Thanksgiving traditions have their roots in Native American beliefs in showing gratitude for the bounty of the land
Many of Delaware’s indigenous peoples celebrate Thanksgiving in a way familiar to everyone: there’s turkey and the trimmings, football games and the coming together of family.
But Native Americans also look at Thanksgiving as an example of how some of their culture has been lost over the centuries. They feel the proverbial story of Thanksgiving, with black-clad settlers and American Indians in feathered headdresses gathered around a table laden with food doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s the western-centric view of history we all have been taught,” noted Dennis J. Coker, principal chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.
A seasonal celebration
Thanksgiving began with a religious movement in England involving a group of Protestants unhappy with the governance of the Church of England. Persecuted in their homeland, they moved to the Netherlands, and in 1620 about 101 men and women set sail for North America in a small ship, the Mayflower.
Arriving in November 1620 in what now is Massachusetts, they endured a miserable winter aboard ship, not actually establishing themselves on land until spring, by which time half their number had died of disease and exposure.
It was their good luck they encountered an English-speaking native, Tisquantum, who taught them how to plant corn and catch fish, helping to ensure the colony’s survival. To celebrate their first harvest, the governor ordered a three-day festival, a gathering to which their Indian neighbors, the Wampanoag, were invited.
Instead of turkey and cranberry sauce, however, that meal probably included typical Indian foods including deer, shellfish and corn.
Coker said the festival coincided with the Indians’ own harvest celebration. For them, it was a part of deeply-held beliefs about showing gratitude to a greater power, the one responsible for the bountiful lands they lived on and everything it provided.
“From the Indian perspective, I would think the first Thanksgiving was probably not a thanksgiving in the sense of the word,” he said. “It was more a seasonal celebration where we would give thanks for all we have been given.
“As an individual people, as western woodland tribes, it’s a matter of how we operate,” Coker said. “Our spirituality is embedded in giving thanks for everything we receive from our Creator.”
Gratitude for nature’s abundance
That outlook governs how many native Delawareans think of Thanksgiving today.
“The meaning of Thanksgiving for some of us is different than for other Americans,” noted Sterling Street, museum coordinator at the Nanticoke Indian Museum in Millsboro.
“The traditional meaning for Americans is Pilgrims feasting with Native Americans, but that’s not why we celebrate,” he said. It’s because the growing season has ended, food has been stockpiled for the winter, and it’s time to be grateful for nature’s gifts.
Starting shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the Nanticoke organized an annual pow wow, held at the time of the annual fall harvest. Coincidentally that harvest fell on or near Thanksgiving.
“The first ones were held in the 20s and 30s, right here on Thanksgiving weekend,” Street said, adding that during the three-day celebration the Nanticoke would be joined by other tribal members from outside Delaware.
“The first night would be a lot of talking going on. The second day the men would go hunting and come home with the bounty, which the women would cook,” he said. “The next day we would feast, sing and dance.”
It was a reminder, Street said, that, “We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving because of the Pilgrims, we celebrate because it’s something we’ve always done this time of year.”
A newspaper account from the 1930 pow wow described the event in considerable detail, although noting only about 700 people were in attendance, barely one-third that of previous years because of unseasonably cold weather. The meal that year consisted of geese, duck, chicken, opossum, potatoes, turnips, corn, cranberries, bread and soups.
A news photograph in the Philadelphia Public Ledger showed one of the dances, although the paper somewhat condescendingly refers to the celebrants as a “remnant of the once-powerful Nanticoke Indian tribe” moving to “the monotonous throb of the tomtoms.”
The pow wow continues today near Millsboro as a family reunion and celebration of Native American culture, although it now takes place in early September.
‘They might not have made it’
Many Native Americans see these and other gatherings as a way of keeping their culture intact. As English, Swedish and Dutch settlements expanded in Delaware and elsewhere, many of the area’s indigenous peoples were forced west or into Canada. Those who remained were had to assimilate into a foreign culture -- the European culture -- just to survive.
“We have to understand that communities were denied their culture for hundreds of years,” Coker said. “They were persecuted because they were not Christians. Let’s be frank: they were considered savages, heathens and infidels.”
As European influence grew, many Indians became Christians while at the same time keeping -- sometimes surreptitiously -- many of their ancestors’ beliefs. Many Christian churches in Native American communities today express those combined values.
“We continued a celebration that was somewhat subdued and disguised,” Coker said. “Many of our people who were Christians and who come into this holiday season had customs that were left over from traditional cultures.”
Today, Native American culture and traditions have re-emerged with the acknowledgement of their contributions to American society. Former Gov. Jack Markell in 2016 extended formal state recognition to both the Nanticoke and Lenni Lenape, acknowledging the sovereignty of tribal governments.
In local schools, there’s an ongoing effort to teach children about Native Americans.
“We want them to know how important this is to us,” said Bruce “Little Drummer” Morris, who regularly demonstrates dances in area schools, combining it with discussions about tribal history and customs.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, people didn’t even believe there were Indian people in Delaware,” Morris said. “We’ve come a long way to showing there are.”
Coker thinks the Indians’ historic role in the first Thanksgiving may have been downplayed in the past, but feels that perception is changing.
“I would think the Pilgrims would have been giving thanks because they had something to eat that first winter,” he said. “Without the Indians, they might not have made it.”