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Romanticized Fables Of Pilgrims And Indians Hide The Truth

The close of the month of November will bring a sigh of relief, a sigh echoed by the burping of countless containers of left-overs in refrigerators across the nation. As a Cherokee organization official, I'm often asked to speak during the period we jokingly call "The Moon of Paper Headdresses", the period from Columbus Day through the last Thursday in November. It's not the effort of speaking that stresses me, it's the pain of biting my tongue.

At this time of year, most Americans briefly remember that others were here before them, even though the declaration of November as American Indian Heritage Month goes largely unnoticed. As with Columbus Day, there is a reason that many Indians don't celebrate Thanksgiving and refuse to be associated with it. Many are surprised to learn it isn't a Native holiday at all. Our closest equivalent would be the Harvest Ceremony a month earlier, during the full moon of October, which for Cherokees is also the New Year. This is a time when we offer thanks to the Creator for our life and the blessings received during the year.

Many have grown up with romanticized fables of the "First Thanksgiving", complete with Pilgrims and Indians. This image comes from the late 19th century. The truth is less attractive.

In 1620, English Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. We are told they were searching for religious freedom. The truth is they had all the freedom they could stand in Holland. So did other religious outcasts. What they really wanted was a land they could absolutely rule and control with their own ideas of religion, morality, and law.

When the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, the starving Pilgrims raided Indian storehouses, and even the bags of ceremonial grain  buried in Native graves. Aware of their extreme misery, the Wampanoags under Massasoit forgave the capital crime of grave robbing. They taught the English how to farm, how to hunt and harvest the foods of the area, and the following year brought 20 deer to a feast that was supposed to be a treaty.

Within a few years, the English had repaid the hospitality of their Wampanoag hosts by launching hostilities against them, which would culminate in 1676 with the execution and dismemberment of Massasoit's son Metacomet.

Relations with neighboring nations deteriorated as well. In the autumn of 1637, their neighbors the Pequots were gathered for their annual harvest festival near modern Groton. A detachment of English soldiers and Dutch mercenaries surrounded the village, and shot the Indians as they came out of the longhouse. At the end, they sealed exits and burned the village, killing some 700 men, women, and children.

The surviving Pequots were split into three groups: one-third were exiled to the Narragansett territory in Rhode Island (today's Paucatuck Pequots), one-third to the Mohegan territory in Connecticut (today's Mashantucket Pequots), and the remaining were shipped into slavery in the British West Indies colony of Barbados.

The next day, the English governor William Bradford declared "a day of Thanksgiving", thanking God that they had eliminated the Indians, opening Pequot land for white settlement. That proclamation was repeated each year for the next century.

The "freedom-seeking" English settlers, who had once survived by the capital crime of grave-robbing, now made it a capital crime to teach an Indian to read, to live among the Indians, or to speak the word "Pequot" in public.

In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, a shattered and disillusioned America sought a holiday of reconciliation. It was in this period that the "First Thanksgiving" mythology was born, complete with stoic Pilgrims and friendly, helpful Indians.

I relate the truth not to guilt trip white America or to ruin elementary school pageants, but to remind people that genocide and ethnocide are very real elements of U.S. history. When we see school children dressed as Pilgrims, complete with wide-barreled muskets, we remember all too well at whom the guns were aimed.

When our true history is known, perhaps more Americans will follow their turkey and cranberry sauce with a commitment to redress the outrages of the past by working to improve the living conditions of our people today, to confront the racism and political suppression that still exists at so many levels and to help us in preserving our culture and traditions for the future.

Only then can we can say, "let us give thanks together".