The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Land of opportunity, starting with Thanksgiving

We have all been fed the storybook tale of the Pilgrims and Native Americans joining together in brotherly love to feast on the season’s harvest before winter. But what are we really celebrating when we celebrate Thanksgiving?

The Pilgrims arrived in the New World from England in November 1620. Winter was already descending upon them, and, lacking in supplies from their voyage across the Atlantic, they searched around for sources of food. What they found were recently constructed, man-made mounds, which, as they discovered upon digging them up, turned out to be Native American graves. In the graves, the Native Americans had left corn as part of their burial ritual. They proceeded to take the corn, and refill the grave, off to a great start on the whole foreign relations thing.

In the next few months, the settlers encountered numerous Native American tribes, none of whom were particularly fond of the British due to previous encounters when British traders captured Native Americans and sold them as slaves. The first tribe they encountered, the Nauset, actually attacked them upon their initial meeting.

While the Pilgrims survived that first winter, survival came at a high price. Of the 102 Pilgrims who set out at the beginning of the voyage, only 50 survived that first winter. In March, Massasoit, the leader of a confederation of Wampanoag tribes, came to the leaders of the Pilgrims and struck a deal.

The Pilgrims needed help surviving in an unfamiliar land, and the Wampanoag, decimated by the small pox and other diseases brought by the English, now needed protection from the Narragansett, a powerful nearby tribe, that the English guns could provide.

And so it was that the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was not one of brotherly love, but mutual need. Massasoit saw the writing on the wall and, for about 50 years, kept an uneasy peace between the two peoples. Unfortunately, that peace treaty didn’t turn out exactly how Massasoit probably envisioned.

While there were scattered Thanksgivings for the next couple hundred years, the first federal Thanksgiving came during the middle of the Civil War in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln, looking for a way to boost morale and inspired by a series of editorials, declared the last Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day.

“It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people,” Lincoln said in a proclamation.

The Thanksgiving we know today began in 1939. Then President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed Thanksgiving back one week to the next to last Thursday of November. This, he reasoned, would make people start their Christmas shopping earlier and, hopefully, help the country out of the then ongoing Great Depression.

While you are shoving turkey, corn and cheap wine down your gullet this Thanksgiving, remember what it is you’re giving thanks for: Taking advantage of Native Americans and spending as much money as possible.

There is, however, another “day of remembrance” on the fourth Thursday of November this year.

Native Americans, especially those of the Wampanoag tribe, and others gather at the top of Coles Hill, overlooking Plymouth Rock, and protest the racism and oppression still going on today.

First held in 1970, the National Day of Mourning was started by Wamsutta James, a Wampanoag elder, after local officials invited him to make speech at a Thanksgiving celebration, and then refused to allow him to make the speech he wanted to make.

Instead, Wamsutta went to the nearby Coles Hill and, near a statue of Massasoit, made his own speech in protest.

“The important point is that along with these necessities of everyday living, we still have the spirit, we still have the unique culture, we still have the will and, most important of all, the determination to remain as Indians,” Wamsutta said during the speech. “We are determined, and our presence here this evening is living testimony that this is only the beginning of the American Indian, particularly the Wampanoag, to regain the position in this country that is rightfully ours.”

This Thanksgiving, instead of remembering a storybook fantasy, perhaps we should join the National Day of Mourning and remember what really happened.

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