A Provocative Look at Thanksgiving

By Glenda | November 24, 2009


Dr. Frank B. Brouillet
Superintendent of Public Instruction
State of Washington

Cheryl Chow
Assistant Superintendent
Division of Instructional Programs and Services

Warren H. Burton
Office for Multicultural and Equity Education

Dr. Willard E. Bill
Supervisor of Indian Education

Originally written and developed by
Cathy Ross, Mary Robertson, Chuck Larsen, and Roger Fernandes
Indian Education, Highline School District

With an introduction by:
Chuck Larsen
Tacoma School District

Printed: September, 1986

Reprinted: May, 1987


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, and Iroquois.
Because my Indian ancestors were on both sides of the
struggle between the Puritans and the New England Indians
and I am well versed in my cultural heritage and history
both as an Anishnabeg (Algokin) and Hodenosione (Iroquois),
it was felt that I could bring a unique insight to the

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 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?” That is
just what this introduction is all about. I propose that
there may be a good deal that many of us do not know about
our Thanksgiving holiday and also about the “First
Thanksgiving” story. I also propose that what most of us
have learned about the Pilgrims and the Indians who were at
the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation is only part
of the truth. When you build a lesson on only half of the
information, then you are not teaching the whole truth.
That is why I used the word myth. So where do you start to
find out more about the holiday and our modern stories
about how it began?

…The history of the Puritan experience in New England
really should not be separated from the history of the
Puritan experience in England. You should also realize that
the “Pilgrims” were a sub sect, or splinter group, of the
Puritan movement. They came to America to achieve on this
continent what their Puritan bretheran continued to strive
for in England; and when the Puritans were forced from
England, they came to New England and soon absorbed the
original “Pilgrims.”

…When comparing the events stirred on by the Puritans in
England with accounts of Puritan/Pilgrim activities in New
England in the same era, several provocative things suggest

1. The Puritans were not just simple religious
conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of
England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were
political revolutionaries who not only intended to
overthrow the government of England, but who actually
did so in 1649.

2. 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. … It is also very
plausible that this unnaturally noble image of the
Puritans is all wrapped up with the mythology of “Noble
Civilization” vs. “Savagery.”(2) At any rate, mainstream
Englishmen considered the Pilgrims to be deliberate
religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation
completely independent from non-Puritan England. In 1643
the Puritan/Pilgrims declared themselves an independent
confederacy, one hundred and forty-three years before
the American Revolution. They believed in the imminent
occurrence of Armegeddon in Europe and hoped to
establish here in the new world the “Kingdom of God”
foretold in the book of Revelation. They diverged from
their Puritan brethren who remained in England only in
that they held little real hope of ever being able to
successfully overthrow the King and Parliament and,
thereby, impose their “Rule of Saints” (strict Puritan
orthodoxy) on the rest of the British people. So they
came to America not just in one ship (the Mayflower) but
in a hundred others as well, with every intention of
taking the land away from its native people to build
their prophesied “Holy Kingdom.”(3)

3. The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from
religious persecution. They were victims of bigotry in
England, but some of them were themselves religious
bigots by our modern standards. The Puritans and the
Pilgrims saw themselves as the “Chosen Elect” mentioned
in the book of Revelation. They strove to “purify” first
themselves and then everyone else of everything they did
not accept in their own interpretation of scripture.
Later New England Puritans used any means, including
deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to
achieve that end.(4) They saw themselves as fighting a
holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with
them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was
transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it
sheds a very different light on the “Pilgrim” image we
have of them. This is best illustrated in the written
text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in
1623 by “Mather the Elder.” In it, Mather the Elder gave
special thanks to God for the devastating plague of
smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag
Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God
for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very
seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way
for a better growth”, i.e., the Pilgrims.(5) In as much
as these Indians were the Pilgrim’s benefactors, and
Squanto, in particular, was the instrument of their
salvation that first year, how are we to interpret this
apparent callousness towards their misfortune?

4. 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. The Wampanoag were members of a
widespread confederacy of Algonkian-speaking peoples
known as the League of the Delaware. For six hundred
years they had been defending themselves from my other
ancestors, the Iroquois, and for the last hundred years
they had also had encounters with European fishermen and
explorers but especially with European slavers, who had
been raiding their coastal villages.(6) 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.(7) 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.(8) 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 merely an
instrument of God, set in the wilderness to provide for
the survival of His chosen people, the Pilgrims. The
Indians were comparatively powerful and, therefore,
dangerous; and they were to be courted until the next
ships arrived with more Pilgrim colonists and the
balance of power shifted. 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. It should also be
noted that the INDIANS, possibly out of a sense of
charity toward their hosts, ended up bringing the
majority of the food for the feast.(9)

5. A generation later, after the balance of power had
indeed shifted, the Indian and White children of that
Thanksgiving were striving to kill each other in the
genocidal conflict known as King Philip’s War. At the
end of that conflict most of the New England Indians
were either exterminated or refugees among the French in
Canada, or they were sold into slavery in the Carolinas
by the Puritans. So successful was this early trade in
Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston
began the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa
for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of
the South, thus founding the American-based slave

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.

In consequence, what started as an inspirational bit
of New England folklore, soon grew into the full-fledged
American Thanksgiving we now know. It emerged complete with
stereotyped Indians and stereotyped Whites, incomplete
history, and a mythical significance as our “First
Thanksgiving.” But was it really our FIRST American

Now that I have deliberately provoked you with some
new information and different opinions, please take the
time to read some of the texts in our bibliography. I want
to encourage you to read further and form your own
opinions. There really is a TRUE Thanksgiving story of
Plymouth Plantation. But I strongly suggest that there
always has been a Thanksgiving story of some kind or other
for as long as there have been human beings. There was also
a “First” Thanksgiving in America, but it was celebrated
thirty thousand years ago.(11) At some time during the New
Stone Age (beginning about ten thousand years ago)
Thanksgiving became associated with giving thanks to God
for the harvests of the land. Thanksgiving has always been
a time of people coming together, so thanks has also been
offered for that gift of fellowship between us all. Every
last Thursday in November we now partake in one of the
OLDEST and most UNIVERSAL of human celebrations,

As for Thanksgiving week at Plymouth Plantation in
1621, the friendship was guarded and not always sincere,
and the peace was very soon abused. But for three days in
New England’s history, peace and friendship were there.

So here is a story for your children. It is as kind
and gentle a balance of historic truth and positive
inspiration as its writers and this editor can make it out
to be. I hope it will adequately serve its purpose both for
you and your students, and I also hope this work will
encourage you to look both deeper and farther, for
Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving all around the world.

Chuck Larsen
Tacoma Public Schools
September, 1986


When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620,
they landed on the rocky shores of a territory that was
inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam pa NO ag) Indians. The
Wampanoags were part of the Algonkian-speaking peoples, a
large group that was part of the Woodland Culture area.
These Indians lived in villages along the coast of what is
now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They lived in round-
roofed houses called wigwams. These were made of poles
covered with flat sheets of elm or birch bark. Wigwams
differ in construction from tipis that were used by Indians
of the Great Plains.

The Wampanoags moved several times during each year in
order to get food. In the spring they would fish in the
rivers for salmon and herring. In the planting season they
moved to the forest to hunt deer and other animals. After
the end of the hunting season people moved inland where
there was greater protection from the weather. From
December to April they lived on food that they stored
during the earlier months.

The basic dress for men was the breech clout, a length
of deerskin looped over a belt in back and in front. Women
wore deerskin wrap-around skirts. Deerskin leggings and fur
capes made from deer, beaver, otter, and bear skins gave
protection during the colder seasons, and deerskin
moccasins were worn on the feet. Both men and women usually
braided their hair and a single feather was often worn in
the back of the hair by men. They did not have the large
feathered headdresses worn by people in the Plains Culture

There were two language groups of Indians in New
England at this time. The Iroquois were neighbors to the
Algonkian-speaking people. Leaders of the Algonquin and
Iroquois people were called “sachems” (SAY chems). Each
village had its own sachem and tribal council. Political
power flowed upward from the people. Any individual, man or
woman, could participate, but among the Algonquins more
political power was held by men. Among the Iroquois,
however, women held the deciding vote in the final
selection of who would represent the group. Both men and
women enforced the laws of the village and helped solve
problems. The details of their democratic system were so
impressive that about 150 years later Benjamin Franklin
invited the Iroquois to Albany, New York, to explain their
system to a delegation who then developed the “Albany Plan
of Union.” This document later served as a model for the
Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the
United States.

These Indians of the Eastern Woodlands called the
turtle, the deer and the fish their brothers. They
respected the forest and everything in it as equals.
Whenever a hunter made a kill, he was careful to leave
behind some bones or meat as a spiritual offering, to help
other animals survive. Not to do so would be considered
greedy. The Wampanoags also treated each other with
respect. Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with
a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply
was low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims
when they met.

We can only guess what the Wampanoags must have
thought when they first saw the strange ships of the
Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their custom was to
help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with
courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the
Pilgrims survived at all. The wheat the Pilgrims had
brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky
soil. They needed to learn new ways for a new world, and
the man who came to help them was called “Tisquantum” (Tis
SKWAN tum) or “Squanto” (SKWAN toe).

Squanto was originally from the village of Patuxet (Pa
TUK et) and a member of the Pokanokit Wampanoag nation.
Patuxet once stood on the exact site where the Pilgrims
built Plymouth. In 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims
came, Squanto went to England with a friendly English
explorer named John Weymouth. He had many adventures and
learned to speak English. Squanto came back to New England
with Captain Weymouth. Later Squanto was captured by a
British slaver who raided the village and sold Squanto to
the Spanish in the Caribbean Islands. A Spanish Franciscan
priest befriended Squanto and helped him to get to Spain
and later on a ship to England. Squanto then found Captain
Weymouth, who paid his way back to his homeland. In England
Squanto met Samoset of the Wabanake (Wab NAH key) Tribe,
who had also left his native home with an English explorer.
They both returned together to Patuxet in 1620. When they
arrived, the village was deserted and there were skeletons
everywhere. Everyone in the village had died from an
illness the English slavers had left behind. Squanto and
Samoset went to stay with a neighboring village of

One year later, in the spring, Squanto and Samoset
were hunting along the beach near Patuxet. They were
startled to see people from England in their deserted
village. For several days, they stayed nearby observing the
newcomers. Finally they decided to approach them. Samoset
walked into the village and said “welcome,” Squanto soon
joined him. The Pilgrims were very surprised to meet two
Indians who spoke English.

The Pilgrims were not in good condition. They were
living in dirt-covered shelters, there was a shortage of
food, and nearly half of them had died during the winter.
They obviously needed help and the two men were a welcome
sight. Squanto, who probably knew more English than any
other Indian in North America at that time, decided to stay
with the Pilgrims for the next few months and teach them
how to survive in this new place. He brought them deer meat
and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and
other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style houses.
He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants
could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig and cook
clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for
fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their

By the time fall arrived things were going much better
for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help they had received. The
corn they planted had grown well. There was enough food to
last the winter. They were living comfortably in their
Indian-style wigwams and had also managed to build one
European-style building out of squared logs. This was their
church. They were now in better health, and they knew more
about surviving in this new land. The Pilgrims decided to
have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good fortune.
They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November as
religious obligations in England for many years before
coming to the New World.

The Algonkian tribes held six thanksgiving festivals
during the year. The beginning of the Algonkian year was
marked by the Maple Dance which gave thanks to the Creator
for the maple tree and its syrup. This ceremony occurred
when the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the
maple trees, sometimes as early as February. Second was the
planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The
strawberry festival was next, celebrating the first fruits
of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to
give thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the
harvest festival gave thanks for the food they had grown.
Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year. When the
Indians sat down to the “first Thanksgiving” with the
Pilgrims, it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year
for them!

Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims,
invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the
Wampanoags), and their immediate families to join them for
a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian families
could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims
were overwhelmed at the large turnout of ninety relatives
that Squanto and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims
were not prepared to feed a gathering of people that large
for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit gave orders to his
men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get
more food. Thus it happened that the Indians supplied the
majority of the food: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish,
beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries. Captain
Standish sat at one end of a long table and the Clan Chief
Massasoit sat at the other end. For the first time the
Wampanoag people were sitting at a table to eat instead of
on mats or furs spread on the ground. The Indian women sat
together with the Indian men to eat. The Pilgrim women,
however, stood quietly behind the table and waited until
after their men had eaten, since that was their custom.

For three days the Wampanoags feasted with the
Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship between two
very different groups of people. A peace and friendship
agreement was made between Massasoit and Miles Standish
giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the
old Patuxet village once stood to build their new town of

It would be very good to say that this friendship
lasted a long time; but, unfortunately, that was not to be.
More English people came to America, and they were not in
need of help from the Indians as were the original
Pilgrims. Many of the newcomers forgot the help the Indians
had given them. Mistrust started to grow and the friendship
weakened. The Pilgrims started telling their Indian
neighbors that their Indian religion and Indian customs
were wrong. The Pilgrims displayed an intolerance toward
the Indian religion similar to the intolerance displayed
toward the less popular religions in Europe. The
relationship deteriorated and within a few years the
children of the people who ate together at the first
Thanksgiving were killing one another in what came to be
called King Phillip’s War.

It is sad to think that this happened, but it is
important to understand all of the story and not just the
happy part. Today the town of Plymouth Rock has a
Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first
Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in
Massachusetts. In 1970, they asked one of them to speak at
the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s
arrival. Here is part of what was said:

“Today is a time of celebrating for you — a time of
looking back to the first days of white people in America.
But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a
heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my
People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags,
welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was
the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to
pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and
other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by
their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.
Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human
as the white people.

Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the
Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has
happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a
better America, a more Indian America where people and
nature once again are important.”

From the Website: www.2020tech.com/thanks/temp.html#story

One comment | Add One

  1. Kristine - 11/24/2009 at 11:14 pm

    I agree. Very nice.
    “But today we work toward a
    better America, a more Indian America where people and
    nature once again are important.”

    A new view of Thanksgiving for me:

    “Imagine my surprise when I discovered that according to recorded history, I had an ancestor who came to America in the Mayflower. What’s more, he would have been present at the very first Thanksgiving.”




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