Finally, Thanksgiving is here. My dinner table is already groaning in anticipation of the load it must bear later today, as my Zsu-Zsu is hard at work in the kitchen preparing the beast and the bird for the feast to come.
We have both prime rib and turkey on Thanksgiving — a nod to some of our guests’ dislike for the ceremonial bird. Fine with me. There are always enough leftovers for prime rib sandwiches and turkey casserole the next day. We celebrate Thanksgiving all weekend long at my house, and I’m always sad to eat that last bit of jello mold or cranberry sauce — I savor the last morsels as they disappear with a satisfying gulp.
Allow me to share my secret Thanksgiving desire. I wish to go through an entire Thanksgiving Day without reading in a newspaper, seeing on the internet, or have anyone mention to me that Native Americans have nothing to be thankful for today, that they are in mourning, and that it’s my fault.
That last is figuratively speaking, of course. It was “my ancestors” — white ancestors — who are directly responsible. The fact that, at the time of the first Thanksgiving, my ancestors were in Ireland scratching out a living by farming a space about the size of a suburban backyard, eating turnips and barley porridge just to keep hearth and home together, apparently doesn’t matter.
Applying collective guilt to an entire race is not seen as stupidity but rather “justice” by those who can’t stand seeing people happy and contented. For some, it is a special thrill to hector us on Thanksgiving about sins committed long ago by people they cannot fathom against a people who they will never understand.
The complex relationship between the Europeans who arrived on the Mayflower and the Wampanoag tribe is reduced to the ridiculously cartoonish by the holiday trashers. Indians — good. White man — bad. That is the extent of the nuance in most of their arguments.
But what we fail to appreciate about the Pilgrims is that they were not explorers or people inured to hardship. They were country folk from the Midlands of England — most of them were not farmers or possessing the skills necessary to begin a colony. They were simple townsfolk whose separatist ideas about the Church of England landed them in trouble with the authorities — so much so that they were driven out of the country. First to Holland, where their religious views were tolerated but where parents were concerned that the children were losing their essential “Englishness” and pined for the homeland. That’s when William Bradford made a deal with the London Company for a land patent in America and the crossing was planned.
So here they were, arriving in the waters of the New World in early November 1620, but not making a landing until nearly a month later. It was then that they began to hack a civilization out of the wilderness. Whatever skills they had with the ax or hammer they were forced to perfect while constructing a few rough-hewn buildings over the winter of 1620-21. Only 47 of the original 102 Pilgrims who began the crossing survived to see that first spring, the rest dying off as a result of disease brought on by being poorly adapted to the much harsher climate of Massachusetts.
The Mayflower stuck around until April 1621, supplying the colonists with whatever food they couldn’t beg for, trade for, or steal from the Indians. They were poor hunters and had few firelocks, and since they were not familiar with the local fauna, they were unable to procure food through the gathering of nuts and berries as the native Americans did. The Indians worked diligently to remedy this and by the summer of 1621, the Pilgrims were nearly self-sufficient.
Thanks to Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoags who had signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims earlier in the spring, the new Americans were able to plant, tend, and harvest their first crop with little trouble. It wasn’t much. A peck of corn meal a week for each family (a peck is eight dry quarts) during the winter along with some salt fish. They supplemented this with wild fowl they hunted and trapped. All in all, barely enough on which to survive. But considering their hardships suffered during the previous year, it seemed bountiful enough that they were able to entertain and feed 90 Wampanoags and the entire colony for a week of feasting.
These were hardy, determined people who put up with difficulties almost all of us today would never survive. We forget that these first Pilgrims made something out of absolutely nothing with just a few tools and the sweat of their brow — and a nice assist from the Wampanoags, who had their own selfish reasons for helping. A devastating plague — probably an extremely virulent form of smallpox that the Wampanoags caught from French traders — reduced their numbers dramatically, leaving them vulnerable to their enemies, the Narragansett tribe. No doubt Massasoit eyed the Pilgrim flintlocks with more than a little envy.
Later, there would be war and betrayal, conquest and subjugation. In those first years, both sides profited handsomely from their relationship. But when history’s course was finally run, and white settlers in North America had their way with the native peoples, the curtain was eventually drawn on the rich and varied cultures of an ancient civilization.
Yes, it was a sad, tragic, and ultimately stupid turn of events. But those who feel it necessary to remind us of these transgressions never seem to hold any admiration at all for the extraordinary people who crossed an ocean in yacht-sized and leaky wooden ships, endured deprivations most of us would never survive, performed backbreaking manual labor of which they were unaccustomed, and — with the help of Native Americans who felt they needed these powerful strangers as allies as much as they were needed — lived to celebrate a bountiful harvest, giving thanks to their God for his mercy and providential intercessions.
For 364 days out of the year, you can get in my face about how beastly we were to the Indians and how guilty I should feel about the cultural genocide perpetrated against them by earlier white Americans. Rail on if you must about the injustice of it all, the horrid massacres (eagerly reciprocated on many occasions by the other side), the forced conversions to Christianity, and the dastardly reservation policies that finished by stealth what earlier attempts to wipe native peoples off the map failed to do.
But one day out of the year — the day we set aside to give thanks for what we have and the great good fortune to live where we live — I want to remember and celebrate the achievements of the Pilgrims. Their story is an American story — one of courage, of faith, and of an abiding belief in each other that allowed them to overcome more than a generous providence should have allowed.