Native Americans' Half Of The First Thanksgiving Story Is Often Glossed Over : Consider This from NPR The commonly-told version of the first Thanksgiving story leaves out a lot: The indigenous Wampanoag people who lived in a complex society long before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock; Squanto escaping bondage in Spain before becoming an emissary to the Pilgrims; and the long legacy of violent displacement that followed.

Paula Peters, a writer and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, still lives near where the Pilgrims made landfall on her ancestral homeland. She talks about how the 1621 feast fits into history.

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The Indigenous Stories Glossed Over In The Typical 'First Thanksgiving' Story

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Underneath the cornucopia of harvest-themed influencer posts on social media and weeks of Turkey dinner game-planning, there is a story. You know the one.


STEPHEN SHEA: (As Linus van Pelt) In the year 1621, the pilgrims held their first Thanksgiving feast.

CORNISH: Linus lays it out pretty well in that cartoon classic, "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."


SHEA: (As Linus van Pelt) They invited the great Indian chief Massasoit, who brought 90 of his brave Indians and a great abundance of food.

CORNISH: Those pilgrims had fled religious persecution in England, sailed on the Mayflower, which landed at Plymouth Rock, made it through a rough first winter, eventually met the local Indigenous people who taught them to farm and fish. And that autumn, they all celebrated.


SHEA: (As Linus van Pelt) Elder William Brewster, who was a minister, said a prayer that went something like this. We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety in a new land. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for freedom and justice.

CHRISTOPHER DEFARIA: (As Patricia 'Peppermint Patty' Reichardt) Amen.

CORNISH: And maybe that's as far as the story went in your elementary school before you were off to trace your hand with a marker to fashion a construction paper turkey.

Needless to say, that story leaves out a lot.

PAULA PETERS: There's only one paragraph that is written about that first harvest event, and it's written in William Bradford's journal of Plymouth plantation.

CORNISH: That's Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Her ancestors could have been at that feast table 400 years ago, although the history passed down through her culture suggests they weren't exactly invited.

PETERS: As part of their feast of celebration of the harvest, their militia decided to rally off gunshots from their muskets. And that was deemed threatening to the local Wampanoag, who showed up armed and ready for battle. When they realized that there was not a threat, they were invited to stay.

CORNISH: And, she says, it's not just the perspective of Indigenous Americans that have come to be overlooked. It's also what came next.

PETERS: There was a great deal of injustice served upon my ancestors after that initial harvest meal that also doesn't get talked about.

CORNISH: Think about the last line of prayer Linus read. We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world.

Creating that world meant taking land from Indigenous people already living here. It meant forcing Christianity on tribes. And it eventually meant centuries of violent displacement.

PETERS: There's no way, I think, that Massasoit Ousamequin, in 1621, could have imagined that these 51, 52 people would multiply to the degree that they did, which dramatically impacted the lives of the Indigenous people.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - the commonly told story of Thanksgiving glosses over what really happened when colonists crossed paths with Native Americans, and the Indigenous people living near Plymouth Rock today are still living with the consequences.


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, November 24.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. To understand what Thanksgiving means to Indigenous people, you have to start way before the pilgrims show up.

PETERS: We have archaeological evidence that shows that our ancestors have been here for more than 12,000 years.

CORNISH: Writer Paula Peters again, from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation.

PETERS: The popular narrative that is perpetuated with the Thanksgiving holiday really doesn't extend much beyond the 1620, which is the date etched in stone, literally, at Plymouth Rock.

CORNISH: Peters told me that by the time European settlers arrived, the Wampanoag people were part of a complex society.

PETERS: They were farmers. They were fishermen. They were hunters. They had a sophisticated form of government. The societies were based on a sachem being a leader in each village, and there were also clans that were led by clan leaders, more often than not women. And then there was a great leader, a Massasoit, who provided leadership for the people. So it was a much more sophisticated lifestyle than the Puritans would have given us credit for.

CORNISH: Can you talk about the survival of the winter going into what we've come to know as that kind of autumn feast? How did the Wampanoag actually help the pilgrims?

PETERS: Well, actually in the first winter, they did not. And there was a first encounter, which was really just a Wampanoag attack on the exploring party, because the exploring party of the Mayflower had dug up food caches and stolen corn. And they had also, perhaps unwittingly, but they had dug up graves. So they didn't really leave a very good calling card to start with. It wasn't until the spring of 1621 that the Massasoit Ousamequin sent some of his emissaries, Squanto and Samoset, to the English village and welcomed them in their own language. And there's a point where I like to stop and say, people should be asking, why is it that these Natives speak English to begin with?

CORNISH: Can you give us the answer?

PETERS: The answer is very, very telling. Squanto, we know, was captured along with about 19 other men from his village of Patuxent and sold into slavery in Spain. And he's the only one that we know of that ultimately finds his way back again. By the time he finds his way back in 1619, the village of Patuxent was completely wiped out by a plague that had been brought over by European ships.

So Squanto returned, really, a man without a country. And he ends up becoming this emissary to the English, who have ironically landed in the village of Patuxent. So there was all of this cleared land for gardens and cleared land for homes. But what isn't mentioned is that in order for those settlers to have settled there, they had to literally sweep away the bleached bones of the dead people of Patuxent, probably Squanto's mother and father for all we know. So that backstory is very critical.

CORNISH: It occurs to me that you have probably been doing the work of taking these kinds of stories out of the footnotes - right? - and trying to help people understand what this modern holiday means to you and your people today.

PETERS: I mean, it absolutely is something that I actively engage in because I - you know, this story is still very much a part of me. I am still here, and it is something that I hope people take away, is that despite the fact that our story is so incredibly marginalized, that we are still here.

CORNISH: What's it like there for Native people there today?

PETERS: Well, you know, it's hard to remain here. We have some of our land in trust, where we are trying to establish more housing for our people. I mean, Cape Cod is a very expensive place to live, and the tribe has suffered a great many land losses over especially the last hundred or so years. So this is our struggle today. And under the Trump administration, he tried to remove our small bit of lands that we do have. He tried to remove that from trust status, which would have threatened our sovereignty and threatened our ability to keep the small bit of land that we have.

CORNISH: What do you think of the broader racial justice movement in recent years that's been trying to shed light on the history of Indigenous people in this country?

PETERS: You know, it's very, very difficult. You know, there - for Native people in general, there's this mythical stereotypical image that Americans like to have. And it's really far from accurate in all cases. I mean, just now we're starting to learn about children that were mistreated and killed in residential schools.

CORNISH: And that was in Canada - right? - that we're talking about?

PETERS: There were also some in the United States, yeah, but the big story was on the Canadian schools. And there was also the missing and murdered Indigenous women. It's sad to note that we're out there looking for these women and that there are these injustices that are happening in our communities and we don't really get the help that we need.

CORNISH: President Lincoln proclaimed the national day of Thanksgiving back in 1863, right? I mean, it's during the Civil War. It was part of a campaign to essentially promote unity. What does this holiday mean to you at this point?

PETERS: You know, it's really hard to unpack Thanksgiving because the idea that Abraham Lincoln had to bring people together, to unify ones, is, of course, always a laudable idea. And it's hard to ignore that. But for Indigenous America, it is a time for us to acknowledge the sacrifices of our ancestors. And also in more recent years, it's become a time for us to really be activists for the tribal injustices that we are suffering today, to remind people that, yes, there are still Mashpee Wampanoag people living in Mashpee, Mass. But it is a struggle every day, and it shouldn't be that way.


CORNISH: Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. She's an author and the founder of the created agency SmokeSygnals.



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