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. (This is the last of a three-part series.)
The Harvest Celebration
As a result of the help the Europeans received from their new allies, they overcame their inexperience and—by the fall of their first year in Wampanoag country, 1621 —they achieved a successful harvest. They planted their fields with a mixture of European seeds and corn given to them by Massasoit. Their foreign seeds did not do well, but the corn crop saved them.
They decided to celebrate their success with a harvest festival, the Harvest Home, which they most likely had most likely celebrated as children in Europe. The Harvest Home consisted of non-stop feasting and drinking, sporting events, and parading in the fields shooting off muskets. This is the celebration that Edward Winslow relates in his letter of December 11, 1621. This letter is the principle surviving written record specifically describing the events of the “First Thanksgiving.”
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.*
Although there is nothing in this letter to suggest the giving of thanks, this is the celebration that has traditionally been associated with the contemporary Thanksgiving holiday. The “First Thanksgiving” was based on customs that the Europeans brought with them. Although traditional Wampanoag foods such as wild duck, goose, and turkey were part of the menu, the Indian contribution to the event was five deer, which were roasted. The robust ale, made from the one successful English crop of barley, was the main non-Native food. In many ways this three-day feast symbolizes a rarely achieved relationship of peaceful coexistence between Indians and Europeans in the 17th century.
Although the peaceful relations established by Massasoit were often strained by dishonest, aggressive, and brutal actions on the part of the colonists, Massasoit kept his part of the treaty all his life. Upon his death in 1661, forty years after the landing of the first “boat people,” the fragile peace began to deteriorate. In 1675, full-scale war erupted, ending with the defeat of the Wampanoag under Massasoit’s son, Pometacom, called King Philip by the English. Though decimated by European diseases and defeated in war, the Wampanoag continued to survive through further colonization in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.
The Wampanoag Today
Today the three primary communities of Wampanoag people in Massachusetts are Mashpee on Cape Cod, Aquinnah (Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard, and Herring Pond in south Plymouth. Aquinnah and Mashpee are both federally recognized tribes, Aquinnah having been so since 1987 and Mashpee since May 2007.
The Wampanoag people live within their ancestral homelands and still largely sustain themselves as their ancestors did by hunting, fishing, gardening, and gathering. There are many fine artists who practice traditional basketry, wood carving, pottery, and wampum-making. While there were several generations in which the Wampanoag language was not in use, the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project has now been ongoing for the past twelve years. There is a steadily growing increase in fluency, and young children hearing it as a first language. Additionally, the Wampanoag maintain a rich and vital oral history and connection to the land. The Mashpee Wampanoag hold their annual powwow on the 4th of July weekend every year and the Aquinnah host their annual gathering in September.
Thanksgiving is a combination of Puritan religious practices and the European harvest festival, which now includes Native foods. It is still composed of a display of plenty, focused on an elaborate feast. Today’s Thanksgiving football games are the modern equivalent of the English farmer’s medieval harvest- time tradition of staging sporting events, such as leaping, vaulting, and archery. The turkey shoot, which survives in some areas, has evolved from the medieval practice of “exercising arms.”
*Mourt, George. A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: Mourt’s Relation. New York: Corinth Books, 1963.
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.