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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Sterling Compass

This Thursday when we sit down to gorge ourselves with turkey feasts and our subsequent food comas conjure thoughts of happy-go-lucky natives breaking bread with jubilant Pilgrims, let’s not kid ourselves. Just as modern German and Japanese textbooks downplay the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanking, the U.S. has altered its history through the Thanksgiving story to erase from our collective memories what really happened.

Some of you might remember Squanto from the Thanksgiving story. Well, his real name was actually Tisquantum, but the Pilgrims didn’t think it was cool enough, so they decided to call him Squanto, orBig Bean” (the Pilgrims actually just couldn’t pronounce his name). A member of the Patuxet tribe, this loveable native taught the Pilgrims to grow maize and catch eel so that they could survive the harsh Plymouth winter.

Europeans had been wonderful to Squanto and he wanted to return the favor; they captured and sold him into slavery not once, not twice, but three times. They even sent him on an all-expenses paid voyage to Europe aboard a luxury slave liner. He studied abroad in Málagua, Spain for a couple years where local friars taught him English and forced him to accept Christianity. Squanto got homesick, so he stole across the English Channel and got himself a job on an English mapping ship and sailed for home. He returned home only to find that a European-borne plague had wiped not only his entire village, but the entire Patuxet tribe.

Squanto settled with the Pilgrims and acted as an intermediary between the European settlers and the Wampanoag, a local confederacy of tribes. Meanwhile, the Pilgrims were engaging in a genocidal war against the Wampanoag. An 11-foot-tall wall surrounded the Plymouth settlement, which was fortified by 5 mounted cannons, and any natives that ventured too close were subject to robbery, enslavement and in many cases, death.

In 1621 the Pilgrims did host a dinner celebration and members of the Wampanoag did attend; however, it was an accidental party. The Pilgrims had invited the Wampanoag sachem, or leader, Massoit to celebrate with them, as he was largely responsible for their survival that year. Following native tradition, Massoit invited many members of his tribe to go with him, much to the Pilgrimsannoyance. The Wampanoag also brought most of the food to the gathering, but they didn’t eat turkey with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce; they most likely feasted on duck, geese and wild game.

One could only imagine how awkward the table chat was, as only days before a Puritan group had attempted to behead one of the local Wampanoag chiefs. At the end of the table sat poor Squanto, who was disliked by both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag because although he was sometimes helpful, he often played one side against the other for his own benefit. Less than a century later, the Wampanoag were nearly exterminated during King Philip’s War.

Don’t get me wrong. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s a time when I get to hang out with my dog and visit family and eat delicious food, while being thankful for all that I have. But Thanksgiving as we know it today really began in 1863 during the darkest hours of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the final Thursday in November would be a day of thanks.

It’s easy to sugarcoat the past and isolate the more painful truths to footnotes. But we all know what cognitive dissonance can do if allowed to dominate our worldviews. Looking at the past through Walt Disney goggles will only lead us to ignorance.

I will leave you now with one of my favorite quotes by the French scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard:The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.


MICHAEL HOWER is sorry if he spat on your turkey dinner and wishes you a safe and happy Thanksgiving break. Send all love/hate/ambivalent mail to mahower@ucdavis.edu.


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