Native Intelligence: A Different Perspective on Thanksgiving

American history classes typically start with Columbus and the European immigrants who settled in North America, despite thew fact that there were plenty of people already here, and their history goes back much further. The Europeans were better at record keeping. Unless you are very young, you probably learned a sanitized version of the Thanksgiving harvest festival at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The real story is much more complicated, involving a horrible first winter for the Pilgrims, and Native American nations that were dealing with an invasion of strangers as well as their own enemies. In 2005, Charles C. Mann wrote a history of the Americas beginning before Columbus, from the perspective of the natives. Smithsonian has an excerpt from that book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that deals with Plymouth Colony.    

On March 22, 1621, a Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to meet with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement. At the head of the party was an uneasy triumvirate: Massasoit, the sachem (political-military leader) of the Wampanoag confederation, a loose coalition of several dozen villages that controlled most of southeastern Massachusetts; Samoset, sachem of an allied group to the north; and Tisquantum, a distrusted captive, whom Massasoit had brought along only reluctantly as an interpreter.

Massasoit was an adroit politician, but the dilemma he faced would have tested Machiavelli. About five years before, most of his subjects had fallen before a terrible calamity. Whole villages had been depopulated. It was all Massasoit could do to hold together the remnants of his people. Adding to his problems, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies, the Narragansett alliance to the west. Soon, Massasoit feared, they would take advantage of the Wampanoag’s weakness and overrun them. And the only solution he could see was fraught with perils of its own, because it involved the foreigners—people from across the sea.

Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the Natives, oddly dressed and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for the cheap furs that the Indians used as blankets.

The negotiations that led to an alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, which saved the Pilgrim colony from total destruction and led to our Thanksgiving holiday, are more involved than you were ever taught in school. Read the rest of that story at Smithsonian. -via Metafilter


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