Thanksgiving's Original Hosts

ByCaitlin Johnson

Nov. 24, 2005— -- The descendants of American Indians who had the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims have not disappeared, nor have they forgotten that fateful meal. In fact, many live in the Cape Cod town of Mashpee -- known by most for its beaches and quaint New England charm.

For the Mashpee Wampanoags, however, it's a cultural stronghold. The town was named for their tribe and its name means "land of many waters."

Even though the tribe is deeply rooted in the town, the tribe has yet to be recognized by the federal government. In fact, the Mashpee Wampanoags have spent the last 30 years trying to prove that they are in fact a real tribe after the federal government refused to accept their application in the 1970s.

"We've been kind of at odds with the United States government off and on for things they have not done or tried to do to us," tribal council chairman Glen Marshall said. "It's about taking your historical place with the other historical tribes."

It's also about getting the same health care and low income housing the federal government provides to the tribes it recognizes, he said. To reap those benefits, the Mashpee Wampanoags put together a 30,000-page document in an attempt to prove that they truly have their own history and culture.

The ancestors of the first Thanksgiving have made sure the town that bears their name helps to honor their history.

Mashpee schools offer a federally funded Indian education program that teaches the 145 native children who attend Mashpee schools about their heritage. There are also elective courses available for high school children.

Other "textbooks have one or two paragraphs about Wampanoags," said Joan Tavares Avant, director of the town's Indian Education Program. "Our children learn about everything from regalia to the changes after the English [people] came."

Before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock, the Wampanoag Indians roamed freely throughout southern New England.

The arrival of the English changed Wampanoag life forever. So much so, that many Wampanoags refer to Thanksgiving -- one of the most beloved days on the American calendar -- as "the day of mourning" and many travel an hour north to Plymouth to protest the holiday each year.

"It's all glorified that we were the friendly Indians and that's where it ends," said Tavares Avant, who formerly served as president of the tribal council. "I do not like that. We give thanks everyday, every season. It kind of disturbs me that we ... celebrate Thanksgiving when we celebrate it based on conquest."

Even if some Massachusetts residents do not know it, the state's history is deeply connected to the Wampanoags'.

After the first Thanksgiving dinner, many Wampanoags embraced the colonists' Christianity. The Mashpee Wampanoags founded the oldest Christian building on Cape Cod, the Old Indian Meeting House. One of their chiefs, Metacomet, was called King Philip after the King of England. Unlike his father, Massasoit, who greeted and helped the first pilgrims, King Philip led a massive insurrection in 1675 that nearly destroyed Boston.

The English captured King Philip and had him drawn and quartered. They sold his son into slavery and until last May, an archaic law inspired by King Philip's war made it illegal for Indians to enter the city of Boston.

After the war, the Mashpee Wampanoags became more fully ingrained in American life. In the mid-18th century, the English and the Wampanoags jointly ran the town of Mashpee. Until the 1960s, the Wampanoags dominated the town, but lost power when more non-natives moved in.

In 1976, the tribe filed a lawsuit seeking ownership of Mashpee against the town's non-Wampanoag inhabitants. A jury ruled against the tribe in 1978 and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. If the tribe had won the suit, Wampanoags would have been given back all the land they said was historically theirs -- including the property of non-Wampanoags.

For a while, the town of Mashpee -- which today has about 15,000 residents, 8 percent of whom are Wampanoags -- was in limbo. Non-native residents had trouble getting mortgages for their homes because banks were not sure if the land would later be turned over the Wampanoags.

"People who had started development had to stop and they lost the development rights," said Mashpee Selectman John Cahalane, who has lived in the town since 1972. "It was not a fun thing."

Cahalane said "a small pocket" of residents still fear the tribe will either sue to reclaim its land or build a casino. But Marshall said the tribe plans to do neither.

"We're not looking for any more or any less than any other tribe," Marshall said.

A decision on federal recognition of Mashpee Wampanoags is expected to be reached by March 2006. Five days after Thanksgiving, the town of Mashpee will have its first public meeting about whether or not it will endorse the tribe's bid for federal recognition.

Cahalane, who is also the board of selectmen's tribal liaison, believes the tribe will have the support of the town.

"Like anything else, time heals all wounds," he said. "In the last six months, the tribe and the town have started informal negotiations. Right now it looks like it is going very well. We both feel like there is enough mutual trust."

Nonetheless, the specter of colonialism rears its head every Thanksgiving.

"It really sounds the end of our lives as we knew it." Marshall said. "Indian life was far superior to what it was today without non-natives here. [We had] very few wars, very few illnesses, we had plenty of game, plenty of fish. ...We had it going on. I kind of take the day and reflect [on what would be] had we been hostile toward the pilgrims and not receptive."

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