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Food for Thought on Thanksgiving

The Wampanoags Helped the Pilgrims Survive for Their First Thanksgiving – They Still Regret It

Statue of Chief Ousamequin of the Wampanoag Nation, overlooking Plymouth Bay, with Caption: The first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoags help was followed by years of a slow, unfolding genocide
Columbia County Observer graphic, photo as above

Dana HedgpethBy Dana Hedgpeth

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Overlooking the chilly waters of Plymouth Bay, about three dozen tourists swarmed a park ranger as he recounted the history of Plymouth Rock — the famous symbol of the arrival of the Pilgrims here four centuries ago.

Nearby, others waited to tour a replica of the Mayflower, the ship that carried the Pilgrims across the ocean.

On a hilltop above stood a quiet tribute to the American Indians who helped the starving Pilgrims survive. Few people bother to visit the statue of Ousamequin — the chief, or sachem, of the Wampanoag Nation whose people once numbered somewhere between 30,000 to 100,000 and whose land once stretched from Southeastern Massachusetts to parts of Rhode Island.

Long marginalized and misrepresented in the American story, the Wampanoags are braced for what’s coming this month as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and Indians.

But the actual history of what happened in 1621 bears little resemblance to what most Americans are taught in grade school, historians say. There was likely no turkey served. There were no feathered headdresses worn. And, initially, there was no effort by the Pilgrims to invite the Wampanoags to the feast they’d made possible.

Just as Native American activists have demanded the removal of Christopher Columbus statues and pushed to transform the Columbus holiday into an acknowledgment of his brutality toward Indigenous people, they have long objected to the popular portrayal of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving’s hidden past: Plymouth in 1621 wasn’t close to being the first celebration

For the Wampanoags and many other American Indians, the fourth Thursday in November is considered a day of mourning, not a day of celebration.

Because while the Wampanoags did help the Pilgrims survive, their support was followed by years of a slow, unfolding genocide of their people and the taking of their land.

To learn the history of the Wampanoags and what happened to them after the first Thanksgiving, a visitor has to drive 30 miles south of Plymouth to the town of Mashpee, where a modest, clapboard museum sits along a two-lane road. Outside, there’s a wetu, a traditional Wampanoag house made from cedar poles and the bark of tulip poplar trees, and a mishoon, an Indian canoe.

Inside the three-room house sits Mother Bear, a 71-year-old Mashpee Wampanoag, hand-stitching a deer skin hat. She’s lived her whole life in this town and is considered one of the keepers of the Wampanoag version of the first Thanksgiving and how the encounter turned into a centuries-long disaster for the Mashpee, who now number about 2,800.

That story continues to get ignored by the roughly 1.5 million annual visitors to Plymouth’s museums and souvenir shops. The Mashpee Wampanoag museum draws about 800 visitors a year.

Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is an author and educator on Native American history, said “we don’t acknowledge the American holiday of Thanksgiving … it’s a marginalization and mistelling of our story.”

‘The Great Dying’

The Wampanoags, whose name means “People of the First Light” in their native language, trace their ancestors back at least 10,000 years to southeastern Massachusetts, a land they called Patuxet.

In the 1600s, they lived in 69 villages, each with a chief, or sachem, and a medicine man. They had “messenger runners,” members of the tribe with good memories and the endurance to run to neighboring villages to deliver messages.

They occupied a land of plenty, hunting deer, elk and bear in the forests, fishing for herring and trout, and harvesting quahogs in the rivers and bays. They planted corn and used fish remains as fertilizer. In the winter, they moved inland from the harsh weather, and in the spring they moved to the coastlines.

They had traded — and fought — with European explorers since 1524.

In 1614, before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the English lured a well-known Wampanoag — Tisquantum, who was called Squanto by the English — and 20 other Wampanoag men onto a ship with the intention of selling them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto spent years trying to get back to his homeland.

During his absence, the Wampanoags were nearly wiped out by a mysterious disease that some Wampanoags believe came from the feces of rats aboard European boats, while other historians think it was likely small pox or possibly yellow fever.

Known as “The Great Dying,” the pandemic lasted three years.

By the time Squanto returned home in 1619, two-thirds of his people had been killed by it. The English explorer Thomas Dermer described the once-populous villages along the banks of the bay as being “utterly void” of people.

In 1620, the English aboard the Mayflower made their way to Plymouth after making landfall in Provincetown. The Wampanoags watched as women and children got off the boat.

They knew their interactions with the Europeans would be different this time.

You can read the rest of the story here in the Washington Post.

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