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 (hcn.org). Giago is the editor of the Lakota Journal in Rapid City, S.D.
Publication date: 11/27/03