Thanksgiving, hurt feelings, and a speech that didn’t happen.

What could have been a tranquil afternoon in a Native American village over 400 years ago was interrupted by the sound of distant guns. Guns are fired for many reasons, – most of them are bad. Better safe than sorry, thought the villagers, so Native American warriors from the Wampanoag people grab their weapons and assemble in the middle of the village. What followed was a well-practiced routine. Scouts fanned out, followed by the main body of the war party. Careful not to stumble into an ambush, the warriors set out to investigate. What they found was the first Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the most American of all holidays. We remember the first turkey dinner that was shared between liberty-loving pilgrims and friendly Indians. If you have kids in preschool, you might get invited to attend a little play they stage to celebrate and illuminate the history of Thanksgiving. Cute kids in black construction paper hats and feathers from the craft store reenact that one idyllic moment in our otherwise bloody history when settlers and Indians were nice to each other and ate the first turkey dinner. 

Thanksgiving is a moment that is not well remembered, but extensively celebrated. America likes to glorify major turning points in history. Even more so, when anniversaries have round numbers. 

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving 1621
A State Dinner

For instance, the year 1970 was exactly 350 years after shooting disturbed the tranquility of a fall day in New England. Massachusetts celebrated 350 years of the Pilgrim Fathers setting foot on the shores of the new world at Plymouth Rock. 

The “Rock”, this central feature of the Pilgrim Memorial State Park, has a hallowed place in the American imagination. It is where the story of the land of liberty and opportunity began. One would imagine a rock that prominent would be huge, but far from it. It is a bolder; midsize, nothing spectacular. It used to be about 3 times larger, but souvenir seekers chipped away most of it.

Now, they roped it off and keep a close eye on it, because if they didn’t, that rock will surely end up as a pebble. The shrinking rock proves that the Pilgrim Fathers are important in our common understanding of who we are as Americans. 

In 1970, the governor of Massachusetts thought the 350-year anniversary of civilization arriving in the New World called for an elaborate state dinner. It was an opportunity for a great nation to celebrate a great beginning, and that great beginning deserved an even greater party. Everybody who was somebody was invited. And in addition to the upper crust, they also invited Wamsutta Frank James. 

Wamsutta Frank James, a proud Wampanoag man
Wamsutta Frank James

Many said Frank was a true renaissance man; a musician, a craftsman, an artist, an activist, a sailor, a leader and a teacher. He graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1948. Many of his classmates went on to play in orchestras all around the US. That was not true for Frank. It was made clear to Frank, that absolutely nobody in the United States would listen to someone like him tooting his horn. Wamsutta Frank James was a Wampanoag man, the first Native American to graduate from the New England Conservatory. As trailblazing as that may be, the reality was that no one wanted to hear someone with that skin color play the trumpet, no matter how talented they may have been. 

Frank became a music teacher in many regional schools, a position he held for over 30 years. No matter how much his teaching may have changed the life of his students, his skin color always made him suspicious. Concerned parents wondered if they could really trust a “savage” to educate their children? As much as we think, or hope, or pretend that we have progressed into a post racial time, that is still a question that too many contemporary people think warrants serious consideration. 

The celebrations of 1970 promised an improvement in the relations between Native Americans and the predominantly white governing class of New England. Not only did they invite Wamsutta Frank James to celebrate the Pilgrim Fathers, they also wanted him to say a few words to mark the anniversary. The invitation made sense, because Frank was the leader of the Wampanoag people of Gay Head and president of the Federated Eastern Indian League. He saw the invitation as an opportunity to share how he felt. He wanted to say this:

 “It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people.” 

Wamsutta Frank James
Hurt Feelings, and a Speech that Didn’t Happen

Thank God, someone in the governor’s office had the presence of mind to ask James for an advance copy of his remarks. Frank sent his speech and the governor’s people realized that Frank’s remarks would hurt the feelings of the governor and his guests. They did the only thing that could be done in a situation like that; they dis-invited Wamsutta Frank James. You can’t have the State of Massachusetts buy you dinner and then hurt the feelings of your host and his guests. That is not how polite society works. They had expected Frank to be a nice Indian who makes some appreciative and congratulatory remarks. What’s wrong with saying thank you to those who brought civilization to savage lands? But no, Frank wanted to say this: 

Governor Francis Williams Sargent

“We see incident after incident, where the white man sought to tame the “savage,” and convert him to the Christian ways of life.” 

Wamsutta Frank James

James wanted to question the thoroughly sanitized mythology of the Pilgrim Fathers by talking about things that actually happened when British Settlers and the original Americans met at Plymouth Rock.

Pilgrim Fathers

The Pilgrim Fathers never called themselves Pilgrim Fathers. Pilgrims are a name that was given to them centuries later. The first documented use of the term was at the end of the 18th century. It became popular in the early 19thcentury when the citizens of Boston referred to the early settlers as the Pilgrims of Leyden. After that, the term became a staple in American lore. 

The Pilgrims, let’s continue to call them that, were religious refugees.  They were one of the many protestant churches that emerged in the wake of the Reformation. They were Puritans, a church of the Calvinist variety. The Pilgrims lived in England, where the church of England, – not Calvinist -, had a monopoly on being right about religion and thus they said the Pilgrims believed wrong. When you believe wrong, those who believe right make your life a living hell and persecute you. 

George Henry Boughton, The Pilgrims Going to Church

The Pilgrims fled religious persecution to be free to worship how they wanted. Their experience established religious liberty as one of the core American values. The Pilgrims wanted to build a Calvinist Utopia where they had the monopoly on being right about religion, and hence they would be the ones who made life hell for those who believed wrong. Religious persecution is when you force me, religious liberty is when I force you. That seems to be what many Christians mean when they define religious liberty. The Pilgrims turned what became New England into a puritan theocracy. Fire and Brimstone preachers from the bible belt are hapless neophytes compared to the religious frenzy the Puritans unleashed on New England.

Before Calvinism could became the state religion of New England, the Pilgrims had to get there. They boarded ship Mayflower and sailed to Virginia. The territory named after Elizabeth I, the virgin queen of England, was their intended destination. Bad weather and bad navigation took them to Cape Cod instead. It was late in the year and they stayed. 

Mayflower at Sea

The land they found was not an empty wilderness. Native American tribes settled everywhere along the Eastern seaboard. Europeans settling there proved to be difficult at first, because the tribes defended their territory. But, between 1616 and 1619, a plague spread across the North East. In some communities, it wiped out 50% to 90% of the population. The germs that had over time killed millions in Asia, Europe and Africa had finally arrived in the relative isolation of America. The sudden microbe shock decimated the people. 

“Our Biggest Mistake!”

In 1620, the pilgrims built their settlement on the ruins of an Indian village whose occupants had succumbed to the epidemic. They saw the dead Indians as God’s housewarming gift. 

The Wampanoags, Frank’s ancestors, did something they still regret 400 years later. He wanted to put it this way: 

“The chief of the tribe welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.” 

Wamsutta Frank James

At this point in Frank’s speech, the governor presiding over the state dinner would likely have choked on his turkey leg. The friendly Indian regrets being friendly. His words imply his ancestors should have thrown the Pilgrim Fathers back into the sea. His feelings profoundly hurt, the governor would have looked at the guy who vetted the guests and the guy would have known he will never work in Massachusetts again and that it was time to take a ship back to England. 

Some of the Wampanoag the Pilgrims encountered, believe it or not, spoke English. One of them had been kidnapped, taken to England and had been sold as a slave. Defying all odds, he got back home. At first, both groups saw little of each other. With time, relationships emerged, and Wampanoag showed the Pilgrims how to use the resources of the land. Despite the help, half of the Pilgrims died in their first winter. 

The First Thanksgiving

One Indian summer day, the Wampanoag heard those distant gunshots. When the war party arrived at the Pilgrim’s settlement, there were no violent acts going on. The pilgrims, who by that point numbered around 30 or 40 people, had a good harvest and celebrated by shooting in the air. What do you do when about 90 warriors, armed to the teeth, show up in your village? You invite them to join the festivities. Despite the good harvest, there was not enough food for all and so the Wampanoags went and hunted five deer. Those they presented as a gift to the pilgrims so that they could provide food for all. And that is the next disappointment. No turkey dinner, but venison. 

A National Day of Mourning

Every Thanksgiving Day Native Americans gather at noon at Cole Hill, which overlooks Plymouth Rock. That tradition started in 1970 when Wamsutta Frank James was dis-invited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to not disturb the 350-year celebration of the Pilgrim’s arrival with a Native American perspective. History and its bloody consequences hurt people’s feelings when they plan to celebrate a sanitized founding myth that elevates the Pilgrims fathers into freedom loving proto-Americans who took possession of an empty country, because the Wampanoags somehow faded away from history. Maybe they knew that in the America the Pilgrims had in mind, there was no room for Native Americans. While most of white America puts the turkey in the oven, Native Americans come together for a National Day of Mourning. Most non-Native Americans don’t care about the feelings of their Native neighbors. When they hear in the news that the police again pepper-sprayed and arrested protesters at the annual thanksgiving demonstration on Cole Hill, they shake their heads and ask themselves: “Why are those people always so angry?” The answer to that question is mysterious and an answer is most likely elusive. 

Full text of Wamsutta Frank James’ speech. Click this link.

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Olaf Baumann

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