Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Rest of the Thanksgiving Story

Kathryn Page Camp

I wanted to add a picture of the first Thanksgiving to this post. Unfortunately, the only ones I found that were clearly in the public domain were also historically inaccurate. The photo at the head of this post is a good example.* The clothing and feathers are all wrong, and the position of the two groups, with members of the Wampanoag nation sitting on the ground and the Pilgrims standing, imply that the Pilgrims were the dominant race. Since a white woman is handing out the food, the picture could also imply that the Pilgrims provided the feast and the Native Americans were simply recipients.
As writers, we should be careful not to make the same mistakes.
When I think of the first Thanksgiving, I think of friendly Native Americans bringing their knowledge and skills and provisions to feed the starving Pilgrims. Without that help, the Pilgrims would have perished.
That’s one of the reasons I like Thanksgiving. It’s the one time of year when we remember the Native American participants as the generous people they were.** That’s a lot better than the frequent stereotype of half-dressed warriors burning homes and scalping “innocent” white settlers.
But the first Thanksgiving is only part of the story. The Pilgrims’ thankfulness to the Wampanoag tribe was an isolated instance. The European immigrants looted Native American graves, raided their villages, and sold the captives as slaves. White explorers and settlers passed along diseases that were new in this country. Since the natives had not built up an immunity, entire communities were wiped out. Then we destroyed their way of life by seizing the land that supported them and forcing them to move into the barren areas we didn’t want for ourselves.
Our white ancestors even sent soldiers to “escort” the Native Americans from the lands we craved to the ones we scorned. These long, forced marches were filled with hardship, and many people died along the way. Some Native Americans, such as the Navajos herded out of Arizona in 1864, were later allowed to return to their homes. But those were the exceptions. The more common experience was that of the Cherokees in 1838. Driven to Oklahoma over the Trail of Tears, they never did get back home.
Those of us with European ancestry have many reasons to be grateful to the Native Americans. But it doesn’t work the other way around.
So when you read or write about the first Thanksgiving, don’t forget the rest of the story.
* The picture at the head of this post is by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and was painted sometime around 1912-1915. It is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.
** I’ve read comments on the Internet complaining that people today think the Pilgrims and the Native Americans merely shared a meal together, or even that the Pilgrims were the benefactors rather than the beneficiaries. I can’t say whether those complaints are valid, but it hasn't been my experience. I learned at school and at home that Squanto and his tribe taught the Pilgrims how to survive, and my children learned the same lesson.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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