Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thanksgiving, Perspective and Abundance

"Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean."                                                                                                
                                                               ~ William Bradford


I think we're all pretty much aware that the image of  happy Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating the first Thanksgiving is at best bogus if not an outright fabrication. It's simply a case of the victor writing history to suit his purpose. I was raised on a sanitized tale of Pilgrims sailing nobly to America and making friends with the Indians, bolstered by cute cut out cardboard decorations from the greeting card store. For many years that's how it was for all of us until around 1970, when someone burst our collective bubble and the realization that this wasn't just another potluck social starring our ancestors. The reality of the Pilgrims landing in the new world was gritty and grim. It seems the story was destined to be romanticized from the beginning if you consider the opening quote by William Bradford, so we can't blame it all on the greeting card companies.

Before it carried the Pilgrims to the New World, the Mayflower (as part of the British merchant marine fleet) carried wine from Bordeaux, France to Devon, England for at least a decade. Delivery of the Pilgrims to the mouth of the Hudson River was just another business assignment. The term Pilgrim-more descriptive of their mission than their group- wasn't actually used  to describe the First Comers to this part of the New World until the 1800's: before that they were refereed to as Separatists. The Separatists were a group of religious dissidents who believed it was necessary to leave the Church of England due to persecution by King James. One of the hallmarks of the Separatists were their use of the Geneva Bible, a translation of the Scriptures disapproved of by the Church of England. The group moved to a more religiously tolerant Holland for a few years, but returned to England when they were contracted by a London merchant in 1620 to establish a warehouse venture for the storage of timber, furs and whatever they could find of value in America.

The voyage last for nine weeks of mishap and stormy seas. Originally the Mayflower had been accompanied by a smaller ship, the Speedwell, which leaked so badly both ships had turn back to England. When ready to set sail again, the Mayflower, loaded with 102 passengers and crew, sailed alone.

At this point the history becomes muddled: the original landing site was somewhere near the mouth of the Hudson River, but records show that the group had permission to settle in Virginia. Instead, they landed near Cape Cod, Massachusetts...quite a bit of a mistake in navigation, if you ask me. They spent a month anchored just off the rocky shore while a group of passengers, including William Bradford, went ashore to explore the area. According to Travels of the Rock by John McPhee (Princeton University Press http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s5_7108.html), Bradford was in the woods on day when he was accidentally caught in a trap cleverly designed  by one of the  native inhabitants. Once freed, Bradford and the exploration party proceeded to search the area and found a storage of  corn in buried baskets, which they acquired for their own use. Coming across the grave of a child, they pillaged what they considered the best of the belongings buried with the body. Little wonder they had arrows fired at them from unseen attackers in the nearby woods numerous time before the sun set that day. (I guess grave robbing was permissible by their religious standards and personal ethics because they considered the native people of the area a lesser form of humanity.)

When the scouting party of First Comers returned after some time to the Mayflower, they discovered that Dorothy Bradford had committed suicide by "going over the side of the vessel" and drowning. Months passed before the group dared to  finally walked through sub-freezing water and ice over the rocky shore to land. Most of the passengers on the ship had been ill with pneumonia and scurvy, and less than half of them survived to make settlement.


The Native Peoples of the region were familiar with the Europeans who had been exploring the region since the late 16th century. In southeastern New England, the Wampanoag and Narragansett people have been following an agrarian cycle of farming and fishing for thousands of years and ultimately taught their new neighbors those skills. In return the Europeans brought infectious diseases with them for which the Natives had no natural immunity.  Many villages were totally wiped out by measles and small pox.

The Pilgrims and Natives kept their distance until nearly a year and a half later, when they had contact with Samoset, a Native elder, who greeted them in broken English he'd learned from some other Europeans who'd come to fish in the area. It was he who introduced Squanto to the residents of Plymouth Colony. Squanto had been kidnapped by a sea captain in 1614, but returned to his people five years later. He remained a part of the colony as an ambassador until his death many years later.

There are only 2 reliable historical accounts (http://www.pilgrimhall.org/1stthnks.htm) of the "First Thanksgiving", which was actually a Harvest Festival the Pilgrims celebrated every year at home in England. To them, a day of thanksgiving was designated each week on the Sabbath, so there was no need for an additional day to give thanks.( There is a record of a special feast happening about three years after the establishment of the colony, to give thanks for the intervention of Providence after an extraordinarily long period of drought being ended by a rain storm.)


 "Freedom from Want" by Norman Rockwell
Some of my friends don't celebrate Thanksgiving, citing the bad treatment of the Native Americans by the Pilgrims. I agree they were indeed treated abominably and I understand. I can appreciate their wish to stand in solidarity with those they feel were wronged. On the other hand I would also like to frame the situation in a realistic light. The Europeans of that era believed their colonizing effort was just because they were 'improving' the area in the manner commonly in use in Europe at that time, which included permanent settlements and their own methods of farming. They introduced the Christian religion because they believed they were chosen to do so by a Higher Authority. While none of these actions are excusable in any manner, I'd like to point out that we are also judging people from hundreds of years ago by the current standards of our society. That is incorrect, also. While hardly justifiable in what they wrought upon the land and its inhabitants, we cannot frame these events by our own morals and ethics of the present day. We must allow for  a genuine understanding of the mindset of the day, which was very different from our own. Stripped of it's emotion, the situation is less volatile: the natives fought to retain their right to land they had lived on and worked on seasonally for centuries while the Pilgrims were fulfilling an agreement for which they were contracted. The bottom line for them was that it was a business deal, and they'd given their word to hold up their end. Like it or not, that's what it comes down to- it was all " just business" as the popular phrase goes these days.


My take on this is that I reject the negativity created by the story of the First Thanksgiving. That does not mean that I have forgotten who wronged whom, and I believe that the single most important lesson that has come from all of this is that we as a people should never allow this type of thing to happen in our lifetime. We cannot change the past or continue to hold a grudge against people who were long dead before our own great grandparents were even born. Remembering and agreeing are two completely different things, therefore a remembrance to honor the beginning of our country's history is not out of line. It has never been a perfect history and many objectionable events have taken place in it's forging- but it is there, none the less and continuing to carry on the anger and pick at the wounds every year when we should be celebrating being thankful in the spirit of gratitude is a greater wrong. The phrase, " Would you rather be right or rather be happy?" comes to mind. What do we gain by continuing to beat our breasts and crying over what we personally had no involvement in? Accept the lesson, and move on.

I'd prefer to think of Thanksgiving as simply that: thanks-giving. The day is about being thankful for what is manifest abundance. Individually,we have a lot to be thankful for no matter who we are and how much we struggle. Every one's  life could stand some improvement in some form, but we've all been blessed, we've all received something unexpected, something we have not earned and do not deserve. Every one of us. Be thankful for those things. Stop to acknowledge that which has come into your life unearned or uninvited, even the things that seem go wrong or be wrong. You will be surprised by the gift of resiliency you find and the personal tools you develop to survive. Isn't that something to be thankful for?

Thanks-giving is about what is plentiful in our lives, not about Pilgrims and turkeys.






 



1 comment:

  1. I agree!!
    ...although I do enjoy eating the turkey ;)

    ReplyDelete

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