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American Indians 'Gate Crashers' at First Thanksgiving


Schoolchildren are taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in what is now Massachusetts in 1621. That historic event is described as a feast held by the English settlers at Plimouth Plantation to thank the Native people for helping them survive their first winter in their new home. But there are many people today who take issue with that version of the Thanksgiving story, including members of the American Indian tribe that was part of the so-called "first Thanksgiving."

"Many of the books that are written and much of the education that is out there perpetuate a myth," says Tobias Vanderhoop, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts. "The greatest misconception is that our people were invited to come to Plimouth [to] participate in this harvest festival."

For the past 10 years, Vanderhoop has traveled throughout the United States to set the record straight. He was in Washington this month at the National Museum of the American Indian to talk with school groups and other museum-goers.

Although his people and the English "Pilgrims" had signed a treaty, there was still mistrust between them, Vanderhoop says. When the English began to get a little rowdy during their harvest celebration, firing off their muskets, he says, the Wampanoag became concerned. "[The English] were just celebrating, but our people didn't know if they were making preparation for war."

Vanderhoop says a delegation of 90 men went to Plimouth to check things out and ensure that the treaty was still in effect. "Truly it was not an invitation at all," he says, describing the Wampanoag as "gate crashers."

The men outnumbered the settlers, who were both men and women, by about two to one. Vanderhoop imagines it was difficult for the English to turn the visitors away, and so they were invited to join in the festivities. "Yes, there was that several days of feasting that took place," he says, "but I'm sure it was a tense time overall. It wasn't necessarily all fun and games."

Nevertheless, peace prevailed for some 50 years between the English and the Wampanoag.

Today, Tobias Vanderhoop says his tribe numbers 1100; 300 of them live on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, not far from where their ancestors lived 400 years ago.

"We are still here," Vanderhoop says. Though the landscape has changed considerably on the East Coast as more and more immigrants have moved to the continent over the past 400 years, he says the Wampanoag "still maintain our history and culture and uphold that in a very special way as native people. And that will never change."

Vanderhoop says some Wampanoag, along with other Native Americans, observe a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day, in remembrance of the millions of Native people who have died since Europeans settled in America. Others enjoy the traditional holiday meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberries. But even for them, the fourth Thursday in November may have a different meaning than it does for Americans whose ancestors arrived after 1621.