Go to: Indigenous Peoples' Literature Index





What Is Thanksgiving?

by Thomas A. Ferguson


What do you think of, when asked about Thanksgiving?

We learned from the wisdom of our elders to thank the Creator for; Mother Earth... Father Sky... Grandfather Moon... our Uncles the Four Winds... our Cousins the Stars, and... our Brothers and Sisters the animals. The Algonquins believed that humans were not distinct from or superior to nature, but rather part of nature. We also believe that animals could take human form. Moreover, we believed that a long time ago, humans and animals spoke the same language. Then there was a cataclysm that upset the universe and only a few shaman retained the ability to speak with the animals. We thank the Creator for all our relatives, for what is good in the world, and for all our harvest, not just one crop, but all. We give thanks for the strawberry, it is the first berry of the new spring, we give thanks to the tree spirit, for the warmth it provides in our fires and the saps that flow in the fall, we honor the animal spirit, who laid down its life in order for the people to go on. Subsequently we give thanks for each harvest year round. It is said, when the Creator created the Universe, "He placed his hand on the Whole thing... so everything is spiritual." He never told us to separate anything... but to look upon everything that he has made us as holy and sacred and act accordingly with respect.

The Thanksgiving the greater society celebrates, occurs during a beautiful time of the year; thus, Thanksgiving time means, as Joyce Sequichie Hifler so eloquently writes, ... the first hard freeze, the first spitting ice to rattle the dry autumn leaves. Early morning frost crystallizes grasses in rods of light. The last bit of bright color is gone from the woods... thus; a time of great solitude and for giving thanks for all the gifts provided for us by the Creator, especially for our families health and well being. Thanksgiving traditionally denotes a harmonious time in the cycle of seasons; further examination of the times suggest otherwise. For Algonquins, the beheading of King Philip, son of Chief Massasoyt, and the sale of the Wampanoags into slavery has a different connotation then being harmonious. During the time of the Puritans; every Church, every Synagogue, and every Quaker Meeting House was built on money generated from Indian slavery. (Professor Robert Venables)

Not many of our young understand the true history behind this most sacred celebration. Traditionally the many indigenous cultures that inhabited North America gave thanks to the Creator, not once a year, but after every harvest, be it agriculture or game. These celebrations would last for several days. One such celebration happened at Patuxet, alias New Plimmoth, now known as Plymouth Rock, in August of 1621. It is this celebration that many of us were taught to picture as the "First Thanksgiving." This view is based on the mythological concept and approach Western minds have when dealing with the various Native Populations .

There are interesting events leading up to what is termed "Thanksgiving." What is being celebrated in the USA and Canada is based on a mythological concept that must be addressed.

To create an example of this myth, I decided to do some research. I asked middle school, and university students: what comes to your mind, when I ask you about Thanksgiving? Most then gladly answered, in sort of the same fashion: "Some Pilgrims, who arrived at Plymouth, were fed by some Indians," and most of these students had the opinion that the Pilgrims were very religious and both the Native and the Pilgrim lived in harmony. The myth is perpetuated and evolves from the lack of understanding the true history - ninety-nine percent of North America's history is before contact.

August 11, 1620, a cold, and windy night, the Mayflower forced to anchor in the Bay of Paomet, alias Cape Cod. The Pilgrims were traveling to Jamestown, Virginia. As their precursor, Columbus, they too were lost. Running low on supplies, they anchored in the Bay of Cape Cod. On August 15, 1620, religious leaders such as William Bradford and Edward Winslow following a guide book published in Europe by Richard Hakluyt titled Virginia Richly Valued, lead these God-fearing Pilgrims to raid graves.(Mourt's Relation 1622) In the midst of this sacrilegious act they were discovered by the Nausets, the local indigenous band of Algonquins who subsequently chased the Pilgrims off the Cape. This is when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.

The Algonquin band of Wampanoags, openly welcomed the Pilgrims, taught them how to farm thus, providing them with food and saving them from starvation. The first Native American to encounter the Pilgrims was Samoset, who was a sagamore or chief of a distant band of Algonquins - the Morattiggons, he was on an extended fishing trip visiting the Wampanoags, when he boldly walked into the Pilgrims camp saluting them in English, bidding them welcome. The Englishman noted, that on Friday February 16, 1621, that Samoset by himself entered boldly into their camp saying "hello Englishman," and bidding them welcome. They also noted "he was a man of free speech, as far as he could express his mind." Samoset spent that first night with the Pilgrims describing to them the whole Country side, and of every Province, and of every sagamore, and their number of men, and strengths. Samoset stayed the night, leaving the Pilgrims the next morning.

Samoset returned, March 22, 1621, with Squanto, who is most popularized by American schools. He was the only surviving native of the Patuxet, known to the Pilgrims as New Plimmoth. Squanto had just returned from London (he was one of the first twenty captives sold by Hunt, a Master of a ship, who then sold them to Master Slanie who took them to Cornehill, England) and found, upon his return, that his people who had inhabited Patuxet had succumbed to an extraordinary plague. (this is the same village the Pilgrims are calling New Plimmoth) It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, and to fertilize earthen mounds with fish i.e., herrings or shads. The following fall, after hunting fowl, the Pilgrims harvested 20 acres of corn, six acres of barley and peas all according to the manner of the Algonquin agriculturist, they invited the Sachem Woosamaquin otherwise known as Chief Massasoyt, (the Wampanoags chief who first welcomed the Pilgrims to share the land) to celebrate their harvest. Accepting, Chief Massasoyt brought five deer, and ninety of his men with him to the feast. So now we can sort of figure what was feasted on at the "First Thanksgiving:" a bird, corn, peas, roasted venison, and beer.

This feast lasted five days and was celebrated as a treaty, which was supposed to benefit both Algonquins and Pilgrims. Whether Massasoyt would have welcomed, let alone enter into an agreement with these Pilgrims had he known that the past August when the Mayflower crew were lost, hungry, and cold, they had blasphemously raided Indian graves in search for corn - to eat, and the personal artifacts of the dead - to reduce their enormous debt, no one will ever know. But within a generation of that treaty, the children of the Pilgrims who were at the first Thanksgiving, children not even born at the time of the feast, beheaded King Philip, son of Chief Massasoyt. They placed his head on a pole and left it in the fort for 25 years, as in a celebration. These children of the "First Thanksgiving," then sold the Wampanoag's and other Algonquin bands of people, without whom their parents would have almost certainly starved to death, into slavery in the Mediterranean and the West Indies.

The events over the years leading up to this betrayal paint a clearer picture of how this turn of events could of happened.

Chief Massasoyt had fathered two girls and three boys, and before his death he asked the General Court in Plymouth to give English names to his two sons. The Pilgrims subsequently named the former "Alexander" and the latter "Philip." After Alexander died, probably of poisoning, Philip became chief, and became known as "King Philip." According to Josephy, (The Patriot Chiefs, 1976) King Philip was as racially proud as an Indian ever was. He saw clearly what the colonists were doing to his people, and from the beginning recognized them as enemies who would have to be stopped. Despite the friendship between Massasoyt and the colonial authorities, and although, he was out numbered two to one, King Philip went to war. The interracial friction that resulted in this conflict had actually begun to spread years before his father's death. This was mostly because of trespassing issues, in which the natives had no such laws or understanding of such laws. Anger, mixed with anxiety, lead to an explosive situation. Anxiety with the continuing and regularly numbers of Englishmen who were arriving more and more often and who were providing material attractions that lured natives to them. Anger that Christianity was undermining the authority of the chiefs, and dividing the people.

Time and again the Indians patriotic attempts to maintain life and freedom were undermined and defeated by ancient animosities between the various tribes who were forced to deal with new European influence. The whites readily recognized the hostilities that existed among the various tribes they met, and from the beginning were quick to use these native rivalries, jealousies, enmities, and ambitions to their own advantage. They followed the "divide and conquer" policy and played ancient foes against one another for the benefit of themselves. This attitude, stemmed in part from the Aristotelian theory that some persons were by nature meant to be masters and others slaves, it combined with the divide and conquer tactics that worked so well for Columbus in the Caribbean and in Mexico for Cortes. Both of these pitting native against native.

It is no wonder these divide and conquer tactics worked so well, with King Philip's War, in the treachery committed by the traitor Alderman. To the God-fearing Puritans of New England, Philip was a satanic agent, "a hellhound, fiend, serpent, caitiff, and dog." Somehow, in their panic and wrath, they conceived of him as a rebel, leading a conspiracy and an uprising against established authority. It was as if invading Indians had landed on the coast of England and had then considered rebels and Englishmen who might have risen to throw them out. On August 12, 1676, the English, guided by Alderman who surrounded King Philip, and Annawon, Philip's war chief, while they slept. In the morning Philip was shot by Alderman, a traitor against his people.

We also learn from reading Josephy that when it was discovered that it was indeed Philip who was assassinated, the English broke into a cheer and exultantly decapitated and quartered the sachem's body and carried his head back to Plymouth, where in celebration, it was stuck on a pole and remained on public display for twenty-five years. These are the actions of the people who considered themselves to be "civilized," and the Native American to be "Savages."

In the end, my question: (what comes to your mind, when I ask about Thanksgiving?) turns out not to be so simple especially when one takes a closer look at the true history of this holiday which we are celebrating this week. What we should consider is that the Thanksgiving Celebration can actually be divided into three distinct celebrations; (1) traditional celebrations of thanksgiving to the Creator by the indigenous population, (2) the thanksgiving celebrated between Massasoyt, the Algonquin Chief of the Wampanoags, and the thankful pilgrims for the knowledge received by the natives; and, (3) the beheading of King Philip and the selling into slavery the offsprings of the natives of the first thanksgiving.


Begin Your journey, learn the Steps to
Your Indian Ancestry
Beginners Lesson in Genealogy




American Indian Heritage Foundation
Indians.org Home | Indigenous Peoples' Literature Index Page

The Tribal Directory



The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.






Birth, Marriage & Death Collection