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This Land Is Their Land

"This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island..."

The first time that I can remember distinctly being introduced to This Land is Your Land is during college, when My Morning Jacket recorded a cover of the Woody Guthrie classic for a NorthFace YouTube ad. Between the acoustic guitar and friendly lyrics, it's an arguably patriotic and inclusive song on the surface. However, being a student of our country's history, I think it's a bit ironic when viewed in the greater context of European - Native American relations over the last several centuries.

November is Native American Heritage Month. This time of year, celebrations of Thanksgiving (if any history is discussed at all) are usually centered around the nameless Native American tribes welcoming the Pilgrims and Squanto helping them plant food. The story concludes with both sides engaging in a happy feast of thanksgiving and goodwill. I had always half suspected that this sanitized tale of friendship was far from the truth, but never thought to investigate it further. What finally tipped the balance for me was listening to a podcast a few months ago, where the host mentioned that many Native Americans viewed Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. Huh?! This was something I had to learn more about.

Fortunately, after a little Googling (and searching at my local library), I found that history professor David Silverman has written a book on this very topic, entitled This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving. I found the 427-page volume a scholarly but very enlightening read.

Silverman starts out his book by sharing the story of Frank James, a Wampanoag man who in 1970 was invited by the state of Massachusetts to give a speech at a dinner commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival. James wrote a speech, but it ditched the sanitized children's story of friendly relations for the nightmare of truth where the newcomers mercilessly murdered their Wampanoag neighbors. Unsurprisingly, the dinner organizers banned James from giving his speech. Instead, he organized his own gathering in Plymouth, called for a "day of mourning", and gave his original speech to a group of sympathetic locals and Wampanoag.

The Thanksgiving myth seems to forget any and all Native Americans after the big meal. Following the feast, the Wampanoag peaceably gave up their land and retreated into the mists of time, never to reappear.

Little could be farther from the truth. Silverman dives deep into Wampanoag culture. Pre-Pilgrims they had a vibrant culture - trade with allies, defense against rival tribes (such as the Narragansett to the west), and distinct political and religious practices. Contrary to popular myth, the Pilgrims on the Mayflower were not the first foreigners to arrive. Indeed, European sailing vessels had been arriving for the past several decades. While the Wampanoag valued the trading items they could obtain, they also feared the newcomers. Many times the explorers would kill or kidnap Native peoples. The story of Squanto - or Tisquantum - is perhaps the most well-known of these tales. He was born in the late 1500's. As a young man, Tisquantum was captured twice by European explorers before being returned permanently to his home country in 1619...only to find all his family and friends dead.

In reality, the location of where Pilgrims set up camp was the site of an well established Wampanoag town. However, due to a terrible plague during 1616-1619, upwards of 90% of the Wampanoag population died. No one is exactly sure what the plague was. What is known is that it decimated Indian populations but hardly touched the English.

Fearing disease and bloodshed but desirous of trade and mutual protection, a prominent chief or sachem named Ousamequin warily made a peace treaty with the Pilgrims. He is more well known by the name of Massasoit. He was a powerful regional leader of the Wampanoag who viewed himself as a great father and the Pilgrims a little child. Ousamequin desired exclusive trading rights with the Pilgrims and he hoped to thereby gain more authority over subordinate sachems.

Despite the good faith promises, bloodshed and violence deepened mistrust on both sides. Still, a year after arrival, the Pilgrims had much to be thankful for in the fall of 1621. For starters, they had survived. Many of their initial party hadn't. Governor William Bradford had forged an alliance with Ousamequin for trade and mutual protection, though the agreement was still shaky at times. Tisquantum had taught the Pilgrims how to plant food. Between the colony's own plantings and established connections with the Wampanoag, Plymouth could sustain itself.

Community leaders called for a day of joyful rejoicing together. This was the incident later publicized as "The First Thanksgiving", though the Pilgrims did not refer to it with these words. A key part of the day included some of the men going out to hunt game...and to do a little target practice. Alarmed at the gunshots, Ousamequin and some ninety men arrived unannounced. The Wampanoag had thought that the Pilgrims were possibly under attack; the latter suspiciously viewed the former as a legitimate threat.

"Yet", as Silverman wrote, "the two peoples possessed just enough trust in each other that no one overreacted. They had forged an alliance through diplomacy, trade, and mutual assistance in the face of emergencies. Their leaders now knew each other personally and called each other friends. In almost any other time and place, a surprise encounter like this between so many armed colonists and Indians would have cost lives. Instead, both sides let down their guard. For the next three days, the two peoples "entertained and feasted" together in what amounted to something in between a state dinner and the kind of causal mingling that the Wampanoags considered basic to the alliance" (p. 171).

So if the Pilgrims didn't consider the event as described above as the First Thanksgiving, what were the circumstances when they did call for a day of thanksgiving? Unfortunately, the answer to this tale takes a very dark, dismal, and grisly plot twist.

Ousamequin, wary friend of the Pilgrims, passed away around 1660. His eldest son, Wamsutta took his place in Wampanoag leadership. While Wamsutta outwardly pledged friendship to the Pilgrims, inwardly he still viewed them as a threat. Hearing Wamsutta was forming a confederation with rival tribes to attack the Pilgrims, the Plymouth colony forced him to appear before their rulers. Before Wamsutta was able to return home, he died of what the Wampanoag were sure was poisoning. In his absence, Wamsutta's younger brother Pumetacom (whom the English referred to as Phillip) took over the reins of power.

Pumetacom hadn't liked the Pilgrims for a long time, and the murder of his brother made the new sachem even more infuriated. Tensions continued to rise and the bonds of former treaties between the two peoples came to mean nothing. In January 1675 a Massachusett man by the name of John Sassamon tipped the Pilgrims off on the news that Pumetacom planned to attack. Soon, Sassamon's body was found dead in a nearby pond. Three Wampanoag were found to be guilty and were hanged, which further angered Pumetacom. Wampanoag warriors started raiding European settlements, who in turn sent their soldiers to destroy Pumetacom's home village in present-day Rhode Island. Battles, bloodshed, and brutality were commonplace on both sides of the conflict. In late summer 1676, Pumetacom was gunned down. His head hung on a spike for display at Plymouth for the next twenty years.

As Silverman wrote, "Days after shooting Ousamequin's son dead and cutting him into pieces, Plymouth and Massachusetts announced that they would observe August 17 as a day of thanksgiving in praise of God for saving them from their enemies" (p. 353).

That's the story of the Pilgrims' real first Thanksgiving. A little different tale that what you learned in elementary school, right!?

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To be completely honest, I had never heard of the Wampanoag before reading This Land is Their Land. I do remember learning about other tribes, however. For example, I vaguely remember learning as a child about the Pomo tribe of northern California on trips to visit my grandparents.

My first real introduction to Native American history was in high school, when I first became interested in history. I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee - which turns out to be home central for the Cherokee and the launching point of the infamous Trail of Tears in the 1830's. Over the course of a few years, my father and I visited many sites of Cherokee significance from New Echota to Red Clay to Blythe's Ferry. Walking a stretch of the actual Trail of Tears at Moccasin Bend (pictured above) was especially meaningful. To be completely honest, the overwhelming thought I had on these excursions was just how incredibly sad I would be if I was forced to leave my land. Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina are truly gorgeous places and I feel a kinship with the Cherokee in that we both appreciate the landscape. I can't even begin to imagine their sorrow. I can't even begin to imagine walking a foot, much less a mile, in their moccasins.

When I graduated college, I celebrated by going on a week-long camping trip with my best friend to the mountains of western North Carolina. Interspersed with hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and long drives along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, we spent a few days in Cherokee, North Carolina learning about the culture and resilience of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

The EBCI operates two fantastic history museums in town. While walking through the exhibits, a quote on the wall especially stood out to me. It read as follows:

"We survived and even managed to prosper. When King George issued his proclamation, forbidding whites to settle in the Appalachians and all parts West, we thought we would be safe...but then came...the American Revolution."

So often as Americans, we are taught to view the American Revolution as a good thing (Rah, rah! Huzzah!). Same goes for Manifest Destiny - the idea that America was destined to conquer this land from sea to shining sea (Rah, rah! Huzzah!) - as if it were an empty land ready for the taking. But if we only look at the narrative of our country's history from a select single viewpoint without considering the perspective of other parties such as Native Americans, we do ourselves a disservice. Certainly, it is hard to look objectively at a story where you or your people are not necessarily the heroes. But if we only learn the sanitized white man's history of America we miss out on a lot. We are a lot less compassionate and understanding. I think it is crucially important to study history from as many perspectives as possible.

What strikes me the most from This Land Is Their Land is the fact that the oppression of Native Americans did not start with the Cherokee, the Trail of Tears, or President Andrew Jackson in the nineteenth century. It did not start with the American Revolution and the Brafferton Indian School (a topic for another time!) in the eighteenth century. No, Native American oppression started with the very first Europeans to arrive on the shores of North America in the seventeenth century (and maybe earlier if you consider Roanoke...).


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Despite the endless mistreatment, Native Americans are still around. They aren't just a footnote of history textbooks, but rather a multitude of nations that still exist among us today. They live modern, 21st-century lives while still staying tied to their cultural roots. They have dreams and hopes for the future just like you and I. One educational TV program that I have especially enjoyed is the Cherokee's OsiyoTV. On one hand, the show highlights both the tribe's past through short features of historical sites, often in Tennessee and Georgia. On the other hand, it shines the spotlight on really cool Cherokee who live today and the contributions they have made to our society.

The reality is we all live on stolen land. Certainly, we can't atone for the sins of our white forefathers, but we can make our own decisions. We can choose to educate ourselves - truthfully - about Native American culture and history. The great thing about Native Americans is that they were - and still are - spread all throughout this continent. In fact, there are 573 Federally recognized tribes in the United States! Point being, wherever you live, there are Native Americans. There may possibly be a regional or state Native American museum in your area, and most certainly local tribes will have their own websites for you to peruse. Read them, visit the sites, and get to know your Native neighbors. Native Americans didn't fade away after Pocahontas, the Pilgrims, or the Trail of Tears. They still exist. A great first place to start researching what tribes call your local area home is the Native Land website.

This year I have been privileged to spend the better part of two weeks visiting Colonial Williamsburg, and one of the aspects that I have most appreciated about the museum's approach to interpretation is their inclusion of Native Americans. They employ several Native Americans to tell their own story. I have found that putting a face to a demographic that I wouldn't otherwise have opportunity to interact with has been incredibly wonderful. This November, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, I am publishing a four-part video series I filmed at Colonial Williamsburg that features a Q&A session with two of the Native American interpreters. I have linked the first episode below for your enjoyment:

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So what should we do about Thanksgiving? I certainly don't believe that we should not be grateful for all of our blessings. Let's be thankful for our friends, family, and the country we live in. I certainly applaud the Pilgrims' desire for religious freedom, but simultaneously denounce their truly brutal treatment of the Wampanoag. This year, let us also take time to be grateful for Native Americans and the many contributions they have made and continue to make in America. Let us seek out fact and truth rather than unknowingly spread damaging lies.

Yes, this land is your land and this land is my land. But this land is also their land, and I think it would do us all well to genuinely listen to our Native American neighbors' perspectives on our shared past, present, and future - especially after so much violence and bloodshed. Maybe the song should rather start out,

"This land is their land, this land is their land...

From the Pomo to the Wampanoag..."

How can you start listening?

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Hey there! Thanks so much for taking the time to read this far down in my article. I really appreciate it! I am currently trying to grow my email list. Thank you so much to the two new readers who signed up last month! I would like to see if I can get one new reader to sign up this month. If you would like to be notified when my December (and future) posts go live, please enter your email in the subscription box below. Thank you so much!


Books I've read about Wampanoag & Cherokee life:

There's some great resources from both the Smithsonian & the Plimoth-Patuxet Museums:

Wampanoag Nation - a fantastic video interview with Wampanoag interpreters at Plimoth Paxtuxet!

Upending 1620 - a great online exhibition complementary to the physical one at the National Museum of American History

The American Indian playlist from Colonial Williamsburg has several nice presentations with their Native American interpreters about Native - Colonial relations, especially in Virginia.

Other great articles & videos:

This Land is Their Land - a great podcast interview with David Silverman on his book

Wampanoag History - tribal history by their own

A Brief Timeline of Wampanoag History - tribal history by their own

Wamsutta - Wikipedia

King Philip's War -

1 Comment

Nov 20, 2021

Great History. I will need to read it several times to fully grasp everything.. Thank you for taking the time to research and write it.

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