As Americans sit down to a table full of food this Thanksgiving Day, many may retell a story they learned in elementary school, about the Pilgrims who befriended the local Indians after the Mayflower dropped its anchor in Cape Cod Bay in 1620. It’s that story that has endured in mythology, the image of European settlers giving thanks with Native Americans.
But 400 years after the establishment of the famed Pilgrim colony in what’s now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Wampanoag, the people the English Protestants encountered after fleeing religious oppression in their homeland, want the real story of the fateful landing and the events that followed told.
It’s a story of friendship betrayed by greed and intolerance, of a nation’s lands, economy and religion whittled away in the name of manifest destiny. A story of that nation’s long road to recovering its sovereignty and dignity and one of its most important cultural and historic artifacts: its national wampum belt.
And it’s a story Indigenous people say has parallels as settlers moved across the continent in search of new lands and sources of wealth.
“It never ceases to amaze me that year after year Americans need to be reminded every ‘Thanksgiving’ about the critical role that the Wampanoag played in saving the settlers at Plymouth Colony,” said David Martinez, associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.
The story of how the Wampanoag helped settlers through their first months on the continent, only to be subjected to land theft, attacks and even sexual assault, has been repeated many times, said Martinez, who is Akimel O’odham and Hia-Ced O’odham.
His own tribe’s water was stolen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after aiding early settlers with food and protection from other tribes.
“In spite of generations of Indian leaders reminding the whites what Indian people have done for Americans, beginning with the Wampanoag, they keep forgetting, year after year, always acting like this is the first time they have ever heard of this history.”
First people meet new people
When the English colonists known as the Pilgrims stepped on the shores of what’s called Plymouth on Nov.16, 1620, they found what they considered paradise, overflowing with wildlife, rich soils, cleared fields and a sheltered location on a hillside. They also found a ghost town, with human skeletons strewn about.
Current-day scenes of areas on Outer Cape Cod explored by the Pilgrims in 1620 and discussion about their interaction with Native Americans.
Cape Cod Times
The seaside Wampanoag village of Patuxet was once home to about 2,000 people. It was one of 69 settlements throughout southeastern Massachusetts and parts of modern Rhode Island as well as Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard.
After inhabiting their lands and coastal waters for more than 12,000 years, the Wampanoag, or People of the First Light, were masterful stewards. They managed their lands and waters to provide a good life for themselves and other species. They knew how to plant their crops for maximum yields while keeping pests at bay, and to sustain the soils that gave life to corn, beans and squash along with other squashes like pumpkin and zucchini.
They supplemented their diets with deer, moose, beaver, raccoon and other animal meats. A thrifty people, the Wampanoag used every part of the animal bodies they brought home for clothing, sewing and small tools.
They also fished freshwater and seawater species, including the famed quahog shellfish, a source of one of their most important and revered cultural materials: wampum. Handmade tubular beads from the shells of both quahog and whelk shells, with their brilliant whites and lush purple shades, were used to create wampum belts. Those belts provided historical records and marked important events such as intertribal treaties, marriages and other significant events. The shells were also traded for valuable items like furs.
Their highly-developed social structure and healthy diets had long served them well. Mashpee Wampanoag Councilman Brian Weeden said it was not uncommon for Wampanoags to live to age 90 or 100,amazing colonists who had left a country where the average life expectancy was 40, with few living past age 59.
But they were no match for an unexpected foe new to the continent, a virulent disease for which they had no immunity. During the Great Dying of 1616 to 1619, a smallpox-like plague brought by early European traders spread like wildfire, leaving few to deal with the masses of their dead.
The colonists considered it God’s blessing. William Bradford, the elected leader of the Pilgrims, wrote that the devastation of large swaths of Native communities provided the setting for “the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
Another colony founder, Thomas Morton, was more blunt. He supported what Wampanoag historian Paula Peters called the ethnic cleansing of New England Natives to make the region “much the more fit for the English Nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.”
The Pilgrims and other colonists also regarded the Native peoples as lesser humans. The month before disembarking the Mayflower at Patuxet, later to be called Plymouth, the colonists had dug up graves and food caches on nearby Cape Cod, taking whatever they deemed was valuable.
That action foreshadowed more such deeds by the Pilgrims and other English colonists, who considered themselves higher, more favored humans than the first peoples of New England.
After losing about half their people during the harsh winter months, the colonists in 1621 finally received a visit from Samoset, a visiting Abenaki sachem, or leader, who happened to speak English.
“Welcome, Englishmen,” Samoset told the Pilgrims. After establishing relations, he left and brought back the Wampanoag named Tisquantum, known commonly as Squanto, who spoke more fluent English.
Squanto was a Patuxet native who was in England when the plague swept through. He had been kidnapped by another English explorer with other Wampanoag men and taken to Great Britain to be sold into slavery.
He managed to get back to Patuxet only to find his village was gone, wiped out by disease. He resided for a time in the community of the Grand Sachem Massasoit, who sent the young Wampanoag man to serve as an ambassador and translator to the Pilgrims.
Squanto attempted to teach the colonists the best way to grow the “three sisters,” corn, beans and squash, by planting a fish head as fertilizer, then planting the corn with bean and squash seeds in a mound around the corn, said Peters. The corn provides a climbing pole for the beans, while the squash meanders along the ground, keeping weeds at bay.
The Pilgrims, Peters said, soon returned to their practice of row crops.
The Wampanoags continued to welcome their new neighbors, said Weeden. “They didn’t know how to survive out here in the wintertime, so the Wampanoag really helped them out.”
That first gathering
The true story of the first Thanksgiving, held in 1621, is not in history books.
“It wasn’t this big old get together like everyone thinks it is,” Weeden said. “We were never invited to the first Thanksgiving.”
At that time, the Wampanoag and the English colonists had a mutual protection agreement.
“Massasoit made this alliance with the English because they had guns, which was a new form of weapons,” he said. The agreement said that the colony governor would call upon the Wampanoag for assistance and vice versa.
“When the English got their first harvest, they were shooting off their muskets and practicing and celebrating their first harvest and that they had made it through the winter,” Weeden said.
Massasoit, hearing of the gunshots, rushed to Plymouth with 90 warriors ready to do battle with invaders. Because the Wampanoag believed they were going to battle, they left their women and children safe at home, said Weeden.
“Once they got there and found out what was going on, that’s when they partook in the celebration,” he said. Massasoit sent out his men for deer and other food items to sustain the three-day celebration.
But relations soon soured between the Wampanoag and the English colonists. The agreement that was negotiated in good faith turned out to be a bad bargain for the tribe. English law prevailed over Wampanoag government, a similar form to the Iroquois Confederacy that some scholars say served as the model for the U.S. federal system. Wampanoag people were subject to heavy fines for the smallest cases, which were to be paid in land.
Their belief system was reviled as devilish worship, and the colonists were quick to force Christianity on Native people. Peters wrote in the essay “On Patuxet” that the Pilgrims believed in religious freedom, but only for themselves.
Even the colonists’ domestic animals proved to have more rights than the Indigenous people, as the English refused to prevent their cattle and pigs from ravaging Wampanoag fields or trampling shell beds.
These and other encroachments on Native rights, including eliminating traditional food sources like game, shellfish beds and other sources, finally drove Massasoit’s successor and son, Metacom, known to the English as King Philip, to the breaking point. He refused to take his complaints to the colonial court. As Peters reports, Massasoit told a colonial official, “by arbitration they had much wrong; many miles of land so taken from them, for English would have English arbitrators.”
Soon, one of the bloodiest wars in American history, King Philip’s War, broke out. By the time the war ended in 1678, at least 2,500 colonists lay dead and at least 40% of the Wampanoag were slain.
Massasoit, who was assassinated in 1676, was drawn and quartered, and his head was placed on a pike, where it remained for 25 years.
Over the following centuries, the Wampanoag Nation shriveled from 69 communities to three. After Massachusetts disestablished the Mashpee reservation in 1870 and forced Wampanoag and other Indians to become citizens of the commonwealth, it opened up the town to non-Natives and allotted former reservation land to tribal families.
The pressure put on Native people to assimilate and give up their identity as the People of the First Light was intense. Wampanoag kids were taken from homes and sent to Indian boarding schools in the early 20th century. The federal government finally recognized the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), located on Martha’s Vineyard, in 1987 and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in 2007.
There’s also a non-recognized tribe, the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe in Plymouth, and some smaller bands.
A new wampum belt may help locate an older one
Peters, the Wampanoag historian, was part of a collaboration of tribal artists and cultural people who created a new wampum belt that they hope will help locate an older one lost in the 17th century, while also commemorating the events that led to the upheavals of their nation.
“The Wampanoag have been asking about and seeking out our historic wampum belt that would have belonged to Metacom, who was King Philip to the English king,” said Peters.
After King Philip’s War ended in 1678, the English “took a 9-foot-long wampum belt that was essentially the history of our people because it was a community belt,” she said. “It was the collected stories of the people, obviously over generations, and more than likely had belonged to his father Massasoit, who made the initial alliance with the Pilgrims.” People added stories to the belt in the form of symbols through the decades.
“It would be to the Wampanoag as valuable as the crown jewels are to the people of the United Kingdom,” Peters said.
The belt disappeared and has yet to be found.
But with the 400th anniversary approaching, the Wampanoag people decided it was time to take their 50-year search for the belt a notch further. While Peters was meeting with other people in London to discuss the anniversary commemorations, the lost belt was mentioned. Soon, she said, a foundation stepped forward to support the creation of a new belt, the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit in the United Kingdom.
The two federally recognized tribes held community meetings, Peters said.
“But we also had private meetings and we reached out to people to inform us on what they wanted their wampum belt to say.”
A group of about 100 Wampanoag artisans made the beads and wove the belt.
“The only piece of it that was not made by a Wampanoag tribe member was the warp of the belt, which was made from brain-tanned deer hide made by a Nipmuc who specializes in hide tanning in the traditional sense,” she said.
The new belt is featured in an exhibit that is traveling through Great Britain. “Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America” also includes historic Wampanoag artifacts taken from their homeland to England.
“The overarching theme of the exhibit is wampum and what it means to Indigenous people,” Peters said. The exhibit also features pieces from the British Museum’s collection, which Peters said the tribes would someday like to see come home.
“The big picture here is that for all these years we’ve been looking for Metacom’s belt in a place where people have no idea what wampum is, let alone a wampum belt,” said Peters. “So now this display is going out to cities and museums in the United Kingdom and will give the people an idea of what we’re looking for.
“If you see it, this is what we’re looking for, it looks like this.”
‘It’s been there all the time’
The events that started with the English settlers’ arrival 400 years ago aren’t told in the story most people have heard over the years, but the true account isn’t a bid to rewrite history books. It’s an attempt to correct the record.
“It’s a shameful story,” said Peters. “But who wants to look back at a period of time when there was such incredible intolerance for Indigenous people who were at least initially, nothing but kind of welcoming when those people came?”
When those people realized they’d been duped and fought for their lands and rights, she said, they were demonized.
Peters said although some people call the Wampanoag’s work to raise awareness of the true story revisionist history, “It’s been there the whole time.” Recognizing what happens when a community was forced to sacrifice to benefit another community is important, she said.
There also is some movement from non-Native groups to support the Wampanoag’s efforts to raise awareness of the complete story of the interactions between them and the colonists, and later, the commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States.
Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400, the nonprofit group that is organizing the Plymouth commemoration, said her board made it a priority to include the Native peoples in the event. Plymouth 400 has had a member of one of the Wampanoag tribes on the board since about 2009, she said. Peters was one of the Native people included on the board, Pecoraro said.
The group also created an advisory committee from representatives of the Wampanoag communities.
“Any question I have, I run by my board member and the Wampanoag and the advisory committee so that we’re not doing the wrong thing,” she said. “I find that sometimes there’s differing opinions on what the right thing is, but we are having those conversations.”
Plymouth 400 and its British counterpart, Plymouth 400 UK, also host an ongoing virtual exhibit called “‘Our'” Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History” which features both videos and live webcasts spotlighting the often turbulent history of the Wampanoag and the European nations that disrupted their nation.
On Thursday, one of the best-known Thanksgiving Day events will pay homage to the Wampanoag and other Indigenous peoples of the East Coast and New England.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has invited representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, along with Lenape, Métis, Tsalagi (Cherokee), Ojibwe, Oneida and Shinnecock tribal members, to offer a land acknowledgement with hand drum accompaniment, a blessing of thanks in the Wampanoag language, and a traditional rattle song during the first hour of the parade.
“We’re blessed to have the show move forward, and we wanted to celebrate Indigenous voices this year,” said Wesley Whatley, the parade’s creative producer for performances. “With the history of Thanksgiving and given that the Wampanoag were the first people in contact with settlers, it felt right to program something that’s authentic and honest and special for this parade.”
In 1970, on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Aquinnah Wampanoag elder Frank “Wamsutta” James was invited to speak at the commemoration. But when the organizers read James’ speech, they canceled the invitation. James instead gave his speech on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth on what is now an annual event called the “Day of Mourning” on Thanksgiving Day.
“What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important,” James said, “where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail. You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate in the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.”
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.
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