By LaKeshia N. Myers
For 15 years I have had the great fortune to summer on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Aside from serving as a summer haven for the weary, the island, with its picturesque backdrop, towering cliffs, and sandy beaches plays host to an important part of American history. Martha’s Vineyard, like much of coastal Massachusetts is home to the Wampanoag tribe of American Indians. The Wampanoag are the tribe that engaged in the first Thanksgiving with Pilgrims in 1621.
According to Mashpee Wampanoag Museum, the Wampanoag, whose name means “People of the First Light” in their native language, trace their ancestors back at least 10,000 years to southeastern Massachusetts, a land they called Patuxet. And according to Wampanoag history, the indigenous people had been interacting and fighting in skirmishes with Europeans since at least 1524. Their interactions with the Europeans had been terse, especially after the kidnapping of Squanto and twenty other Wampanoag men in 1614, the colonizers intended to sell the captives into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto spent five years trying to get back to his homeland. In the years after his kidnapping, the Wampanoag were nearly obliterated by disease brought on by European contact.
Smallpox, yellow fever, and other diseases had impacted the tribe by such a great margin that upon the pilgrims landing on Plymouth rock in 1620, tribal leadership thought it was best to become allies with the Pilgrims rather than enemies to remain viable. The plan initially worked; during their first winter, half the Pilgrims died of disease, starvation, and the harsh winter conditions. Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is an author and educator on Native American history, said “we don’t acknowledge the American holiday of Thanksgiving … it’s a marginalization and mistelling of our story” (Peters, 2021). Perhaps this is because (spoiler alert) the Wampanoag weren’t originally invited.
Ousamequin, (leader of the Wampanoag) and his men showed up only after the English in their revelry shot off some of their muskets. At the sound of gunfire, the Wampanoags came running, fearing they were headed to war. When they arrived and were told it was a harvest celebration, the Wampanoags joined the Pilgrims, bringing five deer to share. Also served was fowl, fish, eel, shellfish and possibly cranberries from the area’s natural bogs. Noticeably absent, was turkey, because it wasn’t on the menu that day.
For many in the Wampanoag tribe, the first Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. They mourn that day because it served as the beginning of colonization for their land and of their people. As time went on the Wampanoag, like other Indian tribes were targets of unethical and discriminatory practices such as Indian assimilation schools.
So, as we gather around our tables this holiday season, let us begin to share the true history of Thanksgiving and abandon the fictional narrative. I was always taught when you know better, you should do better, let’s start this Thanksgiving.