First declared by George Washington as a national holiday, Thanksgiving in the modern context is characterized by inherently American values—feasts, football and family. As we gorge ourselves with stuffing and teach children the Charlie Brown version of Thanksgiving, the factual account of this event that inspired this age-old holiday gets lost in translation. Perry Ground, member of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga tribe, came to speak about his perspective of Thanksgiving on Wednesday Nov. 16. Dressed head to toe in traditional Native American attire, Ground began his presentation by passing out a true or false quiz about the history of Thanksgiving.
Soon after Ground’s presentation began, it became blatantly apparent how little knowledge the audience possessed about the actual history of Thanksgiving. Ground quizzed various students around the room on facts of the first Thanksgiving, with the majority of them volunteering incorrect answers.
This lack of knowledge, however, stretches beyond the educational niche of college students. At a talk with the National Conference for Native American educators, Ground shared that the educators only knew the fictional story of Thanksgiving.
“When we think about this event, a lot of people like to rewrite history,” Ground said. “When we talk about this event, a lot of people like to say to me, ‘The Pilgrims were bad people. They wanted to kill Native Americans, they brought diseases.’ This is just not true. [The Pilgrims] did not come here maliciously.”
In fact, the Pilgrims came to modern day New Jersey to practice their own religion and to trade beaver furs. They encountered the Patuxet tribe of the Wampanoag tribal confederation when they built their village, with Massasoit Sachem being the leader of the Wampanoag confederation. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag arranged a peace treaty for trade and mutual protection that lasted 50 years—until King Phillips’ War.
The “first” Thanksgiving celebrated the fact that the Pilgrims had successfully harvested enough food to last them through the winter. This feast, however, was not the first of its kind.
The actual first feast occurred on Sept. 8, 1565 in St. Augustine with the Spanish. In addition, the Wampanoags had a cycle of ceremonies where they gave thanks to everything around them, also called Thanksgiving. While it is not the same American holiday of being thankful, it was the Wampanoag way of expressing gratitude.
During this event, two extremely different groups that held different languages, belief systems and traditions found a way to come together and to enjoy a feast for three days. The importance of Thanksgiving lies in this simple fact that two groups from across the world were able to live in harmony during this time period.
“I think it’s a great example of peaceful coexistence,” Ground said. “I give this talk to highlight how important this peaceful coexistence is, even today."