In memorium. Lest we forget.
The First Thanksgiving
From the Community Endeavor News, November, 1995,
as reprinted in Healing Global Wounds, Fall, 1996
The first official Thanksgiving wasn't a festive gathering
and Pilgrims, but rather a celebration of the massacre of 700 Pequot
men, women and children, an anthropologist says. Due to age and illness
his voice cracks as he talks about the holiday, but William B. Newell,
84, talks with force as he discusses Thanksgiving. Newell, a Penobscot,
has degrees from two universities, and was the former chairman of the
anthropology department at the University of Connecticut.
"Thanksgiving Day was first officially proclaimed
by the Governor of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 to commemorate the massacre of 700
men, women and children who were celebrating their annual green corn
dance-Thanksgiving Day to them-in their own house," Newell said.
"Gathered in this place of meeting they were attacked
by mercenaries and
Dutch and English. The Indians were ordered from the building and as
they came forth they were shot down. The rest were burned alive in the
building," he said.
Newell based his research on studies of Holland Documents
and the 13
volume Colonial Documentary History, both thick sets of letters and
reports from colonial officials to their superiors and the king in
England, and the private papers of Sir William Johnson, British Indian
agent for the New York colony for 30 years in the mid-1600s.
"My research is authentic because it is documentary,"
Newell said. "You
can't get anything more accurate than that because it is first hand.
is not hearsay."
Newell said the next 100 Thanksgivings commemorated the
killing of the
Indians at what is now Groton, Ct. [home of a nuclear submarine base]
rather than a celebration with them. He said the image of Indians and
Pilgrims sitting around a large table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day
"fictitious" although Indians did share food with the first
Why I Hate Thanksgiving
by Mitchel Cohen
With much material contributed by Peter Linebaugh
and others whose names have over the years been lost.
The year was 1492. The Taino-Arawak people of the Bahamas discovered
Christopher Columbus on their beach.
Historian Howard Zinn tells us how Arawak men and women,
naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the
island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big
boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking
oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.
Columbus later wrote of this in his log. Here is what he wrote:
"They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and
spears and many other
things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They
willingly traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good
bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know
them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves
out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of sugar
cane. They would make fine servants. With 50 men we could subjugate
them all and make them do whatever we want."
And so the conquest began, and the Thanotocracy -- the
regime of death --
was inaugurated on the continent the Indians called "Turtle Island."
You probably already know a good piece of the story: How
Columbus's Army took Arawak and Taino people prisoners and insisted
that they take him to the source of their gold, which they used in tiny
ornaments in their ears. And how, with utter contempt and cruelty, Columbus
took many more Indiansprisoners and put them aboard the Nina and the
Pinta -- the Santa Maria having run aground on the island of Hispañola
(today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti). When some refused to be taken
prisoner, they were run through with swords and bled to death. Then
the Nina and the Pinta set sail for the Azores and Spain. During the
long voyage, many of the Indian prisoners died. Here's part of Columbus's
report to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain:
"The Indians are so naive and so free with their
possessions that no one
who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something
they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with
anyone." Columbus concluded his report by asking for a little help
from the King and Queen, and in return he would bring them "as
much gold as they need, and as many slaves as they ask."
Columbus returned to the New World -- "new"
for Europeans, that is -- with
17 ships and more than 1,200 men. Their aim was clear: Slaves, and gold.
They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as
captives. But word spread ahead of them. By the time they got to Fort
Navidad on Haiti, the Taino had risen up and killed all the sailors
behind on the last voyage, after they had roamed the island in gangs
raping women and taking children and women as slaves. Columbus later
wrote: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all
the slaves that can be sold." The Indians began fighting back,
but were no match for the Spaniard conquerors, even though they greatly
outnumbered them. In eight years, Columbus's men murdered more than
100,000 Indians on Haiti alone. Overall, dying as slaves in the mines,
or directly murdered, or from diseases brought to the Caribbean by the
Spaniards, over 3 million Indian people were murdered between 1494 and
What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas and the
Taino of the
Caribbean, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas
Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the
Powhatans and the Pequots. Literally millions of native peoples were
slaughtered. And the gold, slaves and other resources were used, in
Europe, to spur the growth of the new money economy rising out of feudalism.
Karl Marx would later call this "the primitive accumulation of
capital." These were the violent beginnings of an intricate system
of technology, business, politics and culture that would dominate the
world for the next five centuries.
All of this were the preconditions for the first Thanksgiving.
In the North
American English colonies, the pattern was set early, as Columbus had
set it in the islands of the Bahamas. In 1585, before there was any
permanent English settlement in Virginia, Richard Grenville landed there
with seven ships. The Indians he met were hospitable, but when one of
them stole a small silver cup, Grenville sacked and burned the whole
The Jamestown colony was established in Virginia in 1607,
territory of an Indian confederacy, led by the chief, Powhatan. Powhatan
watched the English settle on his people's land, but did not attack.
the English began starving. Some of them ran away and joined the Indians,
where they would at least be fed. Indeed, throughout colonial times
tens of thousands of indentured servants, prisoners and slaves -- from
Wales and Scotland as well as from Africa -- ran away to live in Indian
communities, intermarry, and raise their children there.
In the summer of 1610 the governor of Jamestown colony
asked Powhatan to return the runaways, who were living fully among the
Indians. Powhatan left the choice to those who ran away, and none wanted
to go back. The governor of Jamestown then sent soldiers to take revenge.
They descended on an Indian community, killed 15 or 16 Indians, burned
the houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the female
leader of the tribe and her children into boats, then ended up throwing
the children overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. The
female leader was later taken off the boat and stabbed to death.
By 1621, the atrocities committed by the English had grown,
and word spread throughout the Indian villages. The Indians fought back,
and killed 347 colonists. From then on it was total war. Not able to
enslave the Indians the English aristocracy decided to exterminate them.
And then the Pilgrims arrived.
When the Pilgrims came to New England they too were coming
not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians.
The story goes that the Pilgrims, who were Christians of the Puritan
sect, were fleeing
religious persecution in Europe. They had fled England and went to Holland,
and from there sailed aboard the Mayflower, where they landed at Plymouth
Rock in what is now Massachusetts.
Religious persecution or not, they immediately turned
to their religion to
rationalize their persecution of others. They appealed to the Bible,
2:8: "Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance,
and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." To justify
use of force to take the land, they cited Romans 13:2: "Whosoever
therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they
that resist shall receive to themselves damnation."
The Puritans lived in uneasy truce with the Pequot Indians,
what is now southern Connecticut and Rhode Island. But they wanted them
out of the way; they wanted their land. And they seemed to want to establish
their rule firmly over Connecticut settlers in that area.
In 1636 an armed expedition left Boston to attack the
on Block Island. The English landed and killed some Indians, but the
hid in the thick forests of the island and the English went from one
deserted village to the next, destroying crops. Then they sailed back
the mainland and raided Pequot villages along the coast, destroying
The English went on setting fire to wigwams of the village.
village after village to the ground. As one of the leading theologians
his day, Dr. Cotton Mather put it: "It was supposed that no less
Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day." And Cotton Mather,
clutching his bible, spurred the English to slaughter more Indians in
name of Christianity.
Three hundred thousand Indians were murdered in New England
over the next few years. It is important to note: The ordinary Englishmen
did not want this war and often, very often, refused to fight. Some
intellectuals like Roger Williams spoke out against it. And some erstwhile
colonists joined the Indians and even took up arms against the invaders
from England. It was the Puritan elite who wanted the war, a war for
for gold, for power. And, in the end, the Indian population of 10 million
that was in North America when Columbus came was reduced to less than
The way the different Indian peoples lived -- communally,
making decisions through tribal councils, each tribe having different
sexual/marriage relationships, where many different sexualities were
practiced as the norm -- contrasted dramatically with the Puritan's
Christian fundamentalist values. For the Puritans, men decided everything,
whereas in the Iroquois federation of what is now New York state women
chose the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils;
it was the women who were responsible for deciding on whether or not
to go to war. The Christian idea of male dominance and female subordination
was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.
There were many other cultural differences: The Iroquois
did not use harshpunishment on children. They did not insist on early
weaning or early toilet training, but gradually allowed the child to
learn to care for
themselves. And, they did not believe in ownership of land; they utilized
the land, lived on it. The idea of ownership was ridiculous, absurd.
European Christians, on the other hand, in the spirit of the emerging
capitalism, wanted to own and control everything -- even children and
other human beings. The pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson,
thus advised his parishioners: "And surely there is in all children
a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which
must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation
of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues
may, in their time, be built thereon." That idea sunk in.
One colonist said that the plague that had destroyed the
Patuxet people --
a combination of slavery, murder by the colonists and disease -- was
Wonderful Preparation of the Lord Jesus Christ by His Providence for
People's Abode in the Western World." The Pilgrims robbed Wampanoag
graves for the food that had been buried with the dead for religious
reasons. Whenever the Pilgrims realized they were being watched, they
shot at the Wampanoags, and scalped them. Scalping had been unknown
among Native Americans in New England prior to its introduction by the
English, who began the practice by offering the heads of their enemies
"What do you think of Western Civilization?"
Mahatma Gandhi was asked in the 1940s. To which Gandhi replied: "Western
Civilization? I think it would be a good idea." And so enters "Civilization,"
the civilization of
Christian Europe, a "civilizing force" that couldn't have
threatened by the beautiful anarchy of the Indians they encountered,
and so slaughtered them.
These are the Puritans that the Indians "saved",
and whom we celebrate in the holiday, Thanksgiving. Tisquantum, also
known as Squanto, a member of the Patuxet Indian nation. Samoset, of
the Wabonake Indian nation, which lived in Maine. They went to Puritan
villages and, having learned to speak English, brought deer meat and
beaver skins for the hungry, cold Pilgrims. Tisquantum stayed with them
and helped them survive their first years in their New World. He taught
them how to navigate the waters, fish and cultivate corn and other vegetables.
He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be
used as medicines. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims
and Massasoit, head chief of the Wampanoags, a treaty that gave the
Pilgrims everything and the Indians nothing. And even that treaty was
soon broken. All this is celebrated as the First Thanksgiving.
My own feeling? The Indians should have let the Pilgrims
die. But they
couldn't do that. Their humanity made them assist other human beings
need. And for that beautiful, human, loving connection they -- and those
us who are not Indian as well -- paid a terrible price: The genocide
original inhabitants of Turtle Island, what is now America.
Let's look at one example of the Puritan values -- which
were not, I
repeat, the values of the English working class values that we "give
thanks for" on this holiday. The example of the Maypole, and Mayday.
In 1517, 25 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas,
working class staged a huge revolt. This was done through the guilds.
King Henry VIII brought Lombard bankers from Italy and merchants from
France in order to undercut wages, lengthen hours, and break the guilds.
This alliance between international finance, national capital and military
aristocracy was in the process of merging into the imperialist nation-state.
The young workers of London took their revenge upon the
merchants. A secret rumor said the commonality -- the vision of communal
society that would counter the rich, the merchants, the industrialists,
the nobility and the landowners -- would arise on May Day. The King
and Lords got frightened -- householders were armed, a curfew was declared.
Two guys didn't hear about the curfew (they missed Dan Rather on t.v.).
They were arrested. The shout went out to mobilize, and 700 workers
stormed the jails, throwing bricks, hot water, stones. The prisoners
were freed. A French capitalist's house was trashed.
Then came the repression: Cannons were fired into the
city. Three hundred were imprisoned, soldiers patrolled the streets,
and a proclamation was made that no women were allowed to meet together,
and that all men should "keep their wives in their houses."
The prisoners were brought through the streets tied in ropes. Some were
children. Eleven sets of gallows were set up throughout the city. Many
were hanged. The authorities showed no mercy, but exhibited extreme
Thus the dreaded Thanatocracy, the regime of death, was
answer to proletarian riot at the beginning of capitalism. The May Day
riots were caused by expropriation (people having been uprooted from
their lands they had used for centuries in common), and by exploitation
(people had no jobs, as the monarchy imported capital). Working class
women organizers and healers who posed an alternative to patriarchal
capitalism -- were burned at the stake as witches. Enclosure, conquest,
famine, war and plague ravaged the people who, in losing their commons,
also lost a place to put their Maypole.
Suddenly, the Maypole became a symbol of rebellion. In
ordered the destruction of Maypoles (just as, during the Vietnam war,
U.S.-backed junta in Saigon banned the making of all red cloth, as it
being sewn into the blue, yellow and red flags of the National Liberation
In 1664, near the end of the Puritans' war against the
Pequot Indians, the
Puritans in England abolished May Day altogether. They had defeated
Indians, and they were attempting to defeat the growing proletarian
insurgency at home as well.
Although translators of the Bible were burned, its last
became an anti-authoritarian manual useful to those who would turn the
Puritan world upside down, such as the Family of Love, the Anabaptists,
the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, and Thomas Morton, the man who in 1626
went to Merry Mount in Quincy Mass, and with his Indian friends put
up the first Maypole in America, in contempt of Puritan rule.
The Puritans destroyed it, exiled him, plagued the Indians,
and hanged gay people and Quakers. Morton had come over on his own,
a boat person, an immigrant. So was Anna Lee, who came over a few years
later, the Manchester proletarian who founded the communal living, gender
separated Shakers, who praised God in ecstatic dance, and who drove
the Puritans up the wall.
The story of the Maypole as a symbol of revolt continued.
cultures and continued through the ages. In the late 1800s, the Sioux
began the Ghost Dance in a circle, "with a large pine tree in the
center, which was covered with strips of cloth of various colors, eagle
feathers, stuffed birds, claws, and horns, all offerings to the Great
Spirit." They didn't
call it a Maypole and they danced for the unity of all Indians, the
of the dead, and the expulsion of the invaders on a particular day,
of July, but otherwise it might as well have been a Mayday!
Wovoka, a Nevada Paiute, started it. Expropriated, he
cut his hair. To buy
watermelon he rode boxcars to work in the Oregon hop fields for small
wages, exploited. The Puget Sound Indians had a new religion -- they
stopped drinking alcohol, became entranced, and danced for five days,
jerking twitching, calling for their land back, just like the Shakers!
Wovoka took this back to Nevada: "All Indians must dance, everywhere,
keep on dancing." Soon they were. Porcupine took the dance across
the Rockies to the Sioux. Red Cloud and Sitting Bull advanced the left
foot following withthe right, hardly lifting the feet from the ground.
The Federal Agents banned the Ghost Dance! They claimed it was a cause
of the last Sioux outbreak, just as the Puritans had claimed the Maypole
had caused the May Day proletarian riots, just as the Shakers were dancing
people into communality and out of Puritanism.
On December 29 1890 the Government (with Hotchkiss guns
throwing 2 pound explosive shells at 50 a minute -- always developing
new weapons!) massacred more than 300 men, women and children at Wounded
Knee. As in the Waco holocaust, or the bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia,
the State disclaimed responsibility. The Bureau of Ethnology sent out
James Mooney to investigate. Amid Janet Reno-like tears, he wrote: "The
Indians were responsible for the engagement."
In 1970, the town of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts held,
as it does each
year, a Thanksgiving Ceremony given by the townspeople. There are many
speeches for the crowds who attend. That year -- the year of Nixon's
secret invasion of Cambodia; the year 4 students were massacred at Kent
State and 13 wounded for opposing the war; the year they tried to electrocute
Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins -- the Massachusetts Department
of Commerce asked the Wampanoag Indians to select a speaker to mark
the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims' arrival, and the first Thanksgiving.
Frank James, who is a Wampanoag, was selected. But before
he was allowed to speak he was told to show a copy of his speech to
the white people in charge of the ceremony. When they saw what he had
written, they would not allow him to read it.
First, the genocide. Then, the suppression of all discussion
What do Indian people find to be Thankful for in this
America? What does
anyone have to be Thankful for in the genocide of the Indians, that
"holyday" commemorates? As we sit with our families on Thanksgiving,
taking any opportunity we can to get out of work or off the streets
and be in a warm place with people we love, we realize that all the
things we have to
be thankful for have nothing at all to do with the Pilgrims, nothing
to do with Amerikan history, and everything to do with the alternative,
anarcho-communist lives the Indian peoples led, before they were massacred
by the colonists, in the name of privatization of property and the lust
for gold and labor.
Yes, I am an American. But I am an American in revolt.
I am revolted by the
holiday known as Thanksgiving. I have been accused of wanting to go
backwards in time, of being against progress. To those charges, I plead
guilty. I want to go back in time to when people lived communally, before
the colonists' Christian god was brought to these shores to sanctify
terrorism, their slavery, their hatred of children, their oppression
women, their holocausts. But that is impossible. So all I look forward
the utter destruction of the apparatus of death known as Amerika --
people, not the beautiful land, but the machinery, the State, the
capitalism, the Christianity and all that it stands for. I look forward
a future where I will have children with Amerika, and
Mitchel Cohen is co-editor of "Green Politix",
the national newspaper of
the Greens/Green Party USA, www.greenparty.org, and organizes with the
NoSpray Coalition, www.nospray.org and the Brooklyn Greens.