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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Indians and Thanksgiving

Americans can easily recite the story of the first Thanksgiving. In 1621, a group of 53 colonists at Plymouth, MA, after enduring a harsh winter, sat with nearby American Indians - Wampanoag - for a harvest feast. Chief Massasoit himself and some of his men hunted for some deer that they brought to the feast.

What followed the arrival of the Europeans in North America, though, was not quite so festive. As many as 90 percent of the thousands of Wampanoags in Massachusetts and the offshore islands had already succumbed to disease, at first thought to be small pox but subsequently determined to be some other fever condition. By 1621, although they were as weakened as the colonists, they continued to welcome the outsiders. Then in the 1670s, their resistance to conquest led to the near obliteration of the tribes. The English confiscated their lands and enslaved the survivors.

For American Indians, hospitality to strangers was an intrinsic social value, and across the country they accepted the Europeans. In 1540, Hernando de Alvarado undertook an expedition to the settlement called Cicuye in northern New Mexico, and his chronicler admiringly described the pueblo’s full grain stores, impressive architecture and military strength, including 500 warriors. At first the Cicuye people welcomed the visitors with flute music, gifts of clothing and turquoise, and expressions of joy. The Spaniards pressed them for gold, which the Cicuye denied having. Alvarado’s men captured the leader of Cicuye and some other men, took them back down the Rio Grande and held and tortured them for six months.

Throughout the Southwest, the Pueblos’ generosity was not returned. The Spaniards’ injustices have been well-documented: slave labor, rape, murder, economic demands, and religious persecution. One scholar has estimated that between 1602 and 1680 the number of Pueblo settlements in the Southwest declined by 62 percent. The Pueblo people of New Mexico revolted in 1680 and drove the Spaniards across the Rio Grande back to Mexico. It was the most successful revolt of Native people against the Europeans in what is now the United States. But the chastened Spaniards returned in 1692 and were able to re-establish themselves.

Certainly, one of the most well-known instances of Native generosity was that shown to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, as they sought the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. Accompanying them was Sacagawea, a sixteen-year-old Shoshone Indian woman and guide. The explorers developed relationships with about two dozen Native groups, including the Nez Perce of Idaho. The tribe fed the starving explorers and gave them fuel. But for the support of American Indians, the Lewis and Clark expedition would have perished.

In exchange for their hospitality, in 1877, the homelands of the Nez Perce, which had extended from present-day Oregon across Idaho and Montana, were brutally reduced by 90 percent. A band of 750 Nez Perce, mostly women and children fled to Canada rather than be confined to the reservation. But 2000 U.S. soldiers pursued them for 1000 miles, and the Nez Perce surrendered just south of the border.
Unsurprisingly, American Indians view Thanksgiving Day with ambivalence. While some sit down to the traditional turkey dinner, others are more somber. Since 1970, express a different view of the holiday, United American Indians of New England (UAINE) has gathered every Thanksgiving Day at Plymouth to commemorate what they call a National Day of Mourning.
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