Talking Turkey

The inconvenient history of Thanskgiving

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

History is rough. So rough, that most people prefer to ignore it or concoct their own self-pleasing version of it. The central problem is that history is simply inconvenient; those mountains of dead people piling up and telling us they’ve already done it all. What’s worse, reminding us that we’ll all be just as dead as them someday. Maybe tomorrow? Who knows. More Americans have died in the past 10 months than perished from both combat and disease in World War I — a conflict that, history tells us, the U.S. participated in from April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1918, or about 20 months. Breathing the air in 2020 America is, therefore, at least twice as deadly as fighting in the trenches of eastern France. 

Ugh. Shake that off. Better to keep on keepin’ on — or, as British PM, half-Yank and WWI vet Winston Churchill used to say, “keep buggering on.” Well, to Winston’s ghost, I employ a cliche: “That’s easier said than done.” 

What I’m here to do in this space is be that jerky distant relative who shows up to Thanksgiving dinner and ruins everything with a Serious Conversation when all you want to do is fill your couch cushions with turkey farts and doze off at 6 p.m.

It’s a bummer, but I have breaking news: Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, did not “give” food to the Puritans at Plymouth, Mass., when they tripped off the Mayflower in the early 1620s. Those ranters and ravers, who verily got kicked out of England because their creed was anti-, well, everything, were seemingly easy marks entering the extremely savvy and complex political matrix that long predated their arrival at Plymouth Rock.

Those big-hatted, big-buckled goodies trod without any real thought into a civilizational context that had existed for at least 12,000 years — not even that, but somehow “we” have concocted the notion that the Pilgrims in 1621 made “first contact” and laid the groundwork for the United States of America. Bogus. Europeans had been mixed up with East Coast and present-day Canadian tribes for more than a century before the Mayflower dropped anchor, and the U.S. of A. wasn’t even a twinkle in their eyes. 

The early waves of epidemic disease that started with the invasion of Florida by Spaniard Juan Ponce de León in 1513 had already killed huge swathes of two generations of Indigenous peoples prior to the “providential” landing at the Rock — an event that Malcolm X rightly described as “landing on us,” referring to the soon-after enslavement and forced transportation of millions of Black Africans to toil on the land already being actively wiped clear of its millenia-long inhabitants in the 1620s, a process that continued well into the 20th century and whose results are with us to this day, including in Idaho.

This makes white people uncomfortable — including me, a white man whose German ancestors barged into upstate New York as eager settler-colonists in 1710 — but it’s true. Massasoit didn’t help the Pilgrims out of kindness; it was an opportunity. 

The Atlantic coastal tribes had adjusted to the presence of Europeans by making their trade goods a critical part of inter-tribal diplomatic relations, which relied on reciprocity of high-value trade as a signifier of power and prestige. Massasosit saw the Pilgrims as a main chance to capture a trade node, which he could leverage against his rival chiefs.

This backfired, as the sachem underestimated the tenacity and rapaciousness of the newcomers. Fifty-four years later Massachusetts erupted in an orgy of violence known as King Philip’s War, led by Massasoit’s second son Metacom — a.k.a. Metacomet and “King Philip” — against the colonists and their Indigenous allies. The Wampanoags lost, with Metcom ending up mutilated in a swamp and his wife and children sold as slaves to Bermuda.

Hence, what we consider Thanksgiving, the descendants of Massosit’s people — and all Indigenous peoples on this continent — regard as a Day of Mourning.

For further reading, I suggest Facing East from Indian Country, by Daniel K. Richter, The Saltwater Empire, by Andrew Lipman and — especially — This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, by David Silverman.

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