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The Way It Was

If you're convinced that Thanksgiving is just one giant Hallmark moment, it's about time for a good old All-American paradigm adjustment

By Christina Waters

THE WAY WHITE AMERICA envisions that first Thanksgiving, through a filter of sentimental hogwash, goes something like this: Plucky white pilgrims--mostly guys--set out across the Atlantic Ocean, and were rewarded with an entire continent of untold wealth that seemed predestined by the Almighty for their use. Oh, sure, there were a few unclothed savages already there--but that wasn't a problem. Journals and letters written by those first settlers contain shameless accounts of plundering native stores of food, tools and furs. If the Pilgrims found it, they took it.

After working, praying and surviving a bitter winter, the Pilgrim Fathers brought in a bountiful harvest produced by careful tending of seeds that they had brought from home. Inviting their heathen neighbors to join them, the Pilgrims gave thanks for their New World and its riches at a meal consisting of turkey, squash, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Afterwards, the men sat around smoking and watching football while the women cleaned up.

What really happened was more like this: After two months and two deaths on the Mayflower crossing in 1620, the Pilgrims landed on the coast of Massachusetts, where an Algonquin-speaking group, the Wampanoags, lived. Clad in leather garments--augmented by furs during the winter--these native peoples skillfully cultivated corn, beans, squashes and pumpkins; hunted the woods for deer, elk and bear; and fished for salmon and herring. Like other members of what anthropologists now call the Woodland Culture, the Wampanoags looked upon deer, fish and turtle as totemic siblings, and had deep respect for every natural creature. When they hunted, they left offerings for other forest inhabitants, and they would never think of planting or harvesting without giving ritual thanks for the fertility of Mother Earth.

From where the natives sat--especially one named Squanto, who'd learned English after having been sold into slavery a few years earlier by another friendly white man--these Pilgrims were in deep buffalo chips. The wheat brought from Europe was completely unsuited to the New England soil and failed to germinate. Half the settlers died during the first winter. Many of the English refused to dirty their hands with planting. Most of them were incapable of successful hunting.

Squanto and his friends took pity on this sorry situation and brought venison and furs to the luckless Anglos. He taught them how to plant corn using fish as fertilizer, how to dig clams, how to tap maple trees for syrup. The Algonquin tribes already had the custom of celebrating six different thanksgiving festivals during the year, and one of those happened to coincide with a dinner party thrown by Miles Standish and company. Standish invited Squanto and a few of his friends and their families to come on down and share a meal. More than 90 Indians--we're talking extended family here--showed up. The Pilgrim menu wasn't going to cover that many guests. So a few of the Algonquin guys went out for an hour and came back with five deer, enough for three solid days of cross-cultural feasting.

Here's what was actually on that menu: venison, wild duck, wild geese, eels, clams, squash, corn bread, berries and nuts. That meal was one of the last untroubled moments the whites and natives spent together. Within 50 years, most of the Woodland peoples had been killed, claimed by European diseases or--if lucky--disappeared into the woods.

Today, there are still 500 Wampanoags living in New England. They do not celebrate Thanksgiving.


An excellent account of Native American and early Colonial foods is The Good Land, by Patricia B. Mitchell, available through the Jas. Townsend & Son Inc. catalog of early Americana (call 800/338-1665).

For a crash course on the forced relocation of native peoples to Oklahoma, search the Web for "Wounded Knee" and "Trail of Tears."


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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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