Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Real Story of Thanksgiving

Here's a recycled post from a while back, which was a follow-up to something I had just written at the time, Just How Civilized Are We?, beginning with some words about the original Thanksgiving "feast" and its bloody aftermath:
It is not at all clear what happened at the first – and only – “integrated” Thanksgiving feast. Only two written accounts of the three-day event exist, and one of them, by Governor William Bradford, was written 20 years after the fact. Was Chief Massasoit invited to bring 90 Indians with him to dine with 52 colonists, most of them women and children? This seems unlikely. A good harvest had provided the settlers with plenty of food, according to their accounts, so the whites didn’t really need the Wampanoag’s offering of five deer. What we do know is that there had been lots of tension between the two groups that fall. John Two-Hawks, who runs the Native Circle web site, gives a sketch of the facts:
“Thanksgiving' did not begin as a great loving relationship between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett people. In fact, in October of 1621 when the pilgrim survivors of their first winter in Turtle Island sat down to share the first unofficial 'Thanksgiving' meal, the Indians who were there were not even invited! There was no turkey, squash, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. A few days before this alleged feast took place, a company of 'pilgrims' led by Miles Standish actively sought the head of a local Indian chief, and an 11 foot high wall was erected around the entire Plymouth settlement for the very purpose of keeping Indians out!”
It is much more likely that Chief Massasoit either crashed the party, or brought enough men to ensure that he was not kidnapped or harmed by the Pilgrims. Dr. Tingba Apidta, in his “Black Folks’ Guide to Understanding Thanksgiving,” surmises that the settlers “brandished their weaponry” early and got drunk soon thereafter. He notes that “each Pilgrim drank at least a half gallon of beer a day, which they preferred even to water. This daily inebriation led their governor, William Bradford, to comment on his people's ‘notorious sin,’ which included their ‘drunkenness and uncleanliness’ and rampant ‘sodomy.’”
Soon after the feast the brutish Miles Standish “got his bloody prize,” Dr. Apidta writes:
“He went to the Indians, pretended to be a trader, then beheaded an Indian man named Wituwamat. He brought the head to Plymouth, where it was displayed on a wooden spike for many years, according to Gary B. Nash, ‘as a symbol of white power.’ Standish had the Indian man's young brother hanged from the rafters for good measure. From that time on, the whites were known to the Indians of Massachusetts by the name ‘Wotowquenange,’ which in their tongue meant cutthroats and stabbers.”
What is certain is that the first feast was not called a “Thanksgiving” at the time; no further integrated dining occasions were scheduled; and the first, official all-Pilgrim “Thanksgiving” had to wait until 1637, when the whites of New England celebrated the massacre of the Wampanoag’s southern neighbors, the Pequots.
The first "official" Thanksgiving was a celebration of a massacre:
Sixteen years after the problematical Plymouth feast, the English tried mightily to erase the Pequots from the face of the Earth, and thanked God for the blessing.
Having subdued, intimidated or made mercenaries of most of the tribes of Massachusetts, the English turned their growing force southward, toward the rich Connecticut valley, the Pequot’s sphere of influence. At the point where the Mystic River meets the sea, the combined force of English and allied Indians bypassed the Pequot fort to attack and set ablaze a town full of women, children and old people.
William Bradford, the former Governor of Plymouth and one of the chroniclers of the 1621 feast, was also on hand for the great massacre of 1637:
"Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire...horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy."
The rest of the white folks thought so, too. “This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots," read Governor John Winthrop’s proclamation. The authentic Thanksgiving Day was born.
Most historians believe about 700 Pequots were slaughtered at Mystic. Many prisoners were executed, and surviving women and children sold into slavery in the West Indies. Pequot prisoners that escaped execution were parceled out to Indian tribes allied with the English. The Pequot were thought to have been extinguished as a people. According to IndyMedia, “The Pequot tribe numbered 8,000 when the Pilgrims arrived, but disease had brought their numbers down to 1,500 by 1637. The Pequot ‘War’ killed all but a handful of remaining members of the tribe.”
Hat tip to the long-gone Ductape Fatwa's blog Enemy of the State, regarding what should more properly be called a National Day of Mourning.

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