In the recent weeks leading up to this great American holiday, you have no doubt seen articles cross your feed with a title something like, “The Truth About the First Thanksgiving” or maybe your algorithm leans a little on the conspiracy theorist side with something like, “The First Thanksgiving is a Myth!” Either way, it probably grabbed your attention because of the combination of the provocative title along with a classic painting. The painting you saw was more than likely one of two paintings. Interestingly, both artists were native Pennsylvanians and both of the pieces were painted circa in the 10’s (not the recent 10’s, the 100 years ago 10’s) and both artists got some things wrong and some things right.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris likely painted his piece first. Check it out.
Now have a look at Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s painting. Take your time.
What do you see?
What feelings do these paintings prompt?
What do these two paintings have in common?
What differences do you notice?
Right away, you may notice the stoic look on the faces of the men and the kind demeanor of the women. What immediately stood out to me was how both artists depict most, if not all, of the Wampanoag men sitting on the ground while a table is present. The artists depict them sitting on the ground in their famous “Indian Style” (If you were born in the 80’s or prior you know this term. For you Millennials, it’s now commonly referred to as “criss cross apple sauce”). JAB, depicts more of a willingness on the part of both groups to intermingle, having Massasoit (who was actually named Ousemequin) the sachem or chief of the Wampanoag and two other tribal leaders seated at the table, but also notice the white man sitting and conversing with the Wampanoag men, while one from each group stand shoulder to shoulder. She also adds a young mother rocking a baby to sleep as if to show future viewers of her art that these First Peoples were not savage at all.
Both artists depict twice as many white men as white women. In fact, all but 4 of the adult women who made the journey to the “New World” in 1620 didn’t make it through their first winter. JLGF depicts a Wampanoag man in the foreground who has placed his weapon down while eating, yet the white man closest to the viewer remains armed and helmeted and both Ferris and Brownscombe depict multiple Plymouth men remaining armed. Whether or not this was actually the case, it definitely rings true to our various natures. We know for certain that this delegation of Wampanoag men came from the neighboring tribe in peace, one hundred percent. If not, you and I would likely not have learned this story in Kindergarten while sitting cross-legged on the ground in a reading circle. Most people would agree that these paintings are merely romanticized versions of what actually happened.
So, what actually happened?
Written accounts from Plymouth Colony do state that a sort of Festival did take place and that nearly 100 Wampanoag men arrived with gifts of venison, fowl and fresh fish. It did take place after a the bountiful harvest probably early in October. Squanto likely helped to interpret between the two groups. Turkey was plentiful at that time, but there’s no record of them eating the big bird during this great feast. There were no mashed potatoes because they hadn’t made the journey up from South America yet, but almost certainly pumpkin soup was on the menu. Oh, and fashion fun fact: the Wampanoag didn’t actually wear feather headdresses and the Puritans didn’t walk around with large buckles on their hats.
The Wampanoag side of the story states that they heard gunfire and canon shots, so Chief Massasoit took a delegation of 90 or so warriors dressed and ready to engage on a fact-finding, diplomatic mission. Upon arrival and finding out that the gunfire was a sort of excited response to a good harvest, the skeptical chief decided to stay a while to make sure that’s what really was taking place. He had his men camp across the river from the settlement for about four days. At some point, he brought over gifts of deer, game and fish to give to these new neighbors to show kindness. The Wampanoag along with most American First Nation Tribes saw and, still today, see all humans as related and therefore believed that we carry a kind of responsibility to care for one another, regardless of skin color. War without reason was/is considered evil, while caring for those in need should be a natural response.
The actual events can only be guessed to be a sort of blend of the two versions. The Chief was indeed rolling deep, outnumbering the “Plymouth-ians” two to one, and he more than likely let the settlers know that he had intentions of planting corn and tobacco across the river from them again. He might have even asked these rowdy neighbors to “keep it down a little” on his way out. In so many accounts of meetings between Caucasians and Native peoples, from Columbus to Lewis and Clark, Pocahontas to Chief Joseph, the original Americans were often hospitable and helpful, even to their own detriment, whether because of diseases brought in or treaties being broken. Either way they often were willing to engage as friends first and that is definitely the case here.
What’s the take-away?
It’s ok to celebrate Thanksgiving as it has been handed down to you. Rather than relegating our giving of thanks to one day, why not live every day with a disposition of gratitude toward our Creator. Be kind to your neighbor, ready to help those in need. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe is right but first be willing to listen to others. Come bearing gifts.
Proverbs 18:16 says, “A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.” Look for the humanity in people with whom you disagree.
As Antong Lucky of Urban Specialists says, “Try to see yourself in others.” Embrace our history because we are a product of it, all of it…the good and the bad. Let’s imitate the best of what came before and rather than justifying or ignoring mistakes of the past, let’s try to admit and learn from them so that we don’t repeat them.
Lastly, be one who is inviting others to the table. Literally and metaphorically. You’ll learn that we have more in common than not! I love that the Gospels weave together a narrative of Jesus confounding the religious rulers of his day by associating with “those people.” May the same be said of us. After all, as Paul put it, our job title as Christ followers is to be Ambassadors of Reconciliation, inviting people to reunite with the Father they never knew they had.