Saturday, November 28, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving! Just Keepin' It Real

The Pilgrims are said to have had the "first" thanksgiving feast in the New World in the autumn of 1621. Isn't that what you were taught in school? Nothing could be further from the truth!

People have given thanks for the bountiful harvests for thousands of years all over the earth. Historical records exist of the ancient Egyptians giving thanks to their gods for the Nile River floods that provided needed irrigation for their crops. The Chinese gave thanks to their gods and honored their ancestors. The Romans and Greeks celebrated with feasts, pageants, and revelry. Across Europe, India, Africa, North America and South America, and the rest of the earth over the millenia, there have been commemorations and feasts of thanksgiving.

The inhabitants of the North American continent were no different than other cultures. They worshipped the Earth Mother who provided the great herds for hunting, the aquatic creatures for fishing, and for bountiful crops of corn and other provisions. While the ceremonies differed from tribe to tribe across the continent, depending on their geographical location and their circumstances, a common thread weaves all mankind together. There is a common belief that some superior being(s) exist that are responsible for satisfying the need for sustenance and the perpetuation of the cyclical order of nature.

Prior to the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620, the Native Americans in the eastern shore of the North American continent had encountered other English and Spanish explorers. European visitors inadvertantly introduced smallpox to the Native American population in 1617. The subsequent plague decimated the population, with nearly half of the Native Americans succumbing to the virulent disease.

One hundred and two Pilgrim emigrants departed England on the Mayflower. During the voyage, one person was lost overboard and a child was born onboard. Of the 102 people who arrived at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, only 50 survived the first winter in the New World. Cold and starvation killed many. Without the generosity of the Native Americans who provided food, many more would probably have died. The Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful.

According to the first newspaper published in America, Publick Occurrences, published on 25 September 1690 by Benjamin Harris, a group of Christianized Native Americans selected the date and place for the celebration of the first thanksgiving with the Pilgrims.

In the Fall of 1621, the thanksgiving commemoration took place. We know that it lasted for three days and included a period of fasting, prayer, religious services, and finally a shared meal. There were 90 Native Americans involved in this affair. While this celebration was never repeated, it has become the model for what most U.S. citizens celebrate today as Thanksgiving. This "first thanksgiving" marked a tranquil moment in time before tensions escalated and tempers flared.

The Pilgrims viewed the Native Americans as savages requiring the salvation of Christianity. They failed to recognize the deeply spiritual nature of the Native American people and their bond with the gods of nature. The Pilgrims aggressively tried to recruit the "savages." Those who accepted Christianity found themselves ostracized by their tribes and accepted by the Pilgrims as mere disciples. The Pilgrims' tampering with the beliefs of the natives greatly offended the tribal leaders.

The Pilgrims were not adept at farming in their new homeland. Whereas the Native Americans were experts at growing maize, the Pilgrims were slow to learn. Their harvests of 1621 and 1622 were meager, and the Native Americans offered to exchange some of their harvest for beads and other materials. The Pilgrims eagerly responded but, in time, demonstrated bad faith by failing to fulfill their side of the bargain. The Native American leaders, proud men of their word, were insulted by the rude way in which they were treated. Tempers flared and, in time, open hostilities broke out.

History chonicles the subsequent colonialization, the infringement of colonists on Native American lands, the violation of the Native Americans' sacred beliefs and burial sites, and the forcing of the Native Americans farther and farther west. Treaties, massacres, seizure of lands, relocations, formation of reservations -- all of these represent a poor return for the Native Americans' investment of generosity.

Nevertheless, the commemoration of the "First Thanksgiving" that most U.S. citizens know is really not a celebration of bounties of the land. It should, instead, be a time to consider what might have been -- an honorable, mutually beneficial collaboration between two disparate peoples from different parts of the world.

In the meantime, remember that the celebration of thankfulness for the bounties of the land, the oceans, the streams, and of those things that make life wonderful did not begin with the Pilgrims. The Native Americans were commemorating these bounties long before the Pilgrims arrived. The customs still survive, more beautiful and meaningful today because of their fragile and spiritual nature.

Learn more about Native American thanksgiving culture in the article about the Celebration of Green Corn.

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