What Thanksgiving Means Today to the Native American Tribe That Fed the Pilgrims

It’s been 400 years since the meal known as the first Thanksgiving took place in Patuxet, the area now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. There are two prominent figuresThe Plymouth Colony called it a feast of harvest and three-day celebration. It was attended by colonists, Wampanoag Indian Americans, and Massasoit.

The Wampanoag weren’t likely to be in a happy mood. The tribe was reeling from an outbreak of a mysterious disease which almost killed them; the plague would continue for 30 more years.
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“I personally think that it’s just another reminder of all the horrible things that this nation has done to not only us, but all native people,” the Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, 29 year-old Brian Weeden, tells TIME of that “first” Thanksgiving, adding that he and his tribe still feel largely forgotten. “For this nation to right a lot of their wrongs, they’re gonna have to own up to their racism, which they don’t want to do.”

Weeden, who was 16 years old, became the Mashpee Walmpanoag’s youngest elected chairperson. The Mashpee Wampanoag boasts approximately 2,600 residents and is located in Mashpee (Massachusetts). TIME talked to Weeden about Native American Thanksgivings, the biggest issues the tribe faces today—and why it is still struggling to hold onto its land 400 years later.

What does it feel like to chair the Mashpee Walmpanoag Thanksgiving Committee?

The fact that we’re still here is a blessing. And the fact that I have the honor of representing the tribe—one that a lot of people think is extinct—is a blessing in itself. This is a testament to the strength of our ancestors and a sign that we will continue being around for future generations.

Do you have any memories of learning about the ‘Americanized’ Thanksgiving that still stand out today?

The third grade is at Hyannis Elementary School, Massachusetts. [the teachers] made us dress up and dance to “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. The first class was dressed up in colourful feathers and potatoes burlap sacks. They then had the pilgrim class. My father came to the school, relaying my concerns to my parents. They stopped following the instructions.

What’s the biggest issue the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is currently facing?

Our land, health and welfare of tribal members, as well as climate change and other environmental issues, are the most pressing problems for the Mashpee tribe. While we could live off the land, we had the intelligence to know how the world worked. Had people listened to us, I don’t think we’d be in the situation that we are in with global warming and everything else. The biggest thing is, I believe. [singular]Our struggle now with the federal government is our battle against it, which has been ongoing for more than 400 years.

Continue reading: 400 Years After the ‘First Thanksgiving,’ the Tribe That Fed the Pilgrims Continues to Fight for Its Land Amid Another Epidemic

It is about the Trump administration’s description of 321 acres on your land as This does not fit the definition of Indian, a ruling which a federal judge later called “contrary to the law.”

Yes. The next step is for the Department of Interior to listen to the judge’s order and go back to the drawing table and give us another decision. Which is kind of where we’re at. We haven’t seen progress from the [Biden] administration. It’s really frustrating.

So we want to make a move and take care of our families. We have a homelessness issue—it’s expensive to live out here on Cape Cod. It’s a struggle to live on your own ancestral homeland. People can’t make ends meet and that’s why they have to leave our territory. And as long as our land is in limbo, the tribe can’t go out there and build a homeless shelter or anything else like that.

A statue of the Native Sachem (leader) Massasoit looks out over the traditional point of arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, in Plymouth, Mass., Aug. 12, 2020.
David Goldman—APA statue honoring Native American leader Massasoit stands over Plymouth, Mass. on August 12, 2020.

All people want to speak about Native American Heritage Month, and Thanksgiving. The tribe who started this all still awaits our small bit of justice. All of the land belonging to Native Americans that welcomed everyone was lost by them. We now own only half of the ancestral land. That speaks volumes, I believe. Four hundred years later, I tell everyone we don’t have much to be thankful for.

President Biden said “I stand with Mashpee” while campaigning for the presidency in 2020. Is that true for you?

To get elected, I believe that most politicians will say anything they wish to. When they get there, it’s a whole different story. That was what I was. [part of the] White House Tribal Nations summit, and there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for leadership to address the administration. To add insult to injury, he’s going to be in Wampanoag territory on [Thanksgiving]—the supposed holiday that we don’t celebrate.

(TIME questioned the White House about its position on this matter and it refused to comment.

Continue reading: America adapts the Pilgrims of Plymouth story to fit the story it needs

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving Day can be a day to mourn [for myself and tribal members]. My grandfather Everett “Tall Oak” Weeden is one of the ones that helped originally start that tradition. Many tribe members will be going to the Massasoit statuePlymouth Rock. We’ll have a ceremony there, speak, march down to the church, have some more speaking, and then everyone will go home and have meals with their families.

A lot of our tribal members still eat venison and cranberries—which are actually indigenous to this area. From the Wampanoag language, squash is named. askutasquash. So I think a lot of people don’t realize [when they sit down for their Thanksgiving meal that] they’re partaking in foods that are from this area.

Native Americans often celebrate many Thanksgivings during the year. Is there a festival you love the most?

The green corn harvest and celebration is my favourite time. The Mashantucket Pequot—the tribal nation my grandfather’s family comes from—have SchemitzunAugust is the month of the feast of green corn, and August is the month for dancing.

Our people used to work traditionally on a cycle that was based on the moons. Each moon represented a particular thing. The moons are the basis of our calendar. Strawberry MoonFor example: where we go and harvest our strawberries, and you’d have a strawberry Thanksgiving. We were never thankful for one day in the year. And I think that that’s also important for people to understand: every day you wake up, you’re thankful that you woke up.

The following interview was edited for clarity.


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