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Our Thanksgiving Legacy

Eighteen months ago, our family was in the midst of a year-long stay in the Netherlands. On one weekend, we visited the university town of Leiden and marveled at its university founded in 1575. As we wound our way through narrow streets and over canals, I came to a full stop outside of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. Reading the plaque on the building, my hazy American history came a bit more into focus as I was reminded of how that mythic band of settlers had decamped first from England to Holland, and after a sojourn in Leiden of about a decade, made their way on to the so-called New World.

We’re still unpacking the history of Thanksgiving that will forever be married to those settlers. As it would happen, this most American of holidays is born out of two of the most grievous episodes in our national story – the conquest of Native American peoples and the legacy of slavery.

It was Abraham Lincoln who declared the first official Thanksgiving in 1863 to mark the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, victories in a war that was always about slavery. The founder of Thanksgiving, while a president of epic stature, remains an ambivalent abolitionist in history, having stated, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."

This past July, the Massachusetts coastal town of Plymouth celebrated the 400th anniversary of the landing in 1620 of those “pilgrims” (a name bestowed on them only in the 1880s). It would be a year later when, after twelve months of hardship, the settlers gathered for a multi-day feast with members of the native Wampanoag people who had taught them how to plant and the best places to fish. The only surviving written account of this event appears in a letter that ‘pilgrim’ Edward Winslow wrote to a relative back in England:

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

I came across the excerpt of this letter on the website of the Plimoth Plantation Museum that is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the story of both those early settlers and the indigenous Wampanoag. I appreciate how the museum grapples openly with the history it curates: “This land that is both Patuxet and Plymouth speaks to the emergence of an Indigenous-English hybrid society that existed here – in conflict and in collaboration – in the 17th century. It is a complex and interwoven story of diplomacy and subterfuge, of respect and of oppression, of friendship and enmity, of innovation forged of necessity. In short, it is America. It is the history we are all still living today.

The museum is led by both indigenous and non-indigenous people and seeks to be an ally to the original people on whose land it rests. Among the listed press releases from the museum is this post: “A Message of Support for the Mashpee Wampanoag Community.” This statement was spurred by the news that “on March 27, 2020, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe that the tribe's reservation will be "disestablished" and its land taken out of trust.” As part of their response, the museum urged support for the "Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act” (HR.312) which has been passed by the House but has yet to be voted on in the Senate.

The Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, Cedric Cromwell, Qaqeemasq (Running Bear), issued a statement following the action of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which said in part:

[W]e the People of the First Light have lived here since before there was a Secretary of the Interior, since before there was a State of Massachusetts, since before the Pilgrims arrived 400 years ago. We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren. This Administration has come and it will go. But we will be here, always. And we will not rest until we are treated equally with other federally recognized tribes and the status of our reservation is confirmed.

Tomorrow, our immediate family will sit down for a meal that we are blessed to enjoy. We will connect via one Zoom call with my sister in Florida and my brother in New Jersey, and in a second Zoom call with my wife’s family in Ohio. We will be mindful of those who go without, and all who have suffered and continue to struggle through this pandemic. And we will be thankful – for all the blessings in our lives, and for this country of ours – whose history we continue to untangle, and whose promise we continue to strive for.

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