The meaning of Thanksgiving

The Pulse, autumn/winter 2013

There was one hungry month. And then another. And one more.  And cold, rainy autumn. And long, freezy winter. And when the spring came, people didn’t have a lot of food to eat and seeds to sow.

This is the beginning of the history of survival of more than a hundred brave men and women, elders and kids, the first Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower.
The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. For over two months, the 102 passengers braved the harsh elements of the vast storm-tossed sea. At first, they wanted to land in Cape Code, but too many Native Americans tribes lived there. Finally, the Pilgrims found the free land – now we all know this place as a Plymouth, MA, the first town in America.
Arriving in Massachusetts in late November, the Pilgrims sought a suitable landing place. On December 11, just before disembarking at Plymouth Rock, they signed the “Mayflower Compact”- America’s first document of civil government and the first one to introduce self-government.
The Pilgrims built a fort there and a lot of shelters. They also built pastures and gardens. Despite the plants they brought with them were good for England’s gardens, they could not take root here. And the Pilgrims failed in planting a garden there. Unprepared for the starvation and sickness of a harsh American winter, nearly half of the Pilgrims died before spring.
They were not only brave but also very religious people. Thus, they made “Days of Prayers” – they prayed, they were starving in the name of the Lord and were begging Him for help. And help came.
Not far from the first settlement was a Native American village. Among them lived Squanto, a former slave. He was born in 1590, and his family was the leaders of the Patuxet tribe. In 1614, he was captured by the Spanish soldiers and taken to Spain against his will. He was young, and smart, and brave, and so he learned Spanish and English, made friends among Europeans and they helped him break free. With the help of his friends, he went to England. When he was finally back home along with a few other former slaves, he agreed to be a guide and a translator between the white men and his own people.
That year, when the Mayflower reached the shore, the Wampanoag tribe and their leaders decided not to communicate with the Pilgrims, so the tribe just watched them. The Wampanoags didn’t come close to the English. If the tribe had been stronger, they might have attacked the Pilgrims – but they were also still weak from the great sickness.
So, Squanto talked to his people. He said, “Be friends the English. Perhaps these men can share our land as friends. Make them come to understand and support each other”. Squanto came to the Pilgrim’s village and offered help. Soon he became more than just a guide and interpreter for the English; he became their friend. He acted as an envoy between his own people and the Pilgrims, he taught them how to survive in the new land, how to hunt and how to plant corn, beans and squash, and gave them a lot of multicolored corn seeds now known as “Indian corn”. He even showed a new way to fertilize plants that the English were not familiar with. He told them to use the small fish that wash up on the shores in great numbers, and then bury those fish in the earth so they would feed the corn.
A good harvest was brought in that fall. It was the first fall when the storages were full and the Pilgrims no longer had to fight for their survival. They had so much food that they made a feast for everybody – for the English and for the Natives, feast for all the people living there. They shared a table, a plate, turkey and veggies, they said their prayers together and thanked the Lord for the help and for new friends. The three-day feast, starting on December 13, 1621, was not the first Thanksgiving in America (thanksgiving services were held in Virginia as early as 1607), but was America’s first Thanksgiving Festival.
For 50 years, the English and the Natives lived in peace. And then the war started. The Pilgrims were not friendly anymore – their kids were born here and, as americans, they claimed all the land as their own. Their grandchildren didn’t remember anymore how to share food and live in peace. In addition, a lot of people from other European countries continued to come to the land of the free. Growing community was in need of new resources.
Once friends, Native Americans became the worst enemies for them. After a long war between English colonists, French colonists and different Indian tribes, the New Americans conquered the Native Americans. They made reservations, prohibited them to pray to their Gods and even took kids from their parents to raise them as Christians.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed national Thanksgiving Day to be held in November. But do you know that the Pequot tribe, who back in the 17th century inhabited much of what is now Connecticut, was federally recognized as a tribe only in 1983? In 1976, with the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Indian Rights Association, the Pequot filed suit against neighboring landowners to recover land which had been illegally sold in 1856 by the State of Connecticut. After seven years, the Pequot and the landowners reached a settlement. The former landowners agreed that the 1856 sale was illegal and joined the Pequot in seeking the Connecticut state government’s support for resolution. The Connecticut Legislature responded by unanimously passing a legislation to petition the federal government to grant tribal recognition to the Mashantucket Pequot. The “Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act” was enacted by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan on Oct. 18, 1983. This settlement granted the Mashantucket Pequot federal recognition, enabling them to repurchase the land covered in the Settlement Act, and place it in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the use of the reservation.
Now a bit more than 2,000 Wampanoags (once a big, strong tribe) have their own place in the American history as the first Thanksgiving Day hosts. They are considered as enrolled members of the nation today (many have ancestry including other tribes and races), and many live near the reservation on Martha’s Vineyard, MA. Some of the Wampanoags are working for the Plimoth Plantation – an open-air museum in Plymoth, MA. It includes Mayflower II (1957), the English Village (1959), the Wampanoag Homesite (1973), the Hornblower Visitor Center (1987), the Craft Center (1992), the Maxwell and Nye Barns (1994) and the Plimoth Grist Mill (2013). You can go there and learn a lot about the first colonists, the Thanksgiving celebration and life in the early days of America.
So, this is the story of the First Thanksgiving, and we should all remember what happened when people forgot how to share, how to help, how to live in peace with others.
Nowadays, there is still a lot of hatred in our world. Some call it “local conflict” but it is still war. This minute, somewhere some kids can’t go to school because they don’t have school, or they don’t have clothes to wear to school, or they don’t have enough water and food to survive, or they don’t have parents to take care of them. This minute, somewhere people throw stones at other people or fire guns. This minute, we are still scared; we don’t know the culture and traditions of different nations to understand them enough. More often we choose to hate because it’s easier than learning from each other.
However, all people are the same. All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy, and all kids dream about new toys. All of us can cry and laugh, be sad and be happy. All of us need food and water. And all of us need friends.
And you can do something to change the world around you. You can donate your old toys or clothes, volunteer with your family at a soup kitchen, give a penny to the Salvation Army. You can help the elders in the nursery homes, participate in United Nations’ and UNESCO’s youth and children’s programs, gather family and friends for a dinner and say “Thank you” for what you have.
This is the meaning of Thanksgiving to me – to teach our kids to be friendly and kind and to share with those in need because we cannot survive in this world alone.

By the way, do you know how to say “thank you” in Wampanoag’s language? Wliwini nidobak!

2 thoughts on “The meaning of Thanksgiving

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