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The Mashpee Wampanoag want you to know the full history behind Thanksgiving


It's Thanksgiving Day, 2021, a day that, according to most historians, marks 400 years since the first feast that inspired the U.S. tradition of cooking, eating lots of food and expressing gratitude. But underneath this tradition is a story that's older than the country itself.

ANITA PETERS: Well, they've dated us back 10,000 years here on Cape Cod, but I'm sure we were here longer than that.

CORNISH: That is 71-year-old Anita "Mother Bear" Peters.

A PETERS: I'm the Bear Clan mother in my tribe.

CORNISH: She leads and advises members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Her people and their land once spanned from what's now southeastern Massachusetts to Rhode Island. It was the Wampanoag community that first encountered the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower ship in 1620.

A PETERS: We've always been hospitable, welcoming people. That's just in our nature.

CORNISH: That hospitable welcoming nature was critical to the survival of the pilgrims, and Mother Bear says their arrival was prophesied.

A PETERS: Our prophecies told us that the pilgrims were going to come and that if they came in a peaceful way, all the different colors of humans could come to this country and make the best country in the world. But if they came with weapons in their hands, we were going to have many years of hard times. And they were going to try to wipe us out.

CORNISH: Now, the story you've heard probably goes something like this - the pilgrims fled from religious persecution in England to the so-called New World. The native people they met showed them how to fish and farm, to make it through a harsh winter. And in autumn, both groups came together to celebrate the harvest we now call Thanksgiving. Well, for Mother Bear and Wampanoag, this day is actually one of mourning.

A PETERS: I usually go to the sunrise ceremony in Plymouth, where they hold the day - national day of mourning because their Thanksgivings were mostly celebrating massacring native people.

CORNISH: She says much is missing from the often-told Thanksgiving story. For instance...

A PETERS: We weren't really invited to the first Thanksgiving that they were having.

CORNISH: She says her ancestors heard gunfire in the distance.

A PETERS: So our leader went with 90 of his men to find out what was going on.

CORNISH: Mother Bear says the gunfire was part of a celebration the pilgrims were having in honor of their harvest.

A PETERS: So our people went out and hunted and brought in food and stuff to share.

CORNISH: But the violence that came in the centuries to follow would play out in waves across the continent.

PAULA PETERS: There was a great deal of injustice served upon my ancestors after that initial harvest meal that also doesn't get talked about.

CORNISH: That's Wampanoag writer and historian Paula Peters, who we should note is actually a cousin to Anita "Mother Bear" Peters.

P PETERS: The taking of the land, the missionaries forcing Christianity on the tribes and forcing people to assimilate.

CORNISH: The Wampanoag and other Indigenous people suffered as their land was colonized to birth America. The Mashpee Wampanoag have been fighting for hundreds of years to dispel a version of their history often told from the colonial perspective. And Peters says knowing the history is crucial to understanding what life for the Mashpee Wampanoag is like today. I spoke with her about that, starting with what society was like for the tribe back in the 1600s.

P PETERS: They were farmers. They were fishermen. They were hunters. They had a sophisticated form of government. So it was a much more sophisticated lifestyle of the Indigenous people than Puritans would have given us credit for.

CORNISH: As a Mashpee native person, what's it like there for native people there today.

P PETERS: Well, you know, it's hard to remain here. We have some of our land in trust, but that continues to be threatened. You know, land is very critical to sustaining a historic tribe, which is what we are. And we are a very vital tribe socially, culturally, politically in our region. Cape Cod is a very expensive place to live, and the tribe has suffered a great many land losses over especially the last hundred or so years. And under the Trump administration, he tried to remove our land from trust status, which would have threatened our sovereignty and threatened our ability to keep the small bit of land that we have.

CORNISH: What do you think of the broader racial justice movement in recent years that's been trying to shed light on the history of Indigenous people in this country?

P PETERS: You know, it's very, very difficult. There's this mythical stereotypical image that, really, America is comfortable with. And it's really far from accurate in all cases. I mean, just now, we're starting to learn about children that were mistreated and killed in residential schools. And there's also the missing and murdered Indigenous women that don't get nearly as much attention as other missing and murdered people. It's very, very sad to note. There are these injustices that are happening in our communities, and we don't really get the help that we need. And it's hard because this is what's taught. It's what's taught in schools. They don't have a complete history of our people.

CORNISH: You know, President Lincoln proclaimed the national day of Thanksgiving back in 1863, right? I mean, it's during the Civil War. It was part of a campaign to essentially promote unity. What does this holiday mean to you at this point?

P PETERS: For Indigenous America, it is a time for us to acknowledge the sacrifices of our ancestors. And also, in more recent years, it's become a time for us to really be activists for the tribal injustices that we are suffering today to remind people that, yes, there are still Mashpee Wampanoag people living in Mashpee, Mass., but it is a struggle every day. And it shouldn't be that way.

CORNISH: Do you foresee a time where you're no longer kind of celebrating Thanksgiving so to speak?

P PETERS: Well, I foresee a time when people can celebrate Thanksgiving and still acknowledge the real truth of the story. I think that the idea that Abraham Lincoln had to bring people together to unify one is of course, always a laudable idea. But it's also important not to ignore the real history and the fact that the Wampanoag people are still here. And I foresee a day that people across America and around the world for that matter on Thanksgiving Day remember not just to be grateful for their own bounty on their own table but also to remember that the Wampanoag are still here, and we are still a thriving tribe.

CORNISH: That was Paula Peters, writer, historian and member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.