THE HIDDEN RADICAL ACT BEHIND THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
The Pilgrim’s arrived in the vicinity of Cape Cod, MA on November 11, 1620. Even though the Mayflower had been damaged in storms making further navigation difficult, they spent the next month exploring the coast for a place to settle.
On December 11, they weighed anchor at Plymouth Rock but winter had come early with heavy snow. Many of the passengers and crew had fallen ill, coughing violently. The Colonists were also wracked with the effects of scurvy.
The Europeans, with their mild winters, were ill-prepared to jump off their ship into such harsh conditions. Movement in the New World’s deep snow was difficult at best, impeding exploration. Game to supply their dwindling larder was scarce.
Long before there Thankgiving holidays, long before there were Pilgrims, before there were explorers with New Worlds to explore, a story circulated among the peoples of northeast lands of America about their own Thanksgiving, of sorts.
In the beginning of time, people lived in harmony with the land. In their appreciation and reverence all things comprising Mother Earth, they would sing songs to honor them.
Harsh conditions or not, they were desperate to escape the floating petri dish that the Mayflower had become. Building efforts were begun in earnest but slowed because of the snow.
Occasionally, First Americans would be spotted from a distance but would run off before the gun-bearing Englishmen could get close. What the Pilgrims didn’t know was that this was not the indigenous people’s first contact with Europeans. Fisherman and explorers had been traveling these coasts for years.
One day a bear, Muin by name, was in the forest when he heard one of these songs being sung by the people. The song was being sung in his honor, and their voices were carried by the wind into the forest. When Muin heard this beautiful song he felt honored and respected.
The first house erected was immediately turned into a hospital for the increasingly ill colonists. Of the 102 people that had made the voyage, 31 were dead by February.
The colony’s situation was dire. They rationed their remaining supplies to not-enough daily portions which only accelerated disease. Little game could be found. The Pilgrim’s had pilfered provisions found left in a native burial mound they had dug up weeks earlier, but these too were now gone.
Muin went to the edge of a clearing in the forest, and saw that the people were in ceremony. As he watched and listened, he saw the people making offerings to his spirit, and he heard the kind words that the people spoke of him. They referred to him as Brother. Then he heard the people ask him for medicines to help them.
The death toll continued to rise. By March, only 47 of the original 102 colonists remained. At the height of the sickness, only six or seven people were healthy enough to care for the others.
Weak from malnourishment and disease, the feeble settlers were in danger of obliteration. They needed help, but their support was 3,220 miles away, more than two months of voyage across a wintery ocean if your ship was shipshape.
At that moment, Muin realized that he must make a journey for the people and bring back medicines for them. Muin knew he would be gone for many moons and so he began his quest. Throughout his journey, he collected medicines for the dying people.
It was March 16 when Abenaki Chief Samoset brazenly strode into the midst of the colony much to the dismay of the shivering and hacking Pilgrims. Already familiar with Europeans from fishing vessels and earlier explorers, Samoset took it upon himself to foster goodwill between the immigrants and First Americans.
The plants agreed to give their life-giving medicines as long as Muin would cultivate and fertilize the land for them and teach others to do so. Do this, and the plants would return year after year giving their bounty to the people. Muin agreed to do this.
Samoset introduced the dying Pilgrims to Tisquantum (“Squanto”), who had been kidnapped 6 years earlier by explorer Thomas Hunt and brought back to England and sold into slavery. How Squanto escaped and returned to America is unknown. But during the time he was away, he learned the language and ways of the English which later proved crucial to the survival of the settlers at Plymouth Rock.
Finally, after many moons, Muin’s journey was coming to an end. Muin requested the people to prepare a feast to celebrate his return and honor the medicines the plants have given him for the people.
Acting as emissary on behalf of the great Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, Tisquantum supplied the colony with food. He taught them how to catch fish and successfully hunt local game. As Spring sprung into bloom, he taught them how to plant corn as well as other vegetables.
The people were happy and immediately began preparations for the Feast. After four days, the feast was ready. Berries, fish and other food prepared and the people gathered together. And once gathered, the story was told how in Harvest of the year we honor Muin for bounty he has made possible.
Under Tisquantum’s guidance, the band of survivors flourished through the summer and into the Fall with a plentiful harvest. In all cultures, feasts are used to celebrate good fortune. On September 29, the 47 Pilgrims held a feast of thankfulness as was their custom in Europe. They invited their native hosts, 93 of whom joined them in their celebration.
And so it continues to this day. Muin tills and fertilizes the ground to help plants grow, and during the long cold winter he journeys once again to seek medicines for the people. And each year, in the Harvest and the Spring, native people gather together for a feast in his honor.
Every culture has their stories, stories of how we understand the Bigger Picture relates to this world. We are once again at a time of our stories of Pilgrims and giving thanks, Advent and reconciliation, a baby in a barn and forgiveness. We all know these stories, but knowing the story changes nothing.
It’s in the living out of the truths of our stories that changes our world. “Talk is cheap” and all that.
And here we have Tisquantum who was kidnapped; taken away to a strange and dangerous place without hope of returning to the life he once knew, but nonetheless persevered to somehow escape and find his way back home.
Tisquantum, who upon finding the very people who had hurt him to such a great extent before, found them hungry, sick and dying. Furthermore, these Europeans had settled, infested the very site of his now-gone tribe’s summer fishing camp. All he would have to do is wait, watch and they would soon be gone. Who instead of exacting an easily justifiable revenge, helped them flourish into abundance.
Tisquantum knew the story of the bear Muin and how he helped and continues to help people when they need it, lived out the portrait this story had painted. He showed what the truth of that story looked like in the real world.
We tend to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving with the attitude, “Of course they helped us Europeans. Who wouldn’t want to help Europeans?” As though the new world owed us something; as though we (I am of European descent) were somehow entitled to success and survival in somebody else’s world.
It couldn’t have been easy for Tisquantum. In spite of our story-telling sheen, the inner turmoil had to be difficult. It would be for me. You too. No doubt it went against what others thought he should do: probably against what he himself felt like doing. It was counterculture. It was radical.
Rather than commemorating vengeance, we now celebrate a giving of thanks that occurred 300-years ago. One man, living out his people’s story and in doing so reversed rather than perpetuated evil. And perhaps we too, should we find our self trapped, far from where we belong or want to be, a stranger in a strange land as a result of our prodigal wanderings or otherwise, can look to our stories and maybe in them find not only a way to make the world a little better, but also our way home.