Celebrating Thanksgiving - History and Food
Some people wonder if the story of the Wampanoag and Pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving is true. Other people (thinking prosaically) wonder why we keep eating the same foods every Thanksgiving. And I wonder why the potential for good relations between Native Americans and later Americans has still not been worked out, after all this time.
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life.
— Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving Address
Edward Winslow, Mourt's Relation :
"our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."
Note: Governor Bradford was the second and longest-term governor of Massachusetts, also being a direct ancestor of mine six generations back.
The story about the "first" Thanksgiving party is true. Massachusetts Governor William Bradford hosted that party and he left notes of it in his journal, as did one of his assistants, Edward Winslow. The journal entry to the right shows some of the preparations the Pilgrims went through. Here is the story.
The harvest in 1621 was a good one. Bradford invited his friend Massasoit and the Wampanoag - around 90 came - to join his own group of about 50 surviving "saints" in thanks for the bountiful harvest they had jointly produced. The Wampanoag, after having witnessed half of my ancestor's group perish the year before from starvation and fever, had taught the survivors how to identify, cultivate, and cook the native foods that grew so abundantly in the area. The party was held not only to celebrate survival and a great harvest, but also to honor the friendship that had evolved between two very different cultures, each with a lot to share.
More than two hundred years of conflict later (1863), President Abraham Lincoln acquiesed to the entreaties of Sarah Josepha Hale (Godey's Ladies Book) to create a national holiday of Thanksgiving, which had continued to be celebrated sporadically across the fledgling nation. Following his declaration, we now celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of every November.
Sarah, a prolific writer (including "Mary Had a Little Lamb") had been working for forty years to get Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. Lincoln declared it so with the intent of bridging differences between two other disparate groups of people - the North and the South during the Civil War. His proclamation was written in October 1863, two years before the Civil War ended.
Native American Food - Gifts to the World
By Lincoln's time the use of many American native foods had become accepted worldwide although, oddly enough, food provided to Civil War soldiers was primarily European and Asian (e.g. salt pork and rice). Ireland had adopted the potato, Italy tomatoes and the zucchini, and India and China many of the hot and sweet peppers of this country.
Just starting to spread:
- Wild rice
In the US it became the practice to prepare original American foods for this uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving, which meant feasts of turkey or quail with cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, yellow squash and/or yams, string beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy, finished off with pumpkin and/or pecan pie.
All of these foods and more are indigenous to this continent. The fact that some of them have saved many other countries from starvation (especially potatoes), is a tribute to the Amerindians who first cultivated and shared them, and the Europeans who transported them in their ships to the folks back home.
The charts below show, in alphabetical order, foods that Native Americans cultivated, some of which are now considered an integral part of other countries' "traditional" dishes.
Indigenous (American) Foods
- Beans (all kinds)
- Cassava (tapioca)
- Corn/maize (incl. popcorn)
- Maple syrup
- Passion fruit
- Peppers (hot & sweet)
- Sweet potatoes & yams
Celebrating Thanksgiving Today
My immediate family celebrates Thanksgiving with a traditional American dinner, which we all pitch in to prepare and clean up afterward. The dinner is accompanied by great discussions, games, laughter, roasted marshmallows, and singing with guitars and harmonies.
It's a loving, creative gathering of parents, siblings, and kids - not the 150 or so celebrants of my ancestor's time, but big enough for us. We remember and appreciate the lives of our parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have passed on, and of other family members living too far away to join us in California.
An Attitude of Gratitude
Although my family is only a little bit Native American (Cherokee), I feel proud to see how many American foods, originally cultivated by the first inhabitants of this continent, have played such a major role in the health and survival of people worldwide. For that, alone, I am grateful. Yet Amerindians have shared so many additional things that have made our country great, that I find it disappointing we have not yet developed an equitable working relationship between our two cultures.
This year I've decided to dedicate Thanksgiving to whatever partnership there is existing between Native Americans and the mainstream population, however unacknowledged it may be. The first step toward rectification is appreciation, after all, and I am honored to extend appreciation to those who gave so much to my ancestors and to us today.
To all Native Americans up and down the entire Americas: Thank you for your generosity so many years ago. May we find a way to create a new partnership in these times that counteracts the worst of the past with something much better, including mutual benefit, respect, and understanding.
"I awoke this morning with a devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Abraham Lincoln: Proclamation of Thanksgiving
- No Thanks Thanksgiving
Fact vs. Fiction of the First Thanksgiving Today
- What Is the Correct Story of the First Thanksgiving?
All over the US schoolchildren are dressing up like Pilgrims and Indians . . .