Debt of Gratitude

Thanksgiving_debt

Thanksgiving.  It’s a wonderful, not-too-commercialized holiday that brings out the best in us.   From gratitude lists to food drives, this wonderful holiday helps us look outside of ourselves and take the time to thank and possibly bless others.

I really love finding new ways to make holidays more meaningful to my children.  One year I made an envelope countdown to Thanksgiving filled with things we should be grateful for, or nice things we should do.  Another year, we made a Thanksgiving tree which gradually filled with leaves of gratitude.

This year, I used a Thanksgiving figurine set to bring out parts of the Thanksgiving story that my children might not already know.  Throughout the month, we got visits from a Native American or a Pilgrim who shared a little story about events leading up to the First Thanksgiving.

Of course, that meant I had to do lots of research on the subject.  The more I learned, the more humbled I felt – and feel –  at the miracles that made it all possible.  Once again, I find little lessons that we really need today.  Most of these miracles are reflected in the attitudes and actions of the Native Americans.

Only a few short years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the tribes in that part of the New World had suffered great losses at the hand of disease brought over by Europeans, mainly explorers, trappers, and traders.  One tribe, the Patuxet, were completely wiped out by this disease.  The white men who touched the shore did not always have the best intentions and would, on occasion, steal natives for various reasons.  

What a setting for the settlers!  They ignorantly claiming land which represented sorrow and loss, plus shared skin color with less-than-honorable people.  I can’t say I would blame the local tribes if they rained anger and vengeance on these invaders.

But they didn’t.  At least, the Wampanoag didn’t.

It was several months before the settlers came face to face with a Native American.  The first, Samoset, strolled right into the settlement and spoke English.  The amazing thing, he lived in a village 5-days travel away and only happened to be visiting.  In the days following, Samoset helped connect the leaders of the colony with Squanto, one of the last Patuxet, and Chief Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe.  These connections proved key to the survival of the settlers.

The figure who astonishes me most is Tisquantum, more commonly known in history today as Squanto.  Perhaps a decade or two earlier, English explorers had started appearing on the coast of the New World and in an attempt to intimidate and gain momentum, kidnapped several Natives to bring back with them for servitude and display.  Squanto was one of these.  Through his abduction he learned fluent English, and, by a fascinating tale of his own, made it back to his homeland.  When he returned, however, his people had already been wiped out.  I can only imagine his feelings of anger and injustice.  And yet, when presented to the settlers of Plymouth, he served as translator, taught them how to effectively farm, and so much more.  Why help them?  Whatever his reasons, the Pilgrims would certainly have perished without him.

Another interesting person in this tale is Chief Massasoit.  A rather strong figurehead and leader of his people, Massasoit chose to form an alliance with the settlers and on many occasions came to their aid when other tribes proved threatening.  

While I may only really guess at the reasons guiding the actions of these key players in our nation’s history, I wonder what our nation would look like now if more had been like them?  What if more settlements and more tribes had found ways to live side-by-side in harmony and peace?  What if this had been the norm rather than the exception?

History proves to be a cruel teacher at times because we are living our children’s history right now.  Can we see the future consequences of our choices and actions?  Working together is not easy when considering how deeply flawed we all are.  And yet, some manage it.  

Are we not also at times a little tribal?  The history of the First Thanksgiving may be sad for some, and rightly so, but I find myself fascinated by these shining lights in the later darkened history between the Native peoples and Settlers of America.  These lights might guide us through an ever darkening time of political division and partisan animosity.  Is our situation so different from theirs?

I feel a deep debt of gratitude, for which I plan to pay forward.

3 comments

  1. The patience and good will of the North American native peoples towards the influx of Europeans is truly remarkable. Their gentle reaction points to the basic philosophical differences in these two groups. The Native peoples didn’t have a sense of personal possessions. Land and the bounty of nature was held in common among all who lived in the vicinity. The Europeans, especially the later ones, were very much into private and individual ownership for the sake of becoming ‘rich’. It would behoove each of us to figure out what ‘rich’ means to us today.

    As I read the examples that Emily has highlighted in this post, I am also humbled at the help given to the Europeans in lieu of the harm done. It would have been so easy for the American natives to start the blame game and retaliate. However, I believe the early Europeans, as religious and kind-intentioned people looking for a place to settle, were a better representation of the white peoples than the greedy and deceptive individuals who came later.

    Thank you, Emily, for raising my awareness of the great native leaders who continue to be good examples for us today. I would like to be less tribal and more inclusive towards those around me, as I realize how much we all really do share the same planet.

    Bronwyn

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  2. I think we read the same book this Thanksgiving! I only got to read half of it to the family on the way to the grandparents’ house. On the way home it was too dark, but I hope to find another opportunity to finish it. You re-told it very succinctly. Well done!

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  3. And I should say, I was also surprised to read about the Wampanoag being so open to interacting with the newcomers. We were also amazed at how Tisquantum managed to go from being a slave in Spain to being free and ending up in London with an honorable position. It certainly would have been a shock to the colonists who felt they were the first there to have a Native American walk into the camp and say, “Welcome, Englishmen!”

    Yes, it would be a different U.S. if their peaceful relationship had been maintained through the centuries.

    We are doing a report on one of our ancestors who arrived in the New World with the Dutch West India Company, no fleeing for religious freedom, just looking for new ways to make a profit.

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