Bearing Witness: A Thanksgiving Letter

I was five years old when I was taught the myth of Thanksgiving. I remember the “Pilgrim hats” and “Indian headdresses” made out of construction paper. I remember drawing turkeys using the outline of my hand.

I remember a story that Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved the Earth was round and then the Pilgrims arrived and met the Indians. Life was hard for the Pilgrims and the Indians helped them survive. They celebrated their friendship with a big feast, and ever since we give thanks for the founding of our country by celebrating Thanksgiving.

~

It was a long time before I put two and two together and realized there were 130 years in that story of my country’s origin that were plumb unaccounted for. I wasn’t taught about the invasion of America and the enslavement, infection, and genocide of her peoples.

At the time of the invasion of the Americas, the concept of thanksgiving was a religious practice of setting aside time for thanks and praise in response to evidence of God’s favor. Thanksgiving was not celebrated by feasting, but by praying, so if a meal did happen in 1621 between the Europeans and the Wampanoag, it wasn’t a thanksgiving.

An example of an actual thanksgiving came 16 years later in 1637 when Europeans slaughtered 700 members of the Pequot Tribe as they were in the middle of a harvest celebration, by some accounts. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a Thanksgiving Day, praising God for their deaths. Many scholars consider this to be the actual first Thanksgiving.

And although an annual Thanksgiving was celebrated at many times during the next several hundred years, some say it wasn’t until 1890 that the “Pilgrims and the Indians” became the central feature of the mythology surrounding the holiday.

The other thing that was clear to my five-year-old self was that neither Pilgrims nor Indians existed anymore. They were characters from the past.

~

This year, I am celebrating Thanksgiving by honoring the Native people who have touched my life and pausing in grief and commemoration of the trauma they have inherited from generations of suffering and betrayal. I am learning about—and sending a blessing to—the peoples that once called the corner of the world I inhabit home.

I will think on what life was like for you, the Pocumtuc, living here in the fertile Connecticut River valley. You lived at the confluence of trade routes—the Connecticut River and the Mohawk Trail, the arterial road connecting inland peoples and those on the Eastern coast. You were a powerful confederacy of 20 sub-tribes including the Agawam, the Nonotuck, the Scitico, and the Woronoc, banded together for protection against the war parties that would often travel the Mohawk Trail.

It wasn’t all war parties that traveled through, though. What I call Greenfield you called Wissatinnewag, Algonquin for “slippery/shining hill,” an ancient peace village where peoples from all around the Northeast gathered and fished together near the Great Falls.

After generations of living here, coaxing maize, bean, and squash from the ground, fish from the rivers, and game from the forests, what a jagged shock it must have been to live through the first few decades after the appearance of white traders. First there was the smallpox, sweeping outward from the English in a tidal wave of death, claiming 10% of your people. Next the English, Dutch, and later French began jockeying for trade routes and escalating warfare between tribes. They provided your enemies with firearms. How terrifying it must have been for alliances to shift and change seemingly overnight, nurtured by the white men and their insatiable quest for power and control.

I grieve for you and your way of life. A year ago I fell in love with this land of yours—its seasons, its hills and valleys, the beauty of the Connecticut River. It pains me that you were forced to flee, your peoples scattered and seeking refuge with the Mahican on the Hudson River and the Abenaki in Vermont and Quebec. The few who stayed behind could only watch as English settlers swept in and took your homelands.

This Thanksgiving I will celebrate what this holiday has come to mean for me: a time of gratitude, a time of breaking bread (and eating turkey) with friends and family, a time of welcoming the change in seasons and getting in touch with what matters.

And this Thanksgiving I will also recommit to always searching out my place in the larger story, the truth behind the myths, questioning the status quo and the stories it holds so dear—stories that render my friends, my siblings, the peoples whose land I inhabit, invisible. This Thanksgiving, in my eyes, the invisible will be visible.

~

Dedicated to my dear sibling Lynn. Janis. Holiday. Kate. Jewell. Roxanne. And first, not last, Jen. Also to the many other people in my life who carry the spirit and blood of Native ancestors—those who claim their ancestry, those who don’t, and those whose Native heritage has been lost.

~

p.s. Want to read what I read while I was writing this post? Check these out:

Exposing the myth:

Pocumtuc:

Wissatinnewag:

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Categories: Activism, Reverance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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