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On Thanksgiving, we are ‘family’

One of my favorite magazines is National Geographic History. It features interesting, well-written and documented articles covering a variety of topics including some great biographies. And the accompanying photographs are exceptional, This month, for example, NGH showcased the renowned Renaissance artist Raphael, along with a key figure in the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanaog sachem, Massasaoit.

David Silverman’s piece on the latter provided what for most readers might have been a shocking bit of information-that the first Thanksgiving as described to countless people over the generations was not the lavish feast attended by friendly Indians and the newly arrived Protestant Separatists better known as Pilgrims. The latter were not the first whites known to the Wampanaogs who occupied present-day southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, and eastern Rhode Island. Europeans had been exploring the area on occasion since the 16th century.

Their visits increased significantly after 1602. By the time the Pilgrims had arrived in November of 1620, the Wampanaogs and their neighbors and frequent combatants, the Naragansetts, had already established a mutually profitable trading relationship with the English. As Silverman points out, European “metal tools and weapons, brightly colored cloth and glass beads” were highly valued by the natives. As were furs by the invaders.

Just prior to the “first Thanksgiving,” Massasoit and the Pilgrims settled previous differences and, facilitated by the services of two English speaking Indians, hatched out a “treaty” of mutual defense and a trade which now included such valuable foodstuffs as maize corn, beans and squash. The stage was now set for what really happened that late autumn of 1621.

As Silverman states, Massasoit and some 90 Wampanaog warriors appeared unexpectedly at the Pilgrim village of Plymouth after hearing some guns going off there. The colonists, it seems, were celebrating their first successful harvest. The sachem and his troops thought the English were under attack by the Naragansetts and had rushed to their aid. “They wound up staying for what turned into an impromptu state dinner.” In fact, neither white men nor red “attributed much significance to this occasion.” No turkey and trimmings commemorative feast in 1622 or for years thereafter. The holiday as we know it never became formally celebrated until Honest Abe proclaimed the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving.

Massasoit remained in power until his death in 1661, and if he knew what was to come, he might have formulated a different foreign policy with the English. By that time the handwriting was on the wall. In a scenario to be repeated countless times over the next two centuries, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Europeans with an unquenchable thirst for land and superior arms, juxtaposed against a native population plagued by internecine warfare and vastly depopulated by the invaders’ diseases, resulted in the dispossession of millions of acres of Native American lands not only in New England, but throughout the rest of the United States.

During a recent visit to the Onondaga Nation Reservation in Nedrow (delivered 134 new winter coats to students attending Onondaga Nation School in memory of HCCC Professor of Sociology Gary Wayne Ruff who passed away March 26 rom the virus), I was reminded that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations) people have their own Thanksgiving tradition, one that I feel we as a nation would do well to adopt. Before all social and religious gatherings, the Thanksgiving Address is recited. I first learned about it over 40 years ago when an elderly Turtle Clan matriarch told me that her people give thanks to all parts of creation including Mother Earth, trees, water, creatures of the forest, the wind, etc., etc. In reciting the address, children learn mutual respect, conversation, love and generosity along with the importance of living in balance and harmony with each other and nature. They also learn that “people everywhere are embraced as family, that our diversity, like all the wonders of Nature, is truly a gift for which we are thankful.”

As we gather together this year to ask the Lord’s blessings, let’s ask one on behalf of our Indian people who gave us so much (e.g. corn, pumpkins, peanuts, hammocks, kayaks, toboggans, snowshoes, several life-saving drugs, the federal concept of government-Iroquois Confederacy, political power for women, etc.,etc.), received so little in return and against all odds, have been able to preserve their culture and traditions. Wishing you all a happy, healthy holiday season.

Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.

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