Fellow Birch Rockers! This Thanksgiving we can be grateful for real, gather-‘round-the-table holidays with family and friends—thanks to COVID vaccines and boosters keeping us safe. This year’s Thanksgiving is momentous for another reason. It’s exactly 400 years since the first harvest festival shared by Indigenous people and Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The actual 1621 gathering, historians tell us, was a far cry from the myth we were taught as children. A misunderstanding—not a gracious invitation to a feast—brought colonists and Indians together for what we call the first Thanksgiving.
That fateful November day four centuries ago, a group of roughly 90 Wampanoag men rushed to the Pilgrims’ defense when they heard alarming gunfire; the Indians thought the white men were under attack and needed help under a mutual defense pact signed in the spring of 1621. When the Wampanoag reached the colony, they found the white men firing weapons the way we now shoot off fireworks—in jubilation. A plentiful harvest had been gathered by the colonists who managed to survive their first grim year in the New World. This wild revelry was a “rejoicing” rather than a more solemn, prayerful “thanksgiving” observed at times by the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag wound up staying for an impromptu three-day party that undoubtedly involved lots of eating, perhaps including wild turkey (pie was not on the menu as there was no sugar, butter or wheat flour).
The Thanksgiving fable obscures harsh historical truth. Myths are often created to hide deplorable realities—in this case the brutal assault on and subjugation of native peoples all through American history. Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863 when President Lincoln was desperate to lift up a nation traumatized by the Civil War. In the years after the war, Thanksgiving evolved into a celebration of family and national re-uniting, with food, rituals and the feel-good tale of harmony between white settlers and the first inhabitants of this land.
Summer camps have long used Indian names, ideas and iconography, and the time has come to acknowledge our misappropriation. Birch Rock is joining with other Maine camps to begin talks with tribal leaders in the state. We will listen to these Indigenous leaders and try to understand how we in the camp community can redress wrongs and positively impact the social, economic and political standing of Native communities. Birch Rockers of all ages have expressed great interest in this endeavor.
Wishing you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Day on November 26th.
By Francie Campbell, Parent ’00s, Trustee ’00s