The Radical Act Behind The First Thanksgiving

The Pilgrim’s arrived in the vicinity of Cape Cod, MA on November 11, 1620. Even though the Mayflower had been damaged in storms making further navigation difficult, they spent the next month exploring the coast for a place to settle.

On December 11, they weighed anchor at Plymouth Rock but winter had come early with heavy snow. Many of the passengers and crew had fallen ill, coughing violently. The Colonists were also wracked with the effects of scurvy.

These Europeans, with their mild winters, were ill-prepared to jump off their ship into such harsh conditions. Movement in the New World’s deep snow was difficult at best, impeding exploration. Game to supply their dwindling larder was also scarce.

Long before there Thankgiving holidays, long before there were Pilgrims, before there were explorers with New Worlds to explore, a story circulated among the peoples of northeast lands of America about their own Thanksgiving, of sorts.

In the beginning of time, people lived in harmony with the land.  In their appreciation and reverence for all things comprising Mother Earth, they would sing songs in their to honor.

Harsh conditions or not, the Pilgrims were desperate to escape the floating petri dish that the Mayflower had become. Building efforts began in earnest but the heavy snow slowed the Pilgrims’ progress.

Occasionally, First Americans would be spotted from a distance, running off before the gun-bearing Englishmen could get close. What the Pilgrims didn’t know was that this was not the indigenous people’s first contact with Europeans. Fisherman and explorers had been traveling these coasts for years.

According to native lore, one day a bear, Muin by name, was in the forest when he heard one of these songs being sung by the people. The song was being sung in his honor, and their voices were carried by the wind into the forest. When Muin heard this beautiful song he felt honored and respected.

The first house erected by the Pilgrims was immediately turned into a hospital for the increasingly ill colonists. Of the 102 people that had made the voyage, 31 were dead by February.

The colony’s situation was dire. They rationed their remaining supplies to not-enough daily portions which only accelerated disease. Game was scarce at best. The Pilgrim’s had pilfered provisions from a native burial mound they had dug up weeks earlier, but these too were now gone.

Muin went to the edge of a clearing in the forest, and saw that the people were in ceremony. As he watched and listened, he saw the people making offerings to his spirit, and he heard the kind words that the people spoke of him. They referred to him as Brother. Then he heard the people ask him for medicines to help them.

The death toll continued to rise. By March, only 47 of the original 102 colonists remained. At the height of the sickness, only six or seven people were healthy enough to care for the others.

Weak from malnourishment and disease, the feeble settlers were in danger of obliteration. They needed help, but their support was 3,220 miles away, more than two months of voyage across a wintery ocean, if they could find a ship that was shipshape.

Muin realized that he must make a journey for the people and bring back medicines for them. Muin knew he would be gone for many moons and so he began his quest. Throughout his journey, he collected medicines for the dying people.

It was March 16 when Abenaki Chief Samoset brazenly strode into the midst of the colony, much to the dismay of the shivering and hacking Pilgrims. Already familiar with Europeans from fishing vessels and earlier explorers, Samoset took it upon himself to foster goodwill between the immigrants and First Americans.

The plants agreed to give their life-giving medicines as long as Muin would cultivate and fertilize the land for them and teach others to do so. Do this, and the plants would return year after year giving their bounty to the people. Muin agreed to do this.

Samoset introduced the dying Pilgrims to Tisquantum (“Squanto”), who had been kidnapped 6 years earlier by explorer Thomas Hunt and brought back to England and sold into slavery. Tisquantum escaped and returned to America. Nobody knows how. But during the time he was away, he learned the language and ways of the English which later proved crucial to the survival of the settlers at Plymouth Rock.

Finally, after many moons, Muin’s journey was coming to an end. Muin requested the people to prepare a feast to celebrate his return and honor the medicines the plants have given him for the people.

Tisquantum supplied the colony with food. He taught them how to catch fish and successfully hunt local game. As Spring sprung into bloom, he taught them how to plant corn as well as other vegetables.

The people were happy and immediately began preparations for the Feast. After four days, the feast was ready. Berries, fish and other food had been prepared and the people gathered together. And once gathered, the story was told how in Harvest of the year we honor Muin for bounty he has made possible.

Under Tisquantum’s guidance, the band of survivors flourished through the summer and into the fall with a plentiful harvest. In all cultures, feasts are used to celebrate good fortune. On September 29, the remaining 47 Pilgrims held a feast of thankfulness as was their custom in Europe. They invited their native hosts, 93 of whom joined them in their celebration.

And so it continues to this day. Muin tills and fertilizes the ground to help plants grow, and during the long cold winter he journeys once again to seek medicines for the people. And each year, in the Harvest and the Spring, native people gather together for a feast in his honor.

Tisquantum didn’t just know the story of Muin and how he helped the people when they were sick, he believed it. Tisquantum found the the very people who had hurt him hungry, sick and dying. All he would have to do is wait, watch, and they would soon be gone. Tisquantum, who instead of exacting an easily justifiable revenge, helped them flourish into abundance.

Compassion for an enemy is counterculture. Forgiveness is radical. But then, all healing is a revolt.

We celebrate Thanksgiving, a time to pause, reflect, and be grateful, the legacy of one man’s selfless actions 400-years ago. One man, reversing rather than perpetuating evil. And perhaps we too, should we find our self trapped, far from where we belong or want to be, lost, strangers in a strange land as a result of our prodigal wanderings, can look to our stories of which Thanksgiving is one, and maybe find not only a way to make the world a little better, but also our way back home.

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