Thanksgiving: Native Roots, National Holiday and Quinnipiac Traditions
Thanksgiving is a holiday celebrated throughout the United States, and as you are eating left-overs and remembering events from the family meal mishaps and wondering why we do this every year, this is a great time to learn the truth about this yearly event. The first Thanksgiving feast was purportedly held in the winter of 1621 at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, between the Puritan newcomers and the Wampanoag Nation.
Supposedly, the indigenous people and newly arrived pilgrims joined together in a friendly feast of turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie to celebrate their blessings.
After the American Revolution, this observance became generalized with no set day of the year and was not a mandatory holiday in the original thirteen colony states. It wasn’t until 1863 that the President of the United States recommended it as a national holiday, but even then it was not approved. It was in the year 1941, three hundred and twenty years after the alleged first feast that Thanksgiving was made a national holiday the last Thursday in November.
Descendants of the English Pilgrims and mainstream Americans were taught this holiday represents a peaceful coexistence between the Algonquian-speaking Natives of the region and the English immigrants who were greeted, welcomed, and given provisions to survive the harsh Dawnland winters.
Descendants of the Dawnlanders, however, and Long-Water-Landers (Quinnipiac) remember it as a Day of Mourning, a time to reflect over the deceit, atrocities, and misery of that period of aboriginal history. Oral and graphic traditions say that when our ancestors taught the Puritans to survive (to plant corn/beans/squash: the three sisters, hunt, trap and fish in the Long Island Sound region), some of those newcomers helped themselves to the cached winter provisions and thus began a conflict between our people and theirs.
Today, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there is a plaque – erected by the Town of Plymouth on behalf of the United American Indians of New England, which states: "NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING. Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
Many Native Traditionalists also object to the month of November being chosen as Native American Heritage Month to purportedly celebrate the history and traditions of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. They view this as an ethnocentric ploy to co-opt traditional mourning ceremonies, indigenous acts of remembrance, protest rallies and recalling fallen warriors (such as the late Russell Means who helped make this monument possible), who fought to maintain the sovereign autonomy of our First Nations.
On Friday, November 28, 2008, Mike Michaels penned a special after-Thanksgiving feature for Shore View (Southern Connecticut) entitled, “Thanksgiving before the Puritans.” He explains to readers about the Quinnipiac traditions associated: “Before the Qujinnipiac villagers begin their feast[ing],” he explains, “a medicine man or shaman cleanses himself with the smoke of ceremonial tobacco and then blesses the[ir] food with a prayer of thanksgiving to that One Creator, Ketanit, or the “One Who Made It All.’”
The Quinnipiac (Long-Water-Land People), like all indigenous people of the Dawnland, observed a ceremonial lunar calendar where four seasonal feast days were set aside to celebrate Spring (Sequan), Summer (Nepun), Fall (Taquonkq), and Winter (Pabouks), and the changing phases of our Earth Mother. Moreover, in the warmer seasons Quinnipiac people lived along the coastal waters of Long Island Sound at summer fishing camps. Whereas, in colder seasons Quinnipiac people trekked inland along the Quinnipiac Trail and Quinnipiac River to winter grounds at North Branford, North Haven, North Guilford, Wallingford, Meriden, and Cheshire, where oak groves provided shelter from wind and storms and which also produced acorns, the main staple of deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits. These were caught in winter and with cached vegetables saved from summer, made into stews cooked in their soapstone pots (which retained heat and did not crack in the fire).
These four additional feast days commemorated their primary modes of subsistence, (hunting, fishing, trapping, and planting) and together formed the 8-part Nickommoag (Indigenous Feastday Celebrations). As Mike Michaels continues to say in his feature, “The Harvest Festival was only one of many Quinnipiac festivals. The major village of the Quinnipiac people was in the New Haven [Connecticut] area and the primary chief or sachem from there would send runners out at a designated place for equinox and solstice festivals....”
One of those primary designated places for celebration is a sacred landmark known now as “Quinnipiac Thanksgiving Rock.” This massive basalt (taprock in Connecticut jargon) which rests on a bedrock of sandstone was deposited there during the last glacial period and is a beloved ‘grandfather rock.’ A plaque at its base explains: “The Native American tribe of Quinnipiacs...revered this rock.... Once a year at harvest time it was their custom to put shellfish around the rock’s base, cover [it] with seaweed and steam [it] for a great feast. On top of the rock some food was placed to give thanks to the benevolent ... Kiehtan for his blessings during the past year and as an offering for good fortune in the future.”
In the summer of 2010, Roger High-Turtle Donahue (Quinnipiac member) and Captain Kiyo (his faithful canine companion) visited with the owners of the private property where this landmark rests, after searching for it. The Thanksgiving Rock had been choked with trees and vegetation. However, after organizing a team of volunteers and securing the blessings to clean up the site, the area was transformed from a secluded rock back to sacred landmark of the Quinnipiac. Now, once again, after hundreds of years of isolation, Quinnipiac Thanksgiving Rock can be visited each year for harvest and thanksgiving ceremonies, as well as to honor fallen activists and warriors who have sought to preserve indigenous autonomy.
Iron Thunderhorse (Biwabiko Paddaquahas) is Grand Sachem of the Quinnipiac. He is a published author, columnist and journalist, who has been published in over 45 different forums (including ICTMN.com), in the past 35 years.