Tribe That Helped Pilgrims Survive First Thanksgiving Regrets It 400 Years Later

Plymouth, Massachusetts — Overlooking the chilly waters of Plymouth Bay, about three dozen tourists swarmed a park ranger as he recounted the history of Plymouth Rock — the famous symbol of Four centuries ago, the Pilgrims arrived in this area.

Others waited nearby to see a replica Mayflower, which was the ship that transported the Pilgrims across oceans. Atop a hill was a A quiet tribute to the American Indians that helped the starving Pilgrims to survive. Few people bother to visit the statue of Ousamequin — the chief, or sachem, of the Wampanoag Nation whose people once numbered They are estimated to number between 30,000 and 100,000, and their land once extended from Southeastern Massachusetts to parts Rhode Island. Long marginalized and misrepresented in the American story, the Wampanoags are braced for what’s coming this month as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and Indians. Historians claim that the actual history of 1621 does not resemble what most Americans were taught in grade school. It is likely that there was no turkey served. No feathered headdresses were worn. And, initially, there was no effort by the Pilgrims to invite the Wampanoags to the feast they’d made possible. Just like Native American activists demanded that the Pilgrims remove the Wampanoags from the feast. Christopher Columbus statuesHe was pushed to turn the Columbus holiday into an acknowledgment for his efforts brutality toward Indigenous peopleThey have always opposed the popular depiction of Thanksgiving. For the Wampanoags, and many other American Indians too, the fourth Thursday of November is a day to mourn and not celebrate. This is because, although they did help the Pilgrims survive the Holocaust, their support was followed over years by the gradual genocide of their peoples and the taking of their land.

To learn more about the history and events of the Wampanoags after the first Thanksgiving, visitors must travel 30 miles south of Plymouth to Mashpee. Here, a modest, clapboard museum can be found along a two-lane road. Outside, there’s a wetu, a traditional Wampanoag house made from cedar poles and the bark of tulip poplar trees, and a mishoon, an Indian canoe.

Mother Bear, a 71 year-old Mashpee Wampanoag, is found in the three-room house hand-stitching a hat made of deer skin. She’s lived her whole life in this town and is considered one of the keepers of the Wampanoag version of the first Thanksgiving and how the encounter turned into a centuries-long disaster for the Mashpee, who now number about 2,800. That story continues to get ignored by the roughly 1.5 million annual visitors to Plymouth’s museums and souvenir shops. Around 800 people visit the Wampanoag Museum each year. Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is an author and educator on Native American history, said “we don’t acknowledge the American holiday of Thanksgiving … it’s a marginalization and mistelling of our story.”

“The Great Dying”

A statue of Ousamequin, the chief, or sachem, of the Wampanoag Nation, overlooks Plymouth Bay.
Plymouth Bay is overlooked by a statue of Ousamequin. He is the chief, or the sachem, for the Wampanoag Nation.

The Wampanoags, whose name means “People of the First Light” in their native language, trace their ancestors back at least 10,000 yearsTo southeastern Massachusetts, they called it Patuxet. They lived in 69 villages with a chief or sachem and a medicine man. They had “messenger runners,” members of the tribe with good memories and the endurance to run to neighboring villages to deliver messages. They lived in a land of abundance, hunting deer, elk, and bear in the forests, as well as fishing for trout and herring in the rivers and bays. They planted corn and used fish relics as fertilizer. In the winter, they moved inland from the harsh weather, and in the spring they moved to the coastlines.They had traded — and fought — with European explorers since 1524. In 1614, before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the English lured a well-known Wampanoag — Tisquantum, who was called Squanto by the English — and 20 other Wampanoag men onto a ship with the intention of selling them into slavery in Malaga, Spain. Squanto spent years trying his best to return home to his homeland. His absence caused the Wampanoags to be nearly exterminated by a mysterious disease. Some Wampanoags believed it was caused by the feces from rats aboard European ships, while others believe it was small pox. or possibly yellow fever.Known as “The Great Dying,” the pandemic lasted three years. Two-thirds of the people who had died in the pandemic by the time Squanto returned to Italy in 1619 were dead. The English explorer Thomas Dermer described the once-populous villages along the banks of the bay as being “utterly void” of people. After landing in Provincetown, England in 1620, the Mayflower was re-boarded by the English and made its way to Plymouth. The Wampanoags observed as children and women stepped off the boat. They knew this would change their interactions with Europeans. “You don’t bring your women and children if you’re planning to fight,” said Paula Peters, who also runs her own communications agency called SmokeSygnals. The Wampanoags kept an eye on the situation. Pilgrims lived for several months. Half of them died from starvation, cold, and disease in their first winter. Ousamequin, often referred to as Massasoit, which is his title and means “great sachem,” faced a nearly impossible situation, historians and educators said. His nation’s population had been ravaged by disease, and he needed to keep peace with the neighboring Narragansetts. He probably reasoned that the better weapons of the English — guns versus his people’s bows and arrows — would make them better allies than enemies.In the spring of 1621, he made the first contact. “It wasn’t that he was being kind or friendly, he was in dire straits and being strategic,” said Steven Peters, the son of Paula Peters and creative director at her agency. “We were desperately trying to not become extinct.”

A painting done in 1995 by Karen Rinaldo, of Falmouth, Mass., depicts what many Wampanoag tribal leaders and historians say is one of the few accurate portrayals of “The First Thanksgiving 1621,” between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims.
A painting done in 1995 by Karen Rinaldo, of Falmouth, Mass., depicts what many Wampanoag tribal leaders and historians say is one of the few accurate portrayals of “The First Thanksgiving 1621,” between the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims.

By the fall, the Pilgrims — thanks in large part to the Wampanoags teaching them how to plant beans and squash in a mound with maize around it and use fish remains as fertilizer — had their first harvest of crops. To celebrate its first success as a colony, the Pilgrims had a “harvest feast” that became the basis for what’s now called Thanksgiving. The Wampanoags weren’t invited. Ousamequin, his men, and their weapons were only brought to Ousamequin’s attention by the English who had in their revelry fired some of their muskets. The Wampanoags ran, fearing that they were heading to war, at the sound of gunfire. “One hundred warriors show up armed to the teeth after they heard muskets fired,” said Paula Peters. She said that the Wampanoags joined because it was a harvest celebration. They brought five deer. There was fowl, fish. eel, shellfish and possibly cranberries from the area’s natural bogs.In his book, This Land Is Their LandDavid J. Silverman, author, stated that schoolchildren who make feathered headdresses out of construction paper every year in order to portray the Indians at Thanksgiving are being taught fiction. The Wampanoags didn’t wear them. Men wore a mohawk “roach” made from porcupine hair and strapped to their heads.Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag cultural outreach coordinator, said there’s such misinterpretation about what Thanksgiving means to American Indians. “For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization,” he said. “Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.” Linda Coombs, an Aquinnah Wampanoag who is a tribal historian, museum educator and sister-in-law of Darius, said Thanksgiving portrays an idea of “us seeming like idiots who welcomed all of these changes and supports the idea that Pilgrims brought us a better life because they were superior.” Mother Bear, a clan mother and cousin of Paula Peters whose English name is Anita Peters, tells visitors to the tribe’s museum that a 1789 Massachusetts law made it illegal and “punishable by death” to teach a Mashpee Wampanoag Indian to read or write. She relates how the English drove the Wampanoag from their land and forced many to become Christians. “We had a pray-or-die policy at one point here among our people,” Mother Bear said. “If you didn’t become a Christian, you had to run away or be killed.”

Anita Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag who goes by her traditional name Mother Bear, holds a deerskin shawl that traces her ancestors back to 1580.
Anita Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag, holds a deerskin Shawl that traces her ancestors back 1580.

Wampanoag land previously held in common was finally divided up with each family receiving 60 acres. A taxation system was also put in place — both antithetical to Wampanoag culture. Much later, the Wampanoags, like other tribes, also saw their children sent to harsh Indian boarding schools, where they were told to cut their long hair, abandon their “Indian ways,” and stop speaking their native language. Paula Peters stated that at least two of her family members were sent to. Carlisle Indian schoolPennsylvania was the first state to establish a boarding school for Native American kids in 1879. Its founder, Civil War veteran and Army Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, was an advocate of forced assimilation, invoking the motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Mother Bear recalls how her mother’s uncle, William L. “High Eagle” James, told his family to destroy any writings he’d done in their native language when he died. He didn’t want them to get in trouble for having the documents.

“Still Fighting for Our Land”

David Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is a tribal council member and their historic preservation officer, stands near the tribal government center.
David Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag member of the tribal council and their historic preservation officer, stands close to the tribal government center.

Frank James, a well-known Aquinnah Wampanoag activist, called his people’s welcoming and befriending the Pilgrims in 1621 “perhaps our biggest mistake.” In 1970, he created a “National Day of Mourning” that’s become an annual event on Thanksgiving for some Wampanoags after planners for the 350th anniversary He refused to debunk myths about the Mayflower landing as part of a commemoration. Then, only Only a few of the original Wampanoag tribal members are still alive. “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people,” he wrote in that speech. In the 1970s, Mashpee wampanoags sued for some of their ancestral homelands. But They lost in part because a federal judge said they weren’t then Officially recognized as tribe. The Mashpee wampanoags applied to federal recognition in the mid-1970s. Three decades later, in 2007, they were granted federal recognition. (The Gay Head Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard are also federally recognized.) President Barack Obama placed approximately 300 acres in federal trust in 2015 for the Mashpee Wampanoag. They were effectively given a reservation. However it is composed of dozens parcels that are scattered throughout Cape Cod and represent half of the historic land. But President Donald Trump’s administration tried to take the land out of trust, jeopardizing their ability to develop it. Mashpee Wampanoag tribal officials said they’re still awaiting final word from the Department of the Interior — now led by Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the agency — on the status of their land.

Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag who serves as the tribe's cultural and outreach coordinator, stands in the old Indian Meeting House, built in 1684. It is one of the oldest American Indian churches in the eastern U.S.
Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag who serves as the tribe’s cultural and outreach coordinator, stands in the old Indian Meeting House, built in 1684. It is one the oldest American Indian churches in eastern U.S.

According to some tribal leaders, a potential casino development could bring in much-needed revenue for their community. But the land must be in trust. Mashpee Wampanoag council member David Weeden said it diminishes the tribe’s sovereignty. “Four hundred years later we’re still fighting for our land, our culture and our people,” said Brian Weeden, the tribe’s chairman and David Weeden’s nephew. Other serious issues are being dealt with by the Wampanoags, including the coronavirus pandemic. The tribe paid for hotel rooms for covid-infected members so elders in multigenerational households wouldn’t get sick. The Wampanoags had suffered from high rates of diabetes, high bloodpressure, cancers, suicide, and opioid abuse since before the pandemic. In the expensive Cape Cod area, many Wampanoags can’t afford housing and must live elsewhere. They worry about pollution and overdevelopment threatening wildlife and waterways. “The land is always our first interest,” said Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, the 99-year-old Chief Mashpee Wampanoag “It’s our survival.”

“I’m Still Here”

Mashpee Wampanoag author and educator Paula Peters outside her home in Mashpee, Mass.
Paula Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag writer and educator, outside her Mashpee home, Mass.

Paula Peters, then eight years old, said that a teacher had explained the Thanksgiving story to her. After the story, another child asked, “’What happened to the Indians?’” The teacher answered, ‘Sadly, they’re all dead.’”“No, they’re not,” Paula Peters said she replied. “I’m still here.” She and other Wampanoags are trying to keep their culture and traditions alive. The tribe established a school on its land five years ago. It now has around two dozen students, ranging in age from 2-9. They learn history, math, science and other subjects. their native Algonquian language. Language classes are also offered by the tribe for older tribal members who were often forced to learn their language but eventually lost it. “We want to make sure these kids understand what it means to be Native and to be Wampanoag,” said Nitana Greendeer, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is the head of the tribe’s school. At the school one recent day, students and teachers wore orange T-shirts to honor their ancestors who had been sent to Indian boarding schools and “didn’t come home,” Greendeer said. One teacher taught twelve children the days of the week, weather words, and how to describe their moods in one classroom. One math lesson required students to build a Wampanoag Wetu. Another lesson involved students identifying important plants to American Indians. Greendeer stated that there are no lessons planned for the 400th Anniversary of Thanksgiving. If the children ask, the teachers will explain: “That’s not something we celebrate because it resulted in a lot of death and cultural loss. Thanksgiving doesn’t mean to us what it means to many Americans.”

Co-curator Jo Loosemore looks at a wampum belt that was recently made by members of the Wampanoag tribe.
Jo Loosemore, co-curator, looks at a wampum band that was made recently by members of Wampanoag tribe.

Wampanoags will be visiting Plymouth this year to observe the National Day of Mourning. Others will gather at an old Indian Meeting House, which was built in 1684, to pay respects to their ancestors. Many of them are buried in the nearby cemetery. Plenty of Wampanoags will gather with their families for a meal to give thanks — not for the survival of the Pilgrims but for the survival of their tribe.“History has not been kind to our people,” Steven Peters said he tells his young sons. “Children were taken away. Our language was silenced,” he said. “People were killed.” Still, “we persevered. We found a way to stay.”