SAN JOSE, Calif., Nov. 26, 2015 – Today a majority of Americans will try to put fears of terrorist attacks aside and partake of numerous activities celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, which will involve a hearty meal of one sort or another. There will also be many of faith who will still sincerely express gratitude for blessings they received during the year. This is the benign manner of celebrating this traditional holiday.
For the most part, however, Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving conjure up visions of their favorite holiday foods. The original significance of this harvest festival or celebration of life can easily be lost amidst the turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, thoughts of Pilgrims and Indians are often far too distant in the past to have any relevance significance or to holiday celebrations in 2015. Yet, even though the “First Thanksgiving” occurred nearly 400 years ago, many Americans to some degree still remember the stories of this gathering and feasting of the Pilgrims and Indians.
The irony is that these two groups of people may have enjoyed something much more valuable than venison and wild turkey. To more fully appreciate the original event, one needs to realize that in this time, some great feast lasting three days could not have been shared without a cordial relationship between the two peoples.
The unfortunate reality today is that the original celebration has been romanticized and viewed in almost mythical proportions since 1621. And, as is often the case, as historical events fade into the shadows of the past, the actual people involved and events that occurred become distorted. The event Americans remember as the First Thanksgiving is such an event; yet, if people could understand the significance from a more historical framework, it would provide even greater meaning.
Although the First Thanksgiving has been scrutinized and viewed from numerous perspectives, the event was quite simple, and it likely had more to do with internal reality such as compassion and the human heart than what serious academics would be comfortable in acknowledging. This event had more to do with the Wampanoag Indians than with the Pilgrims and was more a harvest festival than a formal religious ceremony, but it was the Pilgrims who put the facts to paper for the historical record.
The historical record does not provide much to go on, but it is not difficult to imagine that at the heart of this harvest festival were two reciprocal gestures to generate friendship. They were a direct result of the peace treaty established of April 1621 between the Wampanoag sachem (chief) Massasoit and Gov. John Carver of the Plymouth Plantation. Squanto was crucial in helping to translate that agreement, and he also offered even more extensive help to the colonists:
But Squanto continued with them [after the peace treaty], and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.
It is highly likely that William Bradford felt genuine gratitude for the establishment of peace with the Wampanoag Indians and for Squanto’s help in enabling the Pilgrims to have a bountiful harvest. On the foundation of respect and trust the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags could participate with the Pilgrims as they made efforts to “rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.” More than 90 Indians participated in the rejoicing and turned the gathering into a real celebration. But they did not come to devour the settlers’ precious harvest; it was the Indians who seemed to provide most of the food.
Such a celebration must have been emotionally overwhelming to the surviving Pilgrims, as they hoped for a better future and became friends with the Wampanoags at this time of feasting. For the Wampanoags, it was likely a significant form of bonding with these English people. For many American Indian peoples, friendship was considered precious. One beautiful expression of such high regard for friendship is found in the writings of Ohiyes’a, who was born in 1858 into the Santee Sioux tribe of the Sioux or Dakota nation. In 1911, he published “The Soul of an Indian: an Interpretation,” which explained the Sioux or Dakota nation’s perspectives on many Indian traits. He wrote this about friendship:
Among our people, friendship is held to be the severest test of character.
It is easy… to be loyal to family and clan, whose blood is in our own veins… But to have a friend, and to be true under any and all trials, is the truest mark of a man!
The highest type of friendship is the relation of ‘brother-friend’ or ‘life-and-death’ friend. This bond is between man and man; it is usually formed in early youth, and can only be broken by death.
It is the essence of comradeship and fraternal love, without thought of pleasure or gain, but rather for moral support and inspiration. Each vows to die for the other, if need be, and nothing is denied the brother-friend, but neither is anything required that is not in accord with the highest conception of the Indian mind.
It becomes clear that the Wampanoag people accepted the Pilgrims as their friends and trusted them as such. The harvest festival sealed those bonds of friendship even more effectively than the peace agreement between the leaders. These two peoples for a period of 50 years enjoyed the fruits of their labors toward maintaining the peace and harmony between them, and that is a bit more valuable than more turkey and pumpkin pie.