couldn’t depersonalize them in this way. And the indigenous people who had befriended the Puritans couldn’t do it either. Both sides had been made aware that the others were like them, were human. The Puritans felt grateful; the Indians, benevolent.
But the Europeans who came afterwards, those who benefited from the knowledge the Indians had given but never interacted with them as fellow humans, they could feel superior. They could believe, not that they had needed the Indians help and that it had been given, or that in exchange they were able to help the Indians by giving or trading them steel and iron goods and other advanced European items, but that the Indians were nothing but animals, who didn’t own the land, and were savages fit for death.
There was no room in this mindset for empathy, for the reciprocity of favors and affection that leads to friendship, or for a bond of thankfulness.
And so those Indian tribes were virtually destroyed. And yet we still pretend we are thankful for what they gave, when the record shows that the only people who were thankful were a few hundred Puritans who were rewarded for their faithfulness by heartbreak, betrayal, and excommunication.
Every Thanksgiving I’ve thought of those who died, a sour smile in my heart. But in Thanksgivings to come I’ll think also of those who didn’t break faith. A bitter silver lining perhaps, but I find in such things the true gold of the human spirit, untarnished even in failure.
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