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Opinion
Tim Giago: Thanksgiving -- A holiday of the imagination


There is a saying amongst the Lakota that when the Pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock they fell on their knees and prayed and then they fell on the Indians and preyed.

So much fabrication has been woven into the landing of the Pilgrims and their dealings with the indigenous people they met that first year it is hard to separate fact from fiction.

The Mayflower actually landed on Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 at a place that would become Provincetown. The landing site proved to be unsuitable. Robert Coppin, the Mayflower�s pilot, remembered another site more suitable to permanent settlement.

On December 16, 1620 the settlers sailed into the harbor the Indians called Patuxet. There are no 17th Century sources that mention landing on a rock, but the Pilgrims called the landing site Plymouth Rock nonetheless.

We were all taught about the first winter in which many settlers died until only 52 of the original 102 remained alive. The history books also teach us that the Indians helped the settlers survive by teaching them how to plant corn, squash and other vegetables.

The Wampanoag were the first Indians to actually meet and speak with the Pilgrims. An Abenaki named Samoset who spoke English he learned from fisherman who visited the coast introduced them to a man named Tisquantum or Squanto. Squanto had been taken to England as a prisoner and spoke fairly fluent English.

Strangely enough, most early works of art depicting the first harvest feast of the Pilgrims shows the settlers fleeing from a hail of arrows.

The first modern image showing the Indians and settlers enjoying a feast in harmony did not occur until after the so-called Indian wars were settled. It was only after the Indians became the Vanishing Americans that they became an integral part of the Pilgrim story.

A stanza from the poem by Felicia Hemans (1793 � 1835) about the landing of the Pilgrims goes:
Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod!
They have left unstain�d what where they found �
Freedom to worship God.

Perhaps, a century later, an Indian poet would have written;

Hau, call it stolen ground,
The soil where first they trod!
They have left a stain over all they found,
And took our freedom to worship God.
The indigenous people of what was to become New England had little to be thankful for in the ensuing years. Many died of small pox, measles and other diseases to which they had no immunity or they died at the hands of the settlers. Their villages were burned to the ground and their women and children sold into slavery or murdered.

Bounties were placed on those who survived and soon hunters and trappers showed up at the trading posts collecting money for their �redskins.�

George Washington chose a day to give thanks for the establishment of a �new nation� in 1789. After the War of 1812 James Madison called for a day of thanks in 1815. History does not expound upon the fact that it was the combined Indian forces of Creek and other Southeastern tribes that helped turn the tide in favor of the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans, a battle that was essential in turning the war against the British.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, at the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey�s Lady�s Book, set aside the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 Congress passed a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday of November the official holiday of Thanksgiving.

During the 1960s Indian activists began to gather at Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving Day to protest the treatment of the indigenous people and to rail against a holiday based on fiction.

It is a general belief that the United States government began to visualize Indians as part of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in order to demonstrate a move toward diversity. Immigrants from many nations, some not so fair and blonde, landed at Ellis Island in search of freedom and a new life.

By this time the Massacre at Wounded Knee had happened and some historians recorded it as the last great battle between the Indians and the government. Wounded Knee was listed as a battle between troops of the Seventh Cavalry and the Sioux. Keep in mind that it was just a short 13 years from the day Lincoln set a date for Thanksgiving to the Battle at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

The troops of the Seventh Cavalry had celebrated Thanksgiving just five weeks before they slaughtered innocent men, women and children at Wounded Knee.

With the Indian wars far behind, and the Indian, now listed as �The Vanishing American,� it was now almost romantic to create a time of peace and tranquility when the Pilgrims brought the Indians to their table at Thanksgiving to share a sumptuous meal centered around the turkey.

And so it seems the American Indian had to be placed on the �Most Endangered Species� list before he could be seated at the table with the Pilgrims.

And of course, the Indian by then had progressed from prey to pray.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago�s weekly column. He can be reached at P.O. Box 9244, Rapid City, SD 57709 or at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, �Children Left Behind."

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