History is never simple

One reason is that spinning an artful narrative out of the messy details of a conquering people can sometimes lead to very much heat and very little light. Take the Pilgrims, for example. In 1620, Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower naming the land Plymouth Rock, but the village was already named Patuxet and the Wampanoag Indians  had lived there for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.

TOM OF FINLAND, Untitled (Detail) 1982, Pen & ink on paper, ToFF #82.60 © 1982Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND, Untitled (Detail)
1982, Pen & ink on paper, ToFF #82.60
© 1982 Tom of Finland Foundation

We like to believe in a festive first Thanksgiving celebrating shared life in the “New” world between the Indians and the Plymouth settlers, yet the truth, as much as it can be ferreted out from the revisions and counter-revisions of historians appears dramatically different.

In 1621, Pilgrims did have a feast but it was not repeated years thereafter. So, it wasn’t the beginning of a Thanksgiving tradition nor did Pilgrims call it a Thanksgiving feast. Pilgrims perceived Indians in relation to the Devil (in Governor William Bradford’s words, they (the Indians) were “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.”) and the more probable reason they were invited to the feast was for the purpose of eventually negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands for the Pilgrims.

From Colonial Times down to the present, the story of the “Pequot Massacre” has been told and retold:
In 1636 ninety armed settlers went to raid Block Island, off the coast, because a white man had been found killed on his boat nearby Whet the armed party landed, they found that the Indians of had gone into hiding; they burned the villages and crops and returned to the mainland, where for good measure they burned down some Pequot villages. The English went after these Pequots and told them that they were held responsible for the murder. The Pequots had to hand over ‘the remaining murderers’ and provide assurances about future behavior. The Pequots ‘obstinately’ refused (words of an English eyewitness) and in the resulting fight several Pequots were killed and wounded, and their belongings destroyed or carried off. Thus started the Pequot War…

Historian Francis Jennings writes:
Mason proposed to avoid attacking Pequot warriors which would have overtaxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops. Battle, as such, was not his purpose. Battle is only one of the ways to destroy an enemy’s will to fight. Massacre can accomplish the same end with less risk, and Mason had determined that massacre would be his objective.

The colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village on the Mystic River. At sunrise, as the inhabitants slept, the Puritan soldiers set the village on fire.

We must burn them!‘” Mason is reported as having shouted, running around with a firebrand and lighting the wigwams. “Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.

The next day, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children.” It was signed into law that, “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots.”

It seems the present Thanksgiving “celebration” is based historically on some mixture of the 1621 meeting between the Indians and the new Pilgrim colony, and the Puritan commemoration of the Pequot massacre.


What does Thanksgiving mean to you?

In 1970, the Massachusetts Department of Commerce asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, and the first Thanksgiving. Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, Wampanoag, was asked to speak at the celebration. It turned out that James’ views were not what the Pilgrims’ descendants wanted to hear. If he had spoken, here are excerpts from what he would have said that are based on history rather than mythology.

The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry.

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the White man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.

Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the so-called “savages.” Although the Puritans were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other “witch.”

History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. 

We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the White man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.