Native American people who first encountered the pilgrims at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts play a major role in the imagination of American people today. Contemporary celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday focus on the idea that the “first Thanksgiving” was a friendly gathering of two disparate groups—or even neighbors—who shared a meal and lived harmoniously.
In actuality, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and an effort at rarely achieved, temporary peaceful coexistence. Although Native American people have always given thanks for the world around them, the Thanksgiving celebrated today is more a combination of Puritan religious practices and the European festival called Harvest Home, which then grew to encompass Native foods.
The First People
In 1620, the area from Narragansett Bay in eastern Rhode Island to the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, was the home of the Wampanoag. Although culturally, politically, religiously, and economically similar to the Narragansett people to the west, Wampanoags did not speak the same language and considered the Narragansett their traditional enemies.
The Wampanoag practiced agriculture and followed a seasonal round of gardening and fishing near the coast in spring and summer, moving to sheltered inland locations for hunting in fall and winter. They cultivated several varieties of corn, beans, and squash. These were dried and stored in underground caches and—along with numerous wild vegetables, nuts, and fruits—traded to other groups for things they needed, but did not produce themselves.
Wampanoag society was stratified and social position was inherited. Each village was headed by a leader called a sachem, who ruled by persuasion and by consent of the people. Ordinarily, the sachemship was passed down through the male line in “royal” families, but a woman could inherit the position if there was no male heir. A sachem could be usurped by someone belonging to a sachem family who was able to garner the allegiance of enough people. An unjust or unwise sachem could find himself with no one to lead, as sachems had no authority to force the people to do things. If people did not like their sachem, they were free to move and switch allegiances.
There were 69 autonomous villages within the Wampanoag nation. The sachem of each village collected tribute from the people of his village, such as a portion of the hunt and the harvest. This food was redistributed to the needy of each village. In 1620, one very influential sachem of the Wampanoag was a remarkable statesman named Massasoit.
Spiritual beliefs involved a reciprocal relationship with nature. Offerings in the form of food and precious objects, such as shell beads, were given back to the earth to express thankfulness and respect to supernatural beings. The Wampanoag people understood that one couldn’t keep taking from the earth without giving something back. It has long been customary for horticultural Indian people to have ceremonies in which they express their thanks for a bountiful harvest. The Wampanoag celebrated their harvest with a ceremony that combined feasting, dancing, and ceremonial games with a “give away” in which families gave away personal possessions to others in the community who were in need.
From 1616–1617, three to four years before the European adventurers and religious refugees anchored the Mayflower in Cape Cod Bay, the Indians of southern New England had been decimated by diseases introduced by European explorers. The effects of the diseases were particularly hard felt along the coast. Whole villages were wiped out; historians estimate that as many as three-fourths of the Wampanoags were killed. The entire population of the Wampanoag village of Patuxet was wiped out by a terrible plague. When Europeans founded Plimoth Plantation amid the ruins of Patuxet, they found the human bones littering the ground because there had been no one left to bury the dead.
Source: "Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth – A Study Guide," produced by Native Knowledge 360, an education initiative of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Reprinted with permission and in gratitude.
Image: The First Thanksgiving, 1621, J.L.G. Ferris. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.