First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I’ve had to adjust my expectations over the years, because my life and the lives of my loved ones have changed tremendously. Some people we love are no longer with us, so we’ve added elements of remembrance to our celebrations. Some people have joined us because of births, marriages and new friendships, so we’ve added joy. Through all these changes, however, there remains something deeply touching about days spent in gratitude.

I think, for us here at St. Peter’s, there is a great awareness of how our relationship with the Native American tribes, who first called this land home, shapes us. We have always valued this very special history. Considering this, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the history of this 392-year-old tradition, looking this time from the perspective of the indigenous people who played a role, the people of the Wampanaog nation, the Mashpee.

The true history of Thanksgiving started with a treaty. The leader of the Wampanaog nation, Yellow Feather Oasmeequin, made a treaty with John Carver, the first governor of the colony, upon the settlers’ arrival. They were still under the jurisdiction of King James I, so the treaty was between two nations, England and the Wampanoag Nation. In the treaty the Wampanaog nation agreed to let them stay, and that each would protect the other from their enemies. In time, they would collaborate on jurisdictions and create a system, so that they could live together.

We have all heard the stories of that first Thanksgiving meal in Massachusetts in 1621. When the Mashpee tell their own stories of this first Thanksgiving meal, it’s told a little differently. The pilgrims were celebrating their first harvest. They were shooting guns as a celebration, which alarmed the Mashpee, because they didn’t know why the pilgrims were shooting. So Yellow Feather gathered up about 90 warriors and showed up at Plymouth, prepared to engage, if needed, for the protection of the pilgrims.

When they arrived, they were told of the reason for the celebration, but having some reservations, they decided to camp nearby for a few days. They were sensitive to the fact that the colonists were fearful partly because of their numbers(only 23 Pilgrims had survived the journey) and also because of their uncertainty in a new land that held new creatures and even new trees. Many of the early colonists’ journals contain recollections of the nervousness and fear they lived with daily. This put much strain on them. Unfortunately, the Mashpee knew, through experience, that when settlers were under that kind of stress, they could become aggressive. And so, they waited and watched.

The Mashpee also share a story of that first Thanksgiving meal. The two peoples did eat together occasionally, but not in what is portrayed as “the first Thanksgiving.” They lived in close proximity and were in each other’s villages often. The differences in how they behaved, how they ate, how they prepared things were significant. There was always focus on food, because people had to work hard to gather and forage for food; it was certainly not the way it is now.

At the end of their time of watching, the Mashpee are said to have joined the celebration before heading home and that there was mutual gratitude. When comparing the two societies, one very young and just beginning to forge its way and the other ancient and steeped in history, express those grateful feelings, one sees great similarity. Yes, but there’s another element to this that needs to be noted as well. The Pilgrims believed in God. They were listening for His directions on a daily basis and trying to figure out how to live in ways that pleased God. So, for Americans, there’s a Christian element to Thanksgiving. Our prayers are filled with gratitude to God for His generosity and abundance, and some families even formalize sharing what they are grateful for, before or during their meal. In Mashpee families, they make offerings of tobacco and give thanks to their first mother – their human mother – and to Mother Earth. Then they pass their gratefulness into the tobacco without necessarily speaking out loud, but inwardly holding up that gratitude in mind and spirit.

A heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important. It’s wonderful that we set apart this one day, just to express our thanks to the God who gives us so such. And, beyond that, thanksgiving must be a state of being. One way to do that is to use the creativity that the Creator gave us. We listen for Him to tell us what gifts we’ve been given, and we use them for the sake of His Kingdom. That gives thanks in action.

I pray that you and your loved ones have much to be grateful for this year, that your heart is ever open to His love for you and that your thanksgiving is with you every day of the year.

God bless you.

Lisa Amos
Pastoral Associate


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