This is a particularly difficult introduction to write. I have
been a public schools teacher for
twelve years, and I am also a historian and have written several
books on American and Native
American history. I also just
happen to be Quebeque French,
Metis, Ojibwa 1
, and Iroquois 2
Because my Indian ancestors
were on both sides of the struggle between the Puritans and the New England Indians and I am well versed 3
my cultural heritage and history both as an Anishnabeg (Algokin) and Hodenosione
(Iroquois), it was felt that I could bring a unique insight 4 to the project.
For an Indian, who is also a school teacher, Thanksgiving was never an easy holiday
for me to deal with in class. I sometimes have felt like I learned too much about “the
Pilgrims and the Indians”. Every year I have been faced with the professional and moral
dilemma of just how to be honest and informative with my children at Thanksgiving
without passing on historical distortions, and racial and cultural stereotypes.
The problem is that part of what you and I learned in our own childhood about the
“Pilgrims” and “Squanto” and the “First Thanksgiving” is a mixture of both history and
myth. But the THEME of Thanksgiving has truth and integrity far above and beyond
what we and our forebearers 5 have made of it. Thanksgiving is a bigger concept than just the story of the founding of the Plymouth Plantation.
So what do we teach to our children? We usually pass on unquestioned what we all
received in our own childhood classrooms. I have come to know both the truths and
the myths about our “First Thanksgiving,” and I feel we need to try to reach beyond
the myths to some degree of historic truth. This text is an attempt to do this.
At this point you are probably asking, “What is the big deal about Thanksgiving
and the Pilgrims?”, “What does this guy mean by a mixture of truths and myth?” [...]
The Puritan “Pilgrims” who came to New England were not simply refugees who
decided to “put their fate in God’s hands” in the “empty wilderness” of North America,
as a generation of Hollywood movies taught us. In any culture at any time, settlers on
a frontier are most often outcasts6 and fugitives who, in some way or other, do not fit into the mainstream 7 of their society. This is not to imply that people who settle
on frontiers have no redeeming 8 qualities such as bravery, etc., but that the images of nobility that we associate with the Puritans are at least in part the good “P.R. 9 ” efforts
of later writers who have romanticized them. [...]
The Wampanoag Indians were not the “friendly savages” some of us were told
about when we were in the primary grades. Nor were they invited out of the goodness
of the Pilgrims’ hearts to share the fruits of the Pilgrims’ harvest in a demonstration
of Christian charity and interracial brotherhood.
[...] They knew something of the power of the white people, and they did not fully trust them. But their religion taught that they were to give charity to the helpless and
hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands. Also, Squanto, the Indian
hero of the Thanksgiving story, had a very real love for a British explorer named John
Weymouth, who had become a second father to him several years before the Pilgrims
arrived at Plymouth.
Clearly, Squanto saw these Pilgrims as Weymouth’s people. To the Pilgrims the
Indians were heathens and, therefore, the natural instruments of the Devil. Squanto,
as the only educated and baptized Christian among the Wampanoag, was seen as
an instrument of God, set in the wilderness to provide for the survival of
His chosen people, the Pilgrims. [...]The Wampanoag were actually invited to that
Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands
of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. [...] Obviously there is a lot more to the
story of Indian/Puritan relations in New England than in the thanksgiving stories
we heard as children. Our contemporary mix of myth and history about the “First”
Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was
desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national
identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, this also meant having a common national history. This was the era
of the “melting pot” theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool
for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last
Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.
Teaching about Thanksgiving, Dr. Brouillet F. B.,
with an introduction by Chuck Larsen, Tacoma School, 1986.