Monday, November 18, 2013

How Do Native Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Sarah J. McNeal, multipublished author of western, time travel, paranormal, historical and contemporary stories.

How do Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? 

Here at the eleventh hour, I’ve been trying to come up with something about Thanksgiving for my blog. I started doing some research and became curious about how the Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Considering that the European pilgrims were the beginning of the end of most Native American peoples, I wondered if they resented the celebration of Thanksgiving since it is, in large part, the celebration of the survival of those pilgrims the American Indians pulled out of the pot and saved and who, later on, took advantage of the American Indians and practically extinguished them from the Earth. Well, I learned some very surprising things in my research.

Amazingly, in 1614, Squanto (aka, Tisquantum), a Patuxet (one of the 50 tribes that make up the Wampanoag Confederacy) in New England, was kidnapped when he was about 30 and taken across the Atlantic to Malaga, Spain where he was sold into slavery. Spanish monks bought him and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615 where he became a ship builder for John Slany and learned English. He joined an expedition and returned to his homeland in New England 1619. When he returned to the village where he was raised, his family and entire tribe had been exterminated by a plague. Imagine the great spirit of this man when he was introduced to the Pilgrims took pity on them, showed them how to grow potatoes, tomatoes and corn and showed them how to survive the devastation of winter. I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I was awestruck by the generosity of this man.

The concept of that first Thanksgiving was not introduced by the Pilgrims, but by the New England tribes who celebrated the fall harvest. It was the Native Americans who brought the food to the Pilgrims. They were not just there as guests for some legendary invititation from the Pilgrims. In the end they paid a terrible price for their generosity. Squanto died in 1622. Shortly after his death, the Colonial authorities found reason to massacre most of the men, women and children from the Pequot tribe (another tribe in the Wampanoag Confederacy). They enslaved most of the women and children that survived and sent them to the West Indies. As of 1975, only 21 Pequot live around the Mystic River in Connecticut.

Modern day Wampanoag do not celebrate Thanksgiving with feasting and merriment. Since 1970, they celebrate it with fasting and mourning. Can you blame them?

The Dakota have a belief that a person who is evil has a secret heart that he keeps hidden, sort of like a hidden agenda, and the hero must find the secret place and destroy it. For the Dakota, the Pilgrims had a secret heart of bigotry, hatred, greed and self-righteousness. The modern day Dakota do celebrate Thanksgiving, but for a different reason.  They celebrate the fact that they are survivors of the onslaught by Europeans that killed between 10-30 million Native Americans. And, should we forget, this feast day was always a celebration of harvest by the native peoples of America.

I’ll still celebrate Thanksgiving with my family with gratitude about the blessings I’ve received in my life, but I’ll do it with a different understanding of our Native Americans and why some of them will be celebrating Thanksgiving in other ways and for different reasons. Honestly, I never gave thought to how Thanksgiving might be perceived by American Indians until now. While I give thanks, I will also think about Squanto and the generous heart he had for ALL people. I hope I can be just a little like him in spirit.
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  1. Sarah, thanks for this. Even though my father's grandmother was American Indian, my family has always celebrated Thanksgiving -- as a time to count our blessings; to be thankful for family and friends. I look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, because those two holidays encourage people to focus on the positive -- not to forget the negative, but to hope we'll never repeat it, and that someday we can overcome the scars.

    HUGS to you, sweet lady!

  2. Sarah, I never gave thought to how or if Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving until now, either. Thank you for reminding us that we owe a great debt to the peoples our forefathers took advantage of and devastated.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. A little further info: Squanto, or Tisquantum, may have been poisoned by some Wampanoag Indians who believed he had sold them out to the Pilgrims. There is also considerable evidence that Squanto, taking advantage of his ability to speak English, played the colonists and the Wampanoags against each other, causing the chief Massasoit to deeply distrust him and almost have him killed at one point. I use this story in class to demonstrate one of the main themes I stress: Indians are people. In any given circumstance, Indians were apt to act like actual human beings, which often involved them looking out for their own best interests. Here's a site with some pretty good info on Squanto:

  4. Sarah, I grew up in Massachusetts and didn't know some of this history. Very informative and thoroughly researched. It certainly adds a few new and different layers to my idea of Thanksgiving.

  5. Sarah, thank you for a wonderful post. I do think Squanto needs special recognition, whatever his motives, for helping the sanctimonious Pilgrims survive.

  6. Thank you for coming by, Kathleen. I was amazed to find that some Native Americans don't celebrate Thanksgiving. I'm happy to learn that your family does celebrate it.

  7. I know, Lyn. It was completely surprised by the fact that some don't celebrate Thanksgiving. I think of the holiday of being more about giving thanks to God for all our blessing throughout the year. I never realized there might be some controversy about it.

  8. Troy, thank you for the link to that site. I'm going to check it out. That was very interesting information you gave about Squanto.I really appreciate you took the time to come and comment.

  9. Hey Pat. When I researched for this blog, I had no idea this controversy would come up. It came as a complete surprise to me, too. Thanks for coming by.

  10. Thank you so much for coming by Caroline. I really appreciate your comment. Boy, those Pilgrims weren't all they were cracked up to be. Quite a shock to me.

  11. Great post, Sarah! I didn't know any of this and so sad about Squanto. He was a remarkable man with a generous heart.

  12. Thanks, Sarah, for an enlightening post.

  13. Diane, all this came as a surprise to me, too. It's amazing what you can find out by researching. Next time I might have to ge to Troy for some fascinating info. He always has his finger on the pulse of history. All this just told me we never really know the real truths behind historical events. Thank you so much for coming by.

  14. Kristy, thank you so much for dropping in and commenting. I really appreciate it.

  15. Loved your post. I have always had a great respect for Indian tribes and their customs. I am sorry for the way they've been treated and can understand why they wouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving the way it is done in our country. Being thankful for what we have is why I like to celebrate the holiday

  16. Historians, of course, celebrate holidays by being buzzkills! We can't help it. My worst faux pas was not stopping myself from explaining to my daughter's church group who organized a maypole dance that the whole thing was a pagan ritual centered on the phallus (which is why the Pilgrims got so mad at their party-hearty English neighbor Thomas Morton when he put one up- but that's another story!) I have had Native American friends, though, who've said that their favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving is by moving into a white neighbor's house and saying "This is mine now, Thanks!" :-)

  17. Paisley, I think it's always interesting to get another perspective about things we often take for granted. When I researched this piece, I really was just looking for what foods or activities Native Americans used to celebrate Thanksgiiving, but I found they had a whole different attitude about it.
    I agree with you that most of us use the ocassion to show thanks for our blessings and not as much about the Pilgrims and the original Thanksgiving.
    Thank you so much for coming.

  18. Troy, I laughed through this second comment. I loved the part about moving into the white man's house and saying, "Thanks". I also liked the part about historians celebrating by being buzzkills. Scientists are good at being buzzkills, too. My dad was one of those--always with the facts that destroyed my fantasies. It's always such a pleasure to read your comments. It's almost as much fun as reading your blogs. You're quite the treasure.

  19. What an interesting post -- made even more so by the comments of the historian, Troy. More evidence that the victors (usually the most literate persons of the age) get to dictate which historical "facts" are known by the current generation and that, by the time ALL of the facts come out (if they ever do), the folklore and traditions have become too beloved to alter the holidays for those who really want to believe the original, warmhearted stories were true.

    That's why, even though myth, sex and/or Mother Nature are at the base of ALL of our holidays, it was just easier to make up a new meaning for pagan rituals than to get people to give them up. So, don't worry a bit... your buzz-killing facts won't change people's minds about their holidays any more than sprinkling fairy dust would.

    As for me, I will continue to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday as one day in which thanks are voiced for all good things, while ignoring the reality that so many other things are not good.

  20. Sarah, thank you for the reminder about the First Thanksgiving and how much the Indians did for those starving early American.

    It is shameful how we treated the Native Americans in this country. There was certainly enough land to share yet we were greedy.

  21. Bonnie-Sue, thank you so much for your comment. I have to say, there is a whole lot of history that seems to alter according to public opinion as time goes by. I like discovering the actual facts about history, even if they're hard to hear.
    Like you, my family and I celebrate the day in remembrance of all the things we're grateful for.
    Thank you so much for dropping by.

  22. Hey Linda. I agree. The Europeans lied and fanagled the Native Americans until they got what they wanted. America is a mighty big country. Seems like we could have been more humane and generous.
    I appreciate your comment. All the best to you.


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