Photo By Richard Allen | Narragansett Indian Tribe member Silvermoon LaRose (from left), assistant director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, joins Pete Rogers, Naval Undersea Warfare Division Newport’s special emphasis program lead for the American Indian/Alaskan Native Program, before “Breaking the Thanksgiving Myth,” held on Nov. 16, 2022, in celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month. LaRose shared the history of the Thanksgiving and explored ways to enjoy gatherings, while still being historically accurate and culturally sensitive.

Story by Public Affairs Office , Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport

NEWPORT, R.I. – Last year Silvermoon Mars LaRose, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, came to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport to share the traditions and lifestyle of Indigenous Southern New England. This year, LaRose spoke to the cultural “myths” surrounding Thanksgiving and the skewed perception of the national holiday’s history.

LaRose, assistant director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island, visited Division Newport on Nov. 16, to give the presentation “Breaking the Thanksgiving Myth,” in celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month.

“Now, I am not here to destroy your Thanksgiving,” LaRose said. “In fact, I want to start by saying that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday growing up because I love to eat, and my grandmother loved to cook. She put on a spread like you wouldn’t believe, and my mom would even dress up as a Pilgrim every year.

“Our goals today are to find out the following: what is Thanksgiving, when was the first one, why do we celebrate it, and, do Indigenous people celebrate Thanksgiving.”

LaRose, who has worked in the tribal communities for more than 20 years in the areas of health and human services and education, holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and a minor in justice law, from the University of Rhode Island. As an artist and educator, she fosters Indigenous empowerment through education, community building, and the sharing of cultural knowledge and traditional arts. Her presentation explored how to enjoy Thanksgiving gatherings, while still being historically accurate and culturally sensitive.

LaRose’s mission is to shed light on the “erasure of history” and to explain how Thanksgiving has come to be a national holiday — a day to recognize and give thanks for what we have.

“Giving thanks is a natural belief system and daily virtue,” she said. “Harvest was the most important time of year, a time to give thanks and celebrate the success of the harvest and food source.”

Indigenous people celebrate 13 Thanksgivings throughout the year, called “Tabuntantamooônk,” because they follow the calendar and cycles of the moon. The new year begins in the spring, when food sources start to grow, and in each cycle they celebrate the arrival of that food source with a Thanksgiving. Tribes do this to reflect on the ecosystem, to give thanks to the gifts of land and water and to give thanks to the creator, LaRose said.

One of the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s most important and longest-recorded celebration is the Green Corn Thanksgiving, held in August. It is a celebration of the harvest that you are going to receive and a sign that your gardens have made it through the winter, LaRose said. The tribe’s Green Corn Thanksgiving has been documented for 347 years, although oral history explains that it was held for many generations before that.

The first “proclaimed” Thanksgiving by colonists was documented in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, who declared a day of thanks be held in celebration of the massacre of the Pequot Tribe, LaRose sad. During this massacre, near present day Groton, Connecticut, on the Mystic River, an estimated 400 to 700 native men, women and children were killed while celebrating their annual Green Corn Thanksgiving. As more massacres of Indigenous people continued, days of Thanksgiving feasts were held after each successful attack, LaRose said.

The event that most Americans associate as the first Thanksgiving, was in November 1621, when the Pilgrims were welcomed off the Mayflower by the Wampanoag Tribe in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims arrived with women and children, therefore posing no threat of attack to the natives. The two groups sought an alliance and the Wampanoag Tribe taught the colonists how to gather, hunt, harvest, cook and store food. The Wampanoags provided the colonists with the tools needed to survive on this new land.

As documented by governor William Bradford and Edward Winslow in written accounts that were not discovered until the 1800s, the Pilgrim’s celebrated their first successful harvest in 1621. The celebration included the firing of guns and canons. A war party of 90 Wampanoags went to investigate the noise and to assist their new allies. When the Indians witnessed a celebration, they joined in and hunted five deer, as well as pheasants, eel and other animals to share with the Pilgrims.

Almost everything Americans know about the 1621 Thanksgiving, came from Winslow’s letters that were rediscovered and written about in “Chronicles of the Pilgrim’s Fathers,” by Alexander Young in 1841. Up until this time, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states that had no direct knowledge of the events of 1621.

In the 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, who is best known for writing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” used a rediscovered account of the 1621 celebration written by Bradford, to create an official campaign for a national Thanksgiving, which was then only celebrated in the Northeast. Hale believed that the story of the Pilgrims and Indians coming together to share a meal would help unify the country on brink of a civil war. She wrote letters and messages to many political leaders, which were largely ignored until the Civil War. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the final Thursday in November “A National Day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” Hale’s letter to Lincoln is often cited as the main factor in his decision to create the holiday. [https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sarah-hale]

As the national holiday grew in popularity among the American public, marketers saw an economic opportunity. The imagery of a family gathered around a table with a feast of turkey and all their favorite foods, is in stark contrast to the stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people as they appear in Westerns or in American literature.

“This starts to generalize native people into one group,” LaRose said. “We are over 500 unique nations, with our own languages, customs and appearances. Now we are just being pooled into one group, with one general stereotypical look. This leads to misconceptions around Indigenous people.

“That erases the Indigenous voice and erases Indigenous experiences.”

In light of all this information, LaRose said that some Indigenous people chose not to celebrate Thanksgiving in a traditional “American” way, but others still do celebrate the national holiday. For some Indigenous people, the term “America” itself presents concerns, as the country didn’t form until 1776.

“We were here before that,” LaRose said.

Since Europeans landed on America’s shores, Indigenous people have endured disease, poverty, genocide, racism, slavery, erasure, poverty and more, LaRose said. Today, some Indigenous people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in protest to the erasure of this history and identify it as a Day of Mourning. Others, still celebrate Thanksgiving because it is a part of their own family’s traditions.

“You can still honor your harvest and honor the truth by educating yourself,” LaRose said. “There is no U.S. history without Indigenous history.”

The Tomaquag Museum currently has plans to build a new museum near the University of Rhode Island on 18 acres of land, with a four-building campus. Ground has been broken with the goal of opening the site in 2024. Read more at: https://www.tomaquagmuseum.org/

To read more about the Narragansett Indian Tribe click here: https://narragansettindiannation.org/

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