Most people think they know the history of Thanksgiving.
From the Macy’s Day parade with giant floating cartoons to Presidents pardoning turkeys, the most American holiday of all draws on the centuries-old story that Puritans from England settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in hopes of finding a new life free of religious to start tracking. But the harsh winter — made worse by deficiency diseases like scurvy — wiped out nearly half of them by the time they made their first contact with the local Wampanoag tribe in March 1621.
The natives, led by their chief Massasoit, signed a peace treaty with the settlers, taught them how to farm and fish, and paved the way to early success. For their generosity, the settlers joined the men of Massasoit in a three-day festival of goodwill that gave birth to the annual turkey tradition observed across the United States
Although there is some historical truth to this event, this celebration was never called Thanksgiving, nor did it become a ritual that was regularly celebrated. Instead, the first official Thanksgiving — while much less idyllic — more accurately reflects the often violent relationship between white settlers and indigenous peoples.
But the first proclamation of Thanksgiving came 16 years after the Puritans reached the New England shore, when Massachusetts Bay Governor William Bradford “designated a day of thanksgiving to be observed in all churches for our victories against the Pequots” – with the only natives present, according to the New Haven Museum, were those captured during the previous bloody raid.
The Pequot Massacre took place on May 26, 1637, and ended nearly four years of skirmishes between the Pequot Nation—a tribe of about 8,000 residents that stretched across most of Connecticut—and the colonists, along with their native allies.
“After more than 375 years, the Pequot War remains one of the most controversial and significant events in colonial and Native American history,” said researcher Kevin McBride, project leader of the Battlefields of the Pequot War project. “It forever changed the political and social landscape of southern New England. The Pequot War lasted just over a year and its events, particularly the massacre at Mistick Fort, had long-lasting repercussions as it showed the native people of the region the English willingness to wage all-out war.”
The Pequot War began as isolated trade disputes, but escalated when Pequot allies murdered an English trader named John Stone and his crew in retaliation for a separate attack that killed a Pequot chief. In July 1636, the murder of a second English trader, committed by Narragansett Indians and falsely blamed on the Pequot, set off a series of Puritan raids and retaliatory attacks that lasted until the spring of 1637, according to the Battlefields of the Pequot War Project.
On the day of the massacre, two colonial officers—Captain John Mason of Connecticut and Captain John Underhill of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—led a party of several hundred men, including a contingent of Narragansett and Mohegan warriors, to the Pequot settlement in present-day Mystic, Connecticut .
“More than 400 Pequot men, women and children were killed in one hour,” McBride said. “The English reported that only seven Pequot were captured and seven escaped.”
The men set fire to about 80 huts with a population of about 800, ambushed those attempting to escape and shot them dead. The Pequot who survived the initial attack were hacked or beaten to death by the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors.
“It’s seen as a pivotal moment in our history,” McBride said.
Since the violence that characterized early interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Native Americans have struggled to set the record straight after centuries of ensuing disputes, bloodshed, and fighting.
“It’s insane that Tribal peoples aren’t portrayed as patriots who fought for their freedom and existence,” said Faries Gray, Sagamore or chief of the Massachusetts Tribe of Ponkapoag in Massachusetts. “We can’t change what happened in the past, but if you look back 400 years to the present day, for many of those years, the indigenous people couldn’t even have an identity. Being us was not allowed. We were killed, murdered, tortured or imprisoned just for being us.”
For nearly four years, Faries Gray has been challenging communities and their traditions with a single message to get rid of Native American mascots.
“Now there are people who dress up in costumes like us and are now playing Indians. But they say we’re honored. That mindset is ridiculous,” Gray said. “You can’t do the things you did to our people and then decide how you want to honor us. So when we look at the mascot, we see that people are misrepresenting us.”
Gray, like many tribal leaders, has become an activist calling for more justice and understanding of the struggles tribal groups face.
Since the 1970s, Indigenous peoples and their allies have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to mark a national day of mourning on the Thanksgiving holiday.
It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest against the racism and oppression that indigenous peoples continue to experience around the world.
This year the United American Indians of New England called the 53rd National Day of Mourning at the statue of Massasoit above the Plymouth seafront.
“We indigenous people have no reason to celebrate the arrival of the pilgrims. We want to educate people to understand that the stories we all learned in school about the first Thanksgiving are nothing but lies,” said Kisha James, who is Aquinnah Wampanoag and Lakota and the granddaughter of the National’s founder Day of Mourning. “For us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning as we commemorate the millions of our ancestors murdered by European colonists like the Pilgrims.”
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James, who has attended the annual event since she was a child, represents a new generation of indigenous peoples from those who started the tradition over 50 years ago.
“Change is long overdue,” said James. “We still face the issues that the elders spoke about in 1970 on the first National Day of Mourning.”
American Indians and Alaska Natives born today live 5.5 years less than other races. Both groups also continue to die at higher rates than other Americans in many categories, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes mellitus, accidental injuries, homicide, suicide and chronic lower respiratory diseases, according to the Indian Health Service, the federal health program for Alaskan Indians and Native Americans.
“On this national day of mourning, I am honored to not only be following in my grandfather’s footsteps, but also in the footsteps of all the indigenous women who paved the way for my generation,” said James.
Stephen Underwood can be reached at [email protected]