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Thanksgiving and the Indian Savior By: David Yeagley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 21, 2001


PRESIDENT BUSH has designated November to be National American Indian Heritage Month.

"During this month," said Bush, November 12, "when we celebrate Thanksgiving, we especially celebrate [Indian] heritage and the contributions of American Indian… peoples to this nation."

What prompted Bush’s gesture?

With the Taliban in retreat and American Airlines planes dropping from the skies like autumn leaves, it would seem that Bush has more than enough to keep him busy.

But perhaps he remembers another President who also invoked the memory of the first Pilgrim Harvest to encourage Americans in time of war.

On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of every November as the official American Thanksgiving Day.

Before that time, Americans could not quite decide when to fix their day of national Thanksgiving, or what to focus it on. There were many contenders.

George Washington, for instance, proclaimed the last Thursday of November, 1789 as a day to give thanks for the new Constitution. ;

But for many Americans, the Thanksgiving Feast would always be associated with a particular event in history the three-day harvest festival which New England Pilgrims enjoyed with their Wampanoag neighbors in 1621.

Some 380 years ago, a small group of about one hundred men, women, and children embarked from England in the Mayflower, a vessel only 100 feet long and 26 feet wide.

Surviving the three-month Atlantic crossing was a victory in itself. Most developed scurvy and pneumonia before they ever came ashore.

After landing at Plymouth, December 21, 1620, half of them died, including their governor John Carver. Fifty-one were buried before winter’s end.

Tisquantum (Squanto), a survivor from the Patuxet tribe which had been nearly wiped out from smallpox before the Pilgrims arrived taught the newcomers to plant corn and to fish for herring (used for fertilizer).

Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, proved friendly and protective. He attended that first pilgrim harvest of autumn, 1621. Some 90 Indians came, and brought five deer for the three-day feast.

Later, "Thanksgiving" days were celebrated throughout New England, a patchwork of feasts combining traditional European harvest rituals with commemorations of the Wampanoag and Patuxet hospitality.

As an Indian, I have long taken a great interest in the Thanksgiving story.

Indians clearly saved the American social embryo. We could have aborted it easily. Yet we chose to let it live.

Now we look back with bewilderment on our generosity to those strangers. Why did we do it? Why did we help them?

After all, they nearly destroyed us in return.

It was an Indian thing.

The chieftains of the woodland Indians looked upon hospitality to strangers much as the Mycenaean warlords of Homer’s epics. It was both a sacred obligation and an opportunity to demonstrate one’s strength, wealth and kingly character to extend a helping hand to those weaker than oneself.

It was, in short, a show of machismo.

To the Pilgrims, it meant something more down-to-earth the difference between life and death.

In time, white people came to see the Indian in many guises: as heathen, savage, enemy, and devil.

But, thanks to Tisquantum and Massasoit, every white man holds in his heart an enduring memory of the Indian as guide, host and savior.

It was the Indian who showed Europeans which plants were edible, which toxic, and which could be grown as staples. He showed them healing herbs, hunting trails, river routes and buckskins.

These favors were not forgotten. They lived on in the white man’s soul, however unconsciously a subject I once explored in an as-yet-unpublished study entitled, "The Savior Indian in Selected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1999)."

Unfortunately other images have arisen in recent times: The Indian as alcoholic, felon, sluggard, wife and child abuser.

All of these images have their basis in fact.

But each year at Thanksgiving, we remember the Indian as he was in the time of his glory.

It is fitting that George Bush would invoke the Savior Indian in this troubled time, much as Lincoln did in the depths of the Civil War.

I have heard that young men in combat will sometimes cry out for their mothers. When America is pressed hard, it seems she cries out for the Indian.

Indians themselves can learn from this. For this is still our land, and the white man still our guest even our adopted son.

As with Tisquantum and Massasoit, our dignity lies not in hating the white man. It is through giving that we demonstrate our wealth, strength and kingly character.


Dr. David A. Yeagley is a published scholar, professionally recorded composer, and an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Liberal Studies. He's on the speakers list of Young America's Foundation. E-mail him at badeagle2000@yahoo.com. View his website at http://www.badeagle.com.


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