Native American tribe at first Thanksgiving still struggles for seat at the table

For the Mashpee Wampanoag, Thanksgiving is bittersweet as America's original inhabitants continue fight for land rights

The story of Thanksgiving that many Americans have been telling for 400 years is one of European pilgrims celebrating their first harvest in the New World with a feast attended by the indigenous people who had lived on the land for millennia.

From the perspective of the Wampanoag, the tribe historically namechecked in the retelling, Thanksgiving is the nation's foundational myth.

For the tribe — which today numbers about 2,800, a fraction of their historic 100,000-strong population — the Thanksgiving myth is full of pain as well as historical inaccuracies.

“We know at that event that there were 90 warriors that showed up; we don't know if they were invited,” said Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

“I would venture to guess that they were not because that would have been an extremely awkward dinner.”

Mr Peters, who is the creative director at SmokeSygnals, a creative marketing firm that focuses on the Mashpee Wampanoag’s history, said watching Americans celebrate and perpetuate the myth of Thanksgiving is difficult.

“It's extremely painful to constantly have to see your people misrepresented in history and to also see how that misrepresentation continues to play out in stereotypes,” he told The National.

For the tribe, Thanksgiving is a national day of mourning. Every year, members gather on top of Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, overlooking the rock that marks the spot where the pilgrims are believed to have landed, to commemorate a moment many in the tribe believe marks the beginning of the end.

“Genocide, gentrification, systemic racism, all those things, that was the beginning point, and it's associated with colonisation,” said Tribal Historical Preservation Officer David Weeden.

The tribe has been fighting for survival since the 1620s. Before the pilgrims arrived, the Wampanoag lived in 69 villages spread out over what is now eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

They lived off the land and sea, growing crops and hunting and fishing in what was once a bountiful ecosystem.

This land is your land

Today, the Mashpee Wampanoag remain deeply connected to the land.

“It's just an absolutely vibrant place to be; you have the coast, which is just full of food sustenance that kept our people alive and we continue to try and do that today,” said Mr Peters.

“That's just such a beautiful connection for us. We can't separate ourselves from this land.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag have been fighting for federal recognition and land rights for centuries.

In 2007, they achieved federal recognition as a tribe and in 2015, the Department of the Interior took into trust about 120 hectares —— less than 1 per cent of their historical lands — to form a reserve.

Under former president Donald Trump, the department initiated actions to “de-establish” the tribe, which would call into question their rights to the land.

But this de-establishment has not happened yet and the tribe is calling on the administration of President Joe Biden to ensure they are protected.

Mr Weeden attended several sessions of Mr Biden's recent White House Tribal Nations Summit and was not impressed.

He said the president has said all the right things but has not done enough to help tribes.

“One of those things is securing Mashpee land into trust … ensuring that our children have a place to call home,” Mr Weeden told The National.

And that is what the tribe has been doing for 400 years —— adapting and surviving so each new generation can look out on their ancestral lands and know where they belong.

Updated: November 23rd 2021, 9:54 PM
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