~by Marcia DeJesús-Rueff, EdD.
“You can’t change history, but it could change you.” –Plimouth Patuxet Museum
One beautiful autumn weekend in the early 1980’s, while living in Boston, my husband and I decided to take our young children to see Plymouth Rock. It stood as an icon in my mind as the place where the Mayflower passengers first stepped foot onto North American shores. Our excitement built as we drove, and we told our children the story of the Mayflower and how after their first very difficult year, they celebrated a good harvest with their Indigenous friends.
We arrived in Plymouth, found parking, and walked several blocks to a Victorian temple structure that protected the actual site of those first tentative steps into a new world. We found our way to the protective fencing and looked down onto the actual rock itself. I’m not sure exactly what I had imagined, but this was certainly not it! Plymouth Rock was about the size of a medium decorative lawn boulder. Additionally, it had been split into two parts at some point and was rather poorly cemented back together. Rick looked at me, saw my disappointment, and said, “I guess I was kind of expecting Gibraltar.” From that point forward, our family used the term “Plymouth Pebble” to refer to anything that just doesn’t live up to its hype. Thanksgiving, specifically the story about the “First” Thanksgiving, has now become a “Plymouth Pebble” for me.
Let me be honest here: I always loved Thanksgiving. Being off from school. Sharing the wonderful foods around a table full of family and friends from nearby and faraway who come together to give thanks for our abundant blessings. Every few years, too, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving, and really, what better day is there to celebrate a birthday?
Many decades ago, I worked for the Philadelphia School District and documented the work going on in a wide variety of schools. In every school, the week prior to Thanksgiving was set aside to plan a reenactment of the “First” Thanksgiving, with Puerto Rican and African American children portraying the participants: white caps for the girls and buckled hats for the boys portraying the Pilgrims, and headbands and feathers for those portraying the Indians.
At the time, I remember thinking that this was just so incredibly “nice” – that all of us, descended from any ethnic group, those who had just arrived and those whose ancestors went way back, could all come together and celebrate this “First” Thanksgiving of sharing and friendship across cultures. Isn’t this what the United States is all about? What we’re all called to be and to do?
Why is This Myth of the “First” Thanksgiving So Important?
Some myths provide powerful reminders of who we are as a people and the values we uphold. Others teach us how to be honest, brave, kind, and persevering. And then there are those sweet little fairy tales, fabricated stories that allow us to sleep at night, knowing that good and kind European people founded this country and have the God-given right to be in charge. And all is right with the world.
Reality, however, has a sneaky way of catching up to us, doesn’t it? Suddenly, two years ago, I learned from a nephew that Governor William Bradford, English Separatist and Mayflower passenger, is my ninth great-grandfather. He helped create the Mayflower Compact and served as governor of Plymouth Colony for most of three decades, from 1621 until his death in 1657. Of course, this discovery made me want to learn more about early colonial times. I dug into articles and books, searched the internet and worked hard to begin filling in the gaps in my knowledge. Thus, my education about the reality: the true history of European settler and Indigenous relations, and the real story of Thanksgiving began. This education became a difficult intellectual and emotional journey through theft, terrible misunderstandings, broken treaties, massacres, slavery, and wars. I had nightmares and still cannot imagine how difficult the generational trauma must be for those Indigenous communities nearly eradicated through often horrific violence, by wave after wave of European settlers.
The myth of the “First” Thanksgiving has allowed us to minimize the horrors European settlers have inflicted and continue to inflict on Indigenous People. This fairytale provides cover for European settler dominance and violence, from the massacres, enslavement, and removal from Native homelands to forcing children to attend Indian boarding schools. Wamsutta (Frank) James, a Wampanoag, spoke directly to the lies behind this myth. In 1970, the Mayflower descendants invited Wamsutta to speak during their anniversary Thanksgiving Day celebrations in Plymouth, Massachusetts. After reviewing an advance copy of his speech, however, they requested that he read a prepared public relations speech instead. He refused. Instead, he read his speech at a protest held at Plymouth Rock. Every year since 1970, the Wampanoag and other Native American communities have held a Day of Mourning on the fourth Thursday of November instead of celebrating Thanksgiving. While many Indigenous People get together with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day, it is not a happy day of celebration. Instead, it is a day to remember the horrors inflicted upon their ancestors by European settlers.
Where Do I Stand Now?
I remain in awe of my ancestor Governor William Bradford’s bravery, his insights into the rights of Christians to read and interpret the Bible on their own, knowing that they did not have to rely on the King and priests. This deep spiritual belief was translated into a practical political need, with the creation of the Mayflower Compact, a document Bradford helped write and which all male passengers signed when they arrived. I can also appreciate his generosity toward his own people and his attempts to treat the Indigenous People fairly – at least fair according to the European systems he knew. Yet coupled with my admiration for him is also knowledge that he made enormous errors of judgment, specifically by using European settler justice against Indigenous People and allowing so much of their land to be taken that there was not enough to support Indigenous People’ needs. Although not governor at that time, Bradford did not take a stand against the massacre of the Pequots in 1637, nor did he ever stand up for the Indigenous against white settlers.
Telling our kids and grandkids the truth is not easy. It is so much more comfortable to fall back on a sanitized fairytale. Without the Pilgrims, I would not exist. Yet here I am. And here we are, too. I have to accept that I cannot claim my ancestors’ goodness without first understanding, acknowledging, and working to make amends for their evil and I can make a pledge, a promise to do better. In response to the truth of the “First” Thanksgiving, my own actions must recreate this holiday in a way that remembers, honors, and gives thanks to those whose actions literally saved the lives of my ancestors and whose beliefs may save our earth from wanton destruction: the Wampanoag and all Native American communities.
The first thing I will do is remove the “Pilgrims and Indians First Thanksgiving” story and take a stand against images and myths that stereotype and degrade Indigenous people. “Plymouth Pebble” myths and fairytales will not help us create a better country; only truth, education, and informed action will move us forward. I plan to be as honest as I can without traumatizing small children. But I will tell the truth. And I will mourn, as I work to remain mindful that the way we’ve treated Indigenous People requires so much more than an apology. This change of heart will not be easy. It will require that I spend my time and resources. And so, I will also pray to have the courage to do these things.
For Thanksgiving Day itself, I plan to start by reflecting on the truth and determining ways to make amends, since I have benefitted from both their good and their evil actions. I will support Native American causes. Additionally, I will use my status as a Mayflower descendant to educate others and enlist their support in replacing the fairytale of the “First” Thanksgiving with the truth. I will also advocate for more teaching about Native American history in our schools.
Our formal prayers at dinner may include reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s guidelines for the “Honorable Harvest” from her book Braiding Sweetgrass, along with pledges to become better caregivers of our beautiful earth. We might also use the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, being mindful that this is not a prayer for Thanksgiving Day at all, rather a way of being thankful every day, recognizing, that unlike the European settlers who set aside one day a year to give thanks, the Indigenous People gave thanks daily, as a way of life.
And we will celebrate with family and friends together enjoying the foods of the season, many of them from Indigenous People. And as we enjoy these delights, we will take time to remember that we are living on the unceded lands of the Haudenosaunee people and pledge to follow in their footsteps to treat our Mother Earth more gently.
As we close our formal Thanksgiving Day, I want to remember the story of the Great Peacemaker. We must remember that our arrows (our actions) can only be broken when they stand alone. Let us bind our arrows together with those of our brothers and sisters – Indigenous People, African Americans, the newest immigrants, those of us who descend from the earliest European settlers, and those who arrived later. We’re entering a new unknown, our land is threatened as never before. Only together will our nation right itself. Only together, with everyone’s gifts together, can we create a more perfect union and a better world. Let us survive, move forward, and thrive - together.
A Note of Gratitude
I want to thank Kathy Castania, Trish Corcoran, and Rev. Celie Katovitch for their assistance and insights as I was grappling with these ideas and struggling to write. Although I have read many articles and books, my own research on Thanksgiving and early colonial history has not been at all exhaustive; therefore, any errors presented here are my own. There remains much, much more for me to learn.