Edward Winslow and the 102 pilgrims and adventurers who came to the new country on the Mayflower in 1620 had a hard time of it during their first year. Many died. Those who survived only did so with the help of Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe who taught them how to plant and harvest indigenous crops.
One year later, Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England describing a dayslong feast that the surviving Mayflower voyagers and the Wampanoag had that fall after first harvest. The letter is the only record of that event, and it was only discovered by a researcher in 1840, over two centuries later.
That description of how the tribe had welcomed the would-be immigrants and helped them survive the first winter is the only recounting we know of about what we now refer to as the first Thanksgiving.
In the centuries since then, it’s safe to say that immigrants have done very well populating and building their version of this new land of opportunity, but the Native Americans who welcomed them here — as well as the ones who didn’t — have experienced near-genocide. Their land was stolen, their villages were destroyed and the concept of “manifest destiny” developed by those who claimed their land meant that there was no room for Native Americans to retain even their culture and survive.
There have been myriad disgusting, successive chapters of mistreatment of Native Americans that should be familiar to all Americans, from the forced relocation and deaths of tens of thousands of Chocktaw, Creek and Cherokee peoples under President Andrew Jackson, to the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee and many more.
So, now, hundreds of years later, we celebrate Thanksgiving while our Native American people are, in many cases, still living in conditions more akin to those in the developing world than in what we think of as America. They are the first Americans, but they live in second-class housing, with second-class health care and second-class education.
It’s been quite easy for a more prosperous White America to avoid seeing what is in front of us, let alone accountability for it. But it is long past time to take responsibility for knowing what our government has done in our names, and fixing it.
What can white Americans do to change the path for Native Americans and allow them to be full participants in all that America has to offer? Will this cycle of injustice finally end? Thanksgiving week in America would be a good time to begin answering that question.
Two initiatives by the president and Congress could, at long last, begin keeping the promises our government has, in fact, made to Native Americans over the last two centuries.
First, our government signed treaties promising to provide health care and education for the Native American tribes. It’s time to do it, and it isn’t rocket science. Simply create a First American Trust Fund with adequate funding to keep that promise.
Second, Native American reservations have the highest rates of unemployment in America, and the distant locations of those lands meant that economic opportunities have been scarce. That lack of jobs and opportunity have created the gripping poverty that surrounds those communities. Our government needs to create an Indian Economic Recovery plan that will boost those economies, including energy and natural resource development, information technology businesses that can be located in remote areas and directed government spending programs that require production of needed government goods and services on reservations.
All of this is a matter of national will, but with that will, it is doable.
The American people and our government can rectify the mistreatment of Native Americans, and it’s long past the time to do so. Thanksgiving is the right time for all of us to remember our history and our obligations to the First Americans.
Edward Winthrop didn’t quite describe it in modern terms but, when he arrived, the Native Americans “paid it forward” by hosting the newcomers from the Mayflower and saving their lives through a harsh winter. Next year it will mark 400 years since that happened. It is long past the time for America to “pay it back.”
Let’s dedicate this Thanksgiving to understanding and responding to an injustice that stains America’s conscience. It is a stain we can begin removing.