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Updated on November 28, 2012


Officially, Thanksgiving was designated a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 with the following words: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Lincoln hoped his fellow countrymen could find some blessings amid the fearful carnage of the Civil War. Today, of course, Thanksgiving is not associated with our greatest conflict, but the Pilgrims and the Native Americans at Plymouth 240 years before Honest Abe wrote out his decree. The English colonists celebrated the first harvest in their new home by inviting those Natives who helped them survive to a feast.

Unfortunately, the initial good feelings that existed between the colonists and their Native friends would not last, leading to the saddest saga in American History. No wonder many Native Americans find little to be grateful for at Thanksgiving. A sign of things to come had already manifested itself before the arrival of the Pilgrims, in England’s first North American settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. The starving colonists there bullied the local Natives to obtain food, causing Wahunsonacak of the Powhatans to ask, “Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food?” It would not be food, however, that drove the final wedge between the two peoples, but land. The Native Americans possessed it, but were willing to share. The English colonists and later American settlers wanted it all for themselves, from sea to shining sea.

The example of the Pilgrims might have set a standard for white-Native relations, but their friendship and peace only lasted 50 years. It was the other group of settlers in Massachusetts, the Puritans, who soured the amity that had been cultivated by the Pilgrims. Arriving in 1630, the Puritans brandished a fire and brimstone righteousness that saw the Natives as creatures of the Devil, who needed to be exterminated from the Earth. Their wrath fell first on the Pequots of Connecticut, though the reason was more economic than religious. Engaged in a struggle for control of the wampum trade, the Puritans descended on the Pequots’ main village in 1637 with such fury that a Narragansett Indian who witnessed the slaughter lamented, “It is naught! (bad or wicked), it is naught, because it is too furious and slays too many men.” Over 400 men, women, and children were killed, the few survivors scattering to the winds (to re-appear over 300 years later to wreak vengeance on the white man through the Foxwoods Casino and Resort).

Metacomet, a Wampanoag chieftain, who was known to the English as King Phillip, tried to rally the remaining New England tribes in 1675 and drive the Puritans into the sea. Ironically, Metacomet was the son of Massasoit, the leader who negotiated the treaty of friendship with the Pilgrims 50 years earlier. Initial success was followed by crushing defeat for Metacomet and his followers. The chief’s head ended up on a stake outside the entrance to the Puritans’ primary town of Boston (where it remained for 20 years), while his wife and children were sold into slavery. This tragic pattern would be repeated until the late 1800’s, when Native American resistance finally ended, and the remnants of the tribes were herded onto reservations. Left behind were the eloquent pleas of Native leaders against the callousness and inhumanity of their white neighbors

“Where today are the Pequot and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun.”- Tecumseh, Shawnee. “Brothers, I have listened to a great many talks from our Great Father, but they always began and ended in this- Get a little further; you are too near me.”- Speckled Snake, Creek. “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”- Red Cloud, Lakota. “Yes, we know that when you come, we die.”- Chiparopai, Yuma.

Powerful reminders of the unconscionable treatment afforded our original inhabitants also linger: “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”- Colonel John Chivington to his soldiers before wiping out a peaceful Cheyenne village in 1864. “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” – General Phil Sheridan, 1868. “When the Indians talk about rights, they should remember it’s like a master-servant relationship. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. This is the white man’s case: there are more of us than there are of them.” Power County Prosecutor, Idaho, 1979. “I don’t know what their complaint might be. Maybe we should have not have humored them in wanting to stay in their primitive lifestyle.”- President Ronald Reagan, 1988.

After reaching their nadir in the early 1900’s, when many thought they would disappear altogether, Native Americans staged an amazing revival during the 20th century. Their cultures rebounded, while Native population soared. Sadly, economic revival has not kept pace, besides a few tribes who have become wealthy from casino ownership. As a group, Native Americans are the poorest minority in the United States. The country still needs to right many wrongs concerning its first people before Thanksgiving can become a truly national holiday.


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