Pin It

A Different Thanksgiving 

by Tim Giago

There is a saying among the Lakota that when the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock, they fell on their knees and prayed, and then they fell on the Indians and preyed.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the stories of this country's founding are awash in error. As Napoleon reportedly said, "What is history but a fable agreed upon?"

So much fabrication has been woven into the coming of the Pilgrims and their dealings with the native people they encountered that it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Here are some facts: The Mayflower first landed on Cape Cod on Nov. 11, 1620, at a place that would become Provincetown. When that landing site proved to be unsuitable, Robert Coppin, the Mayflower's pilot, moved on. In the middle of winter, on Dec. 16, 1620, he sailed into a harbor the Indians called Patuxet. Though no 17th-century sources mention landing on a rock, that's what the Pilgrims called it: Plymouth Rock.

We have all been taught about the first winter for those pilgrims, so fierce that only 52 of the original 102 remained alive when it was over. The history books also teach us that the Indians helped the settlers survive to another winter by teaching them how to plant corn, squash and other vegetables. Here's another fact: Some historians say now that Patuxet was rich in the graves of Indians, and that by grave-robbing clothes and tools, a few Pilgrims were able to survive.

The Wampanoag were the first Indians to meet and speak with the Pilgrims. An Abenaki named Samoset, who spoke English he learned from fishermen who visited the coast, introduced the settlers to a man named Tisquantum, also called Squanto. He had been taken to England as a prisoner and spoke fairly fluent English. Though usually portrayed as violent in drawings and paintings, Squanto met the Pilgrims in peace.

The first modern image showing the Indians and settlers enjoying a feast in harmony did not occur until after the so-called Indian Wars were settled -- long after Plymouth Rock was founded. By then, ancestral lands were being colonized by settlers and exploiters, and Indians were considered "vanishing Americans." That may have made them safe enough to become an integral part of the Pilgrim story of happy collaboration.

A stanza from the poem by Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) about the landing of the Pilgrims goes:

Ay, call it holy ground,

The soil where first they trod!

They have left unstain'd what where they found

Freedom to worship God.

Perhaps a century later, an Indian poet might have written:

Hau, call it stolen ground,

The soil where first they trod!

They have left a stain over all they found,

And took our freedom to worship God.

The indigenous people of what was to become New England had little to be thankful for after the Pilgrims claimed their land. Many died of smallpox, measles and other diseases to which they had no immunity; others died at the hands of the settlers. Their villages were burned to the ground and their women and children sold into slavery or murdered. Bounties were placed on those who survived, and soon hunters and trappers showed up at the trading posts collecting money for their "redskins."

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, set aside the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941, Congress passed a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday of November the official holiday of Thanksgiving. It was not until the 1960s that Indian activists began to gather at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving Day -- not to give thanks, but to protest the modern-day treatment of native people and a national holiday based on fiction.

These days, native Americans can be grateful for our remarkable ability to endure. The assumption that the so-called "vanishing Americans" would cease to exist has proven to be dead wrong. Though some might have wished it, we have not faded from history; in fact, we are one of the fastest-growing segments of society.

In South Dakota, where I live, almost every rural county has plummeted in population over the past 10 years. But in the counties containing Indian reservations, the population has grown.

So a race of people that numbered just over 200,000 people at the turn of the century now numbers more than 2 million. It's quite a comeback.

Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( Giago is the editor of the Lakota Journal in Rapid City, S.D.

Publication date: 11/27/03
  • Pin It

Latest in Comment

  • On the Street
  • On the Street

    Have you ever been called a "special snowflake"?
    • Feb 16, 2017
  • America's Greatest Resource
  • America's Greatest Resource

    In a country of wonderful — and destructive — contradictions, we must listen to each other
    • Feb 16, 2017
  • Independence of Mind
  • Independence of Mind

    The dance around the Neil Gorsuch nomination underlines the stakes of getting a peek inside his head
    • Feb 16, 2017
  • More »


Comments are closed.

Today | Wed | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon
Black Lunch Table: Wikipedia Editathon

Black Lunch Table: Wikipedia Editathon @ Terrain

Tue., Feb. 21, 6-9 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

More by Tim Giago

Most Commented On

  • We Have Not Yet Begun to Fight

    Why we're filling the streets to protest Trump's inhumane, dangerous policies
    • Feb 2, 2017
  • Obscene Gestures

    Spokane political party leaders hope to harness post-election passion into civil discourse. But so far, there's only been more strife
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • More »

Top Tags in
News & Comment


green zone



do something

Readers also liked…

  • To Kill the Black Snake
  • To Kill the Black Snake

    Historic all-tribes protest at Standing Rock is meant to stop the destruction of the earth for all
    • Sep 8, 2016
  • Connecting the Dots
  • Connecting the Dots

    How the Washington state budget touches us all in Eastern Washington
    • Aug 26, 2015

© 2017 Inlander
Website powered by Foundation