The first Thanksgiving
In the fall of 1621, 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 English colonists gathered for a three-day harvest feast. How did Americans get from that celebration to the Thanksgiving 'traditions' we observe today?
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But Mr. Mills has another name and another job. As Flying Eagle, he is the chief of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, he doesn't see himself as caught between two cultures. Instead, he embraces both.
With equal relish, Mills will spend an afternoon walking in peaceful silence, as his ancestors did, or an evening listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He has always spent a lot of time thinking about the history of his people, however, and the confusion about what really happened back in 1621.
"Things have changed so much," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Even Thanksgiving has changed. Young people today don't remember what it was like 50 or 100 years ago.
"Then, we picked our own cranberries from our own cranberry bogs, and we caught rabbits and hung them outside our garage doors."
More recently, Coombs remembers that as she was growing up, her family celebrated the holiday as most other Americans did. She went to her grandfather's house, ate a turkey dinner, and watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. It wasn't until she was in college that she learned her ancestors had observed Thanksgiving in a different manner.
It is not just the eating, but the gathering together, preparing, and thanking that matters, Mills says. "The role of food is important, but it's gotten to the point where we become gluttons.... We could spend a lot more time really thinking about what's going on in our world and giving more thanks."
Mills points to the Plymouth Rock on the town's waterfront as an example of differing views. The rock, first placed in 1774, is a monument to the landing of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts 382 years ago.
"They're saying this is 'America's hometown,' that this is the rock [the colonists] stepped on," Mills says. "I'm not against that, and it's nice to have the rock, but don't try to make it true when it's really a symbol, a mythology."
He's also disturbed by the fact that many people still don't know or seem quick to dismiss the native side of the story.
"When I talk about Thanksgiving, [some people think] it happened too long ago to matter," Mills says. "But when they talk about it, well, it's history."
Still, the Wampanoag now have many more opportunities to contribute to historical accounts of the region, offering insight into the traditions of their people that have been passed down orally through the generations.
"The two groups are working very well together in recent years," Mills says. "And those connections turn into a circle. No matter how small, how minor, they all contribute to the human beings that we are."
In late 1621, remembering the first Thanksgiving gathering, Edward Winslow expressed a sentiment similar to Mills's call for sharing and giving thanks:"And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
There are many myths surrounding Thanksgiving. Here are nine things we do know are true about the holiday.
1. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration in 1621 that lasted for three days.
2. The feast most likely occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.
3. Approximately 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 colonists - the latter mostly women and children - participated.
4. The Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, contributed at least five deer to the feast.
5. Cranberry sauce, potatoes - white or sweet - and pies were not on the menu.
6. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag communicated through Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, who knew English because he had associated with earlier explorers.
7. Besides meals, the event included recreation and entertainment.
8. There are only two surviving descriptions of the first Thanksgiving. One is in a letter by colonist Edward Winslow. He mentions some of the food and activities. The second description was in a book written by William Bradford 20 years afterward. His account was lost for almost 100 years.
9. Abraham Lincoln named Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863.