On Religion, The Media and Life as a 20-something in Chicago

Happy Thanksgiving! I was very thankful to get to tell this story this year… ELGIN — Most people learn the story of the first Thanksgiving in the first, second and third grades, according to Sarah Russell, an education coordinator at the Elgin Public Museum. Russell should know. She does many of those programs at area schools throughout November, which is Native American Heritage Month, she said. But nobody really talks much about the history of Thanksgiving after that, she noted. Judi Brownfield of Elgin remembered, “It’s a celebration of survival.” Somebody else knew Abraham Lincoln had something to do with it. Russell said her mom’s eighth-grade students threw out things like, “pilgrims,” “Indians, “They came over on the Mayflower, maybe, or the Pinta or the Santa Maria.” Those were responses shared by about a dozen people at “What You Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Thanksgiving” Friday night at the Elgin Public Museum, 225 Grand Blvd. “It wasn’t as idyllic as we think of it,” Russell said. The Indians To get a good idea of the first Thanksgiving, Russell said, it’s important to think about who and what were here in North America before the pilgrims arrived Dec. 12, 1620. That included anywhere from 10 million to 100 million Native Americans, she said, including many civilizations that would have rivaled anything in Europe in the time and cities cleaner than major centers like London and Cairo. It also included the Vikings, Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese, she said. So by the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts, Native Americans already had come in contact with other colonists. They’d also come in contact with their diseases, Russell said. Those diseases wiped out 75 to 96 percent of the Native American population. By comparison, she said, the Black Plague had wiped out one-third of the population in Europe, and “when that happened, people weren’t able to function in their society.” Then-Plymouth Governor William Bradford wrote, “It pleased God to afflict these Indians with such deadly sickness, that out of 1,000, over 950 of them died, and many of them lay rotting above ground for want of a burial.” That left entire Native American villages — homes and fields — abandoned. Of the Wampanoag (whose name means “people of the light”) who had lived at Plymouth, Russell said, pretty much only Tisquantum, or Squanto, survived, and only then, because he had been enslaved in Spain for several years before he returned to his home in the early 1600s. He later became a translator and ambassador for the pilgrims. The pilgrims That was one thing Brownfield said she hadn’t learned in school. She came to Friday’s event at the Elgin Public Museum to prepare for her family’s Thanksgiving celebration, she said. It’s gotten so big — about 40 people — the family now holds it in the basement of a church, and, she said, while they’re holding hands around the table and sharing what they’re thankful for, she also wants to share the history of the holiday. “I was surprised the Europeans moved into a village. It wasn’t them foraging through the forest. Their survival really, totally, honestly was dependent on what the Native Americans provided,” Brownfield said. The Europeans weren’t called “pilgrims” then, Russell said. They were “separatists” — “kind of a radical sect” that wanted to separate from the Church of England, she said. They also didn’t wear silver buckles and drab colors. Later painters, in their renderings of the first Thanksgiving, had thought buckles looked “quaint,” and brightly-colored clothing had been the fashion in Europe, she said. (The Wampanoag also didn’t wear headdresses: Those were worn by Native Americans in the plains.) And Plymouth wasn’t exactly where they had planned to land. There’s a couple of theories about that, Russell said: The textbook-friendly theory claims the Mayflower sailed into a storm and was thrown off course. Another claims the pilgrims “accidentally” landed somewhere they technically wouldn’t be under the king’s rule, she said. Of the 102 people who sailed to North America on the Mayflower, only half were pilgrims; the rest were colonists the pilgrims had joined on their 66-day journey across the Atlantic, according to the education coordinator. That’s why they signed the Mayflower Compact — to navigate how the two would live together at Plymouth. “Many people say that’s the forerunner of democracy, it’s the forerunner of the Constitution. Whether our forefathers read it, we don’t know,” Russell said. They also signed a 60-year peace treaty with the Wampanoag — they would not injure or steal from one another, and they would support each other in an unjust fight, she said. The Thanksgiving celebration It wasn’t unusual for the pilgrims to celebrate a day of thanksgiving when they believed God had looked favorably on them: They’d spend the day in church, then feasting, Russell said. It also wasn’t unusual for them to observe a day of fasting when things weren’t going well, she added. In fall 1621, the pilgrims called a feast to celebrate their first successful harvest “after a very long, very hard year with half of their people dying,” she said. But unlike their usual feasts of thanksgiving, this lasted three days and included games and other festivities — not that different from the modern tradition of a Thanksgiving Day football game. It also did not include women or children. Writings at the time record the pilgrims hunted fowl, possibly turkey, and the Wampanoag brought venison to the first Thanksgiving, Russell said. But there were no potatoes, and there was little sugar: That means there was no pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. They would have eaten pumpkins, other squash, maybe cornbread, she said. On Friday night, the Elgin Public Museum also served stewed pompion, an ancient New England standing dish of mashed squash spiced with ginger; nasaump, a traditional Wampanoag dish of hominy, clam broth and chopped green onions; and succotash. Emily Giesy of Gilberts said the pompion was “pretty good” — and not all that different from the foods her family enjoys at Thanksgiving. “My mom makes a squash casserole that’s like that, except we use brown sugar and other kinds of sweet stuff,” Giesy said. Americans continued to celebrate days of thanksgiving for centuries after the pilgrims and Wampanoag had; President George Washington declared the first national Thanksgiving in 1789, Russell said. Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis each called feasts after battles that went their way during the Civil War. Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November a national holiday in 1863, she said. Since then, it’s been inextricably linked to the pilgrims’ story, thanks to Norman Rockwell paintings and efforts to teach growing immigrant populations the country’s history in schools, she added. But, Brownfield said, this is the story she wants to share with her family on Thanksgiving Day. “I want to share that with another generation: It wasn’t the Europeans that shaped America, but the Native Americans,” she said. “The Europeans should have learned and honored them.” For the original story — and photos of the event — visit The Courier-News.

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2011 at 10:05 am

Museum shares what your teacher didn’t tell you about Thanksgiving (Sun-Times Media)


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