While the month of November has been designated as National American Indian Heritage Month since 1990, the main time of the month that a large number of Americans would think of Indians is normally at the time of Thanksgiving. Yet, the depth of the meaning of this holiday is lost somewhere between the football games and the turkey and pumpkin pie. The initial Thanksgiving event was not simply an opportunity for people to gorge themselves on good food. At the very heart of this harvest festival were mutual efforts to suspend adverse reactions to cultural differences, racial prejudices, and divergent religious perspectives. Sincere overtures of trust and friendship germinated between Pilgrim leaders and key figures among the Wampanoag Indians.
Despite the Progressive-revisionist historians attempts to focus on the disparities between the English and the Indians, and zero in on the animosities and aggression between the two races of people, there are seeds of hope that are often ignored in the efforts of historical analysis. Unfortunately over time, s, numerous myths have developed regarding this foundation festival that became known as the “First Thanksgiving.” In reality, that it was the first effort at a joint celebration of feasting and thanksgiving is a myth in and of itself. It was not the first. Sadly, many other myths have effectively diminished the deeper or more substantive meaning woven into the relationships which were established in that moment in time.
Additionally, perspectives on the holiday have changed as America changed, but this holiday still stands as a reminder of a single event in time when two diverse cultures managed celebrate the value of life together. Often in recounting the Thanksgiving story, it is viewed from the perspective of the Pilgrims since their record is the only known written documentation of the festivities. However, if one views this festival from a perspective of the American Indians, minus the Progressive-revisionist vitriol, it is truly possible to widen the scope of meaning of the event. And, even though it is historically viewed as a “Thanksgiving” for the Pilgrims, it has more significance when viewed as a Thanksgiving for the Indians. It is likely that the Wampanoag may have been celebrating their fifth thanksgiving ceremony of the year at the “First Thanksgiving.”
The Wampanoag Indians, onto whose land the Pilgrims stumbled, also celebrated bountiful harvests because they relied on the harvesting of crops as well as fishing and hunting for survival. Wampanoag peoples were one of the many Algonquian speaking peoples of the Northeast Woodland nations which would offer thanks to the Creator at the beginning of the new year in the Spring and at the time of planting, at various points during the Summer growing season (i.e. early harvest, etc.), in the Autumn at the end of the harvest season, and even in the midst of the Winter. Like the Europeans who had celebrated harvest festivals for thousands of years, the American Indians would celebrate and offer gratitude for a bountiful harvest.
It is not beyond the scope of understanding that the Wampanoag could have been celebrating their fifth “thanksgiving” ceremony of the year when Governor William Bradford invited them a modest meal to express the Pilgrim gratitude for the assistance that the colonists had received during the summer of 1621. The great chief Massasoit transformed the intent of the governor into an Indian celebration. Bradford’s intent was to show his gratitude and the Pilgrim’s gratitude for Squanto’s assistance and for Massasoit’s graciousness as the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag people. However, Massasoit just took charge of the situation, and in reality 90 Wampanoags showed up for the meal! Surely, it would have been cause for great concern from the English viewpoint, as their bountiful harvest would have been devoured.
Yet the intent of the Indians was not to eliminate the Pilgrim harvest that had been toiled over all summer. Even though the English extended the invitation, the Indians brought food with them, and it was the Wampanoags who provided most of the food. In fact, they provided so much that there was food enough for feasting for three days. The Indians overwhelmed the aliens with their hospitality. This was the Wampanoag way. Massasoit essentially took the position of the good and gracious host. So in reality, this celebration was not what one could describe as a Pilgrim or Protestant “Thanksgiving.” In fact, the event took on the characteristics of an Indian harvest celebration. In effect, it sealed a peace treaty that had been initiated by Massasoit the previous March.
What shows up in history is that two culturally diverse peoples gathered together in a lengthy celebration of joy because they shared a common human experience of demonstrating gratitude for a bountiful harvest, and the appreciation of life itself. To the Wampanoag Indians it would have been a natural request to celebrate a bountiful harvest and express gratitude to the Creator, but in a different manner than the Christian community. To the Wampanoag, who probably understood very little of the Pilgrim religion, it was simply harvest festival, but it was a most extraordinary affair. The Wampanoag had never celebrated with people from an entirely different race or culture. It meant that the possibility for establishing peace and harmony existed at this point in time.
This joint harvest festival provided common ground for the two diverse groups to come together over something as simple as food. But it was more than just food that they were sharing. This harvest was the result of the Indians and the Pilgrims working side by side toward a common and vital goal: mutually assured survival. Pilgrim and Wampanoag shared mutual respect, trust, and friendship in this brief moment in time. They may not have known what the future would hold, but at that moment, what was important was that they were alive and well and they could celebrate the value of life. Certainly, historical records only show a period of approximately 40 years of peace between the Europeans and the Wampanoag Confederation before their original friendship eroded.
Unfortunately, the study of history focuses entirely too much attention on the differences, disagreements, and disputes that result from the clashes between cultures rather than a genuine examination of the ways in which people came together and learned to overcome differences and to get along with one another. Focusing on the breakdown between peoples without attention given to the healthy elements of relationships is like obsessing on the destructiveness and neglecting the dynamics of goodness and harmony in the relationship. The story of the creation of National American Indian Heritage Month is a similar story – one of extending friendship and harmony rather than divisiveness, hatred, and resentment.
It is truly possible that the races spread across the planet were intended to learn from one another and blend the good from each race and culture into the fabric of human culture. By regurgitating the bitter and divisive times, people only learn to hold onto the pain, the resentment, or desire for revenge. While the human heart is capable of both hate and compassion, it is more within the Indian nature to embrace the way of compassion and forgiveness – long before the coming of the English, or the French, or Spanish. Many of the Indian peoples could understand the value of that in such times. The return to such values and the way of such ideals is something America needs right now. It is good we remember the genuine goodness of the American Indian – at Thanksgiving and beyond the month of November.