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Thanksgiving Myths

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

 

Give Thanks and Acknowledge the Truth

 

 

"The Europeans were able to conquer America not because of their military genius, or their religious motivation, or their ambition, or their greed. They conquered it by waging unpremeditated biological warfare." -- Howard Simpson

 

"Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its victims in order to justify its history?" -- Michael Dorris

 

"European explorers and invaders discovered an inhabited land. Had it been pristine wilderness then, it would possibly be so still, for neither the technology nor the social organization of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries had the capacity to maintain, of its own resources, outpost colonies thousands of miles from home." -- Francis Jennings

 

What Thanksgiving story are you telling your children or talking about with your guests during this holiday? Most Americans speak of remembering the Pilgrims who, in 1620, chose the land around Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts for their settlement. You might remember from your elementary school days that since they arrived in the winter, they were unprepared for the harsh climate.

 

Fortunately, they were aided by some friendly Indians who gave them food and showed them how to grow corn. When the warm weather came, the colonists planted crops, fished, hunted and became much better prepared for next winter. And when they harvested their first crop, they invited their Indian friends to celebrate with them what was to become the first Thanksgiving.

 

This story is taught today in thousands of classrooms across the nation, and around the world, and is ingrained in most people’s consciousness. Just yesterday, I heard some elementary school teachers telling the story on National Pubic Radio. Unfortunately, the entire story, from start to finish, is a complete lie.

 

You are going to have to push aside your turkey (or tofu) leftovers if you are going to learn what really happened at the time of the first Thanksgiving in America. In fact, you may not be able to stomach any food for a while after you learn the truth.

 

The story actually begins after 1492 as Europeans came in significant numbers to the newly found Americas.

 

When people began moving, the microbes that they evolved with moved along with them. Before the arrival of Europeans, the inhabitants of North and South America were remarkably healthy. But along with the Europeans came their illnesses and their livestock. The native inhabitants were then exposed to the many diseases that can be passed back and forth between those animals and humans - anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera, streptococcus, ringworm and various poxes.

 

The British and French had fished in southern New England for some time before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. It is likely that they came in contact with the Indians at that time. The native inhabitants had no resistance to the diseases brought by the Europeans and within three years, a plague wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of coastal New England! This death rate was unknown in all previous human experience. For comparison, the Black Plague in the 1300s killed about 30 percent of Europe’s population.

 

This piece of history is usually omitted from most textbooks, yet these plagues, which ravaged the Indian population for the next 15 years, set the tone for the relationship of the European settlers with the indigenous people of America.

 

The English settlers inferred from the plague that God was on their side and sanctioned their takeover of the land. John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, wrote that the plague was "miraculous." He said "God hath thereby cleared out title to this place..." Is it any wonder that our political leaders of today ask for God’s blessing and protection as they go to war to kill?

 

Between 1520 and 1918, there were 93 epidemics among Native Americans.

 

Indian home in what is now New York state. The indigenous people had no resistance to European diseases. (Photo courtesy Town of Colonie)

 

The effect that these plagues had on the native populations reached into their psyches as well. They felt that the Supreme Being had abandoned them. Some survivors of the Cherokee lost all confidence in their gods and priests and destroyed the sacred objects of the tribe. Indian healers could do nothing and their religion provided no cause. But the Whites usually survived and their religion seemed to save them. Many Indians turned to alcohol, Christianity or simply committed suicide. So it was a psychologically and physically devastated people that for the first 50 years of European occupation presented no real opposition to the invaders.

 

Prior to the arrival of European invaders, the native population of North and South American was 100 million in 1492. The entire population of Europe at the time was 70 million. If colonists had not been able to take over lands that the Indians had already cleared and cultivated, and if the Indian population had not been devastated by disease, there might not have been any colonization at all.

 

By 1880, the Indian population was 250,000, a drop of 98 percent.

 

It is quite likely that the Pilgrims knew well of these plagues. In fact, most people knew about them. Ziner, in the book "Squanto," wrote that before the Mayflower sailed, King James of England gave thanks to "Almighty God in his great goodness and bounty towards us" for sending "this wonderful plague among the savages."

 

Few Americans know that the Pilgrims numbered only about 35 of the 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower, which was headed for the new Virginia colony. Some historians believe it is possible that the Pilgrims bribed the Mayflower captain to drop them off in Massachusetts. Some say they may have even hijacked the ship. In any case, the non-Pilgrim majority, who had joined the ship because of the economic opportunity afforded by the Virginia tobacco plantations, were quite upset at being taken someplace else.

 

Historians, in their search for a story that told the mythical beginnings of American culture, probably chose to omit facts about the Pilgrims story rather than tell the tale of Virginia. In Virginia, the British took the Native Americans prisoner and forced them to show the colonists how to farm.

 

James W. Loewen, in his revealing book "Lies My Teacher Told Me," says, "in 1623, the British indulged in the first use of chemical warfare in the colonies when negotiating a treaty with the tribes near the Potomac River, headed by Chiskiack. The British offered a toast ‘symbolizing eternal friendship,’ whereupon the chief, his family, advisors, and two hundred followers dropped dead of poison."

 

The Pilgrims choose their site at Plymouth because it had beautifully cleared fields, recently planted corn, and excellent water supplies. The Pilgrims did not start from scratch in the wildness, but used a common practice of the European invaders of appropriating Indian cornfields for their initial settlements. This is why so many of the names of East Coast towns end in "field."

 

Many of the Indians who created and lived in this new Plymouth died from the plagues, and with them died opposition of the new settlers.

 

The Pilgrims robbed graves, stole what they could find in abandoned Indian homes, and filled their larders with the harvest of a dying culture’s labors.

 

Early Thanksgiving shown as the prevailing myth (Image credit unknown)

 

The reasons for the lies about the origins of Thanksgiving go deep into culture, psyche, and religion and are covered in depth in Loewen’s book. One thing is for sure: the true history of Thanksgiving reveals some very embarrassing facts.

 

The most remarkable part of the story may be that the Pilgrims did not even introduce the tradition of Thanksgiving in America. It wasn't until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it a national holiday. The fabricated story of the Pilgrims was not even included in the holiday until the 1890s. The term "Pilgrim" was not even used until the 1870s.

 

The environmental and social devastation wrought by the European invaders of North America continues today. Oil company explorers, miners and loggers continue to introduce disease to the isolated indigenous cultures of South American and Southeast Asia.

 

 

 

Dutch and English settlers unite to slaughter the Pequote in 1637

The myth of Thanksgiving has created a false sense of self in Americans that has done great damage throughout the world. It has resulted in seeds of racial hatred and white superiority being planted in the minds of schoolchildren. It is an insult to us all, especially since most Americans are ignorant of the truth, even though the facts about the grave robbing, Indian enslavement and murder, and the plagues, were common knowledge among the settlers of New England.

 

Loewen gives us excellent reasons why we should seek out the truth of American history. If the conflicts of the true story were revealed, he says, then "students might discover that the knowledge they gain has implications for their lives today. Correctly taught, the issues of the era of the first Thanksgiving could help Americans grow more thoughtful and more tolerant, rather than more ethnocentric."

 

We can redefine Thanksgiving for ourselves and our family. We can make it a day when we not only give thanks for the bounty we have received, but a day when we acknowledge the injustices that have been done and still are being perpetrated on so many people and animals in the world.

 

After feasting, we could choose a way for our families to help lessen the suffering of some creature somewhere in the world, animal or human.

 

We must remember these tragedies as we shape the new millennium. With genetically engineered bacteria, crops and animals being created every day, are we risking a biological devastation like the Indians experienced?

 

We must examine how we are using this stolen gift of a nation. As life support systems crumble and species become extinct every day, can we really say we have learned anything in the last 500 years?

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

 


 

RESOURCES

 

1. Read "Lies My Teacher Told Me," by James W. Loewen to learn about more surprises in American history. Buy a few copies and give them to elementary school teachers in your community. If you have children, make sure your child’s teacher has one. Visit a website devoted to this book at: http://www.uvm.edu/~jloewen/

 

2. Read the Indian Country Newspaper at: http://indiancountry.com/

 

3. For many perspectives about Native Americans and the environment, check out: http://www.indians.org/library/naehome.html

 

4. Learn about ongoing harassment of native and indigenous people around the world at: http://www.theofficenet.com/~redorman/pagea~1.htm

 

5. Check out the Indigenous Earth Sciences Project at: http://www.ucr.edu/history/IESP/

 

6. Read a powerful international perspective on the terrorism against the U.S. in Briton's "The Independent" at: http://www.independent.co.uk/story.jsp?story=94254

 

7. Find alternative sources for information to understand the complexity of world events. Visit:

 

 Peace Brigades International at: http://www.peacebrigades.org/index.htmlNuclear Age Peace Foundation at: http://www.napf.org Perspectives from around the worldon the terrorist attacks at: http://www.napf.org/terrorism/index.htmPeace News at: http://www.gn.apc.org/peacenewsWar Resistors International at: http://www.wri-irg.org/en/index.htmPeaceNet at: http://www.igc.org/igc/gateway/pnindex.htmlThe Nonviolence Web at: http://www.nonviolence.org

 

8. Many of the world's despots, dictators, and terrorists were trained by the United States at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Georgia. Follow the protests against this U.S. sanctioned school for terror at http://www.soaw.org

 

9. Find out who your elected representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them you will not tolerate the continued exploitation of indigenous people throughout the world. You can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html

 

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of "Healing Our World", A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light," available at: http://www.xlibris.com/HealingOurWorld.html or your local bookstore. His new book of photographs and thoughts on interconnectedness, "Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections," is now available. Learn about it at: http://ofthisearth.org. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at: jac-@healingourworld.com and visit his website at: http://www.healingourworld.com} 

 

 


 

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