On this Thanksgiving Day in America, I remember the story of the very first Thanksgiving as it was depicted in one of my childhood books. Happy looking, bright-eyed and well-fed Pilgrim settlers sitting alongside the Native Indians at a table laden with abundance. I also remember that the story in my book told of how generous those first White settlers were by inviting those poor Indian savages to join them for the feast.
However, looking at the historical record, that's not even close to being an accurate picture of life in those early days when White settlers from England occupied the lands of Native Peoples along the New England coast.
In fact there could never have been a Thanksgiving feast, never a celebration of abundance, were it not for the unheralded generosity of the Native peoples. In fact, the Pilgrims would never have survived here, they would have died off soon after landing on these shores were it not for the help of the Indians. So, if anything, the Indians were the hosts and the Pilgrims, their guests, at that first Thanksgiving banquet.
When the English settlers arrived to make a new life for themselves in the place they would call "New England," they were totally unprepared for how difficult and even treacherous this new land and their new life would be. The severity and harshness of the winter weather surprised them. They didn't know how to build proper shelter or wear protective clothing. On top of that, the seeds they brought with them wouldn't grow in this climate, so food supplies became a serious problem. And, if that wasn't bad enough, the settlers succumbed to all sorts of new diseases from which they had no immunity, and for which they had no medicines.
Within a year of arriving on these shores, the Pilgrims were cold, starving, sick and dying. The prospects for their prolonged survival were slim to none; and then the Indians came to their rescue.
The local tribe of Wampanoag Indians had observed the plight of those foreigners who had literally invaded their land, and they took pity on them. They taught the White settlers how to hunt in the forests. They shared food with them and gave them seeds that would grow and could be farmed in this land. They taught the settlers how to build structures that would provide shelter from the elements, and they gave them home-grown medicines that would cure their bodies from disease.
The Pilgrim immigrants quite literally survived because of the kindness and compassion of the Native peoples. However, this is a story that is rarely told on a day like today when Americans sit down to eat their turkey dinners and perhaps remember a tale of a time long ago when supposed good-hearted pilgrims invited savage Indians to that first Thanksgiving feast.
Today I want to celebrate the "real" first Thanksgiving. It reminds me that this nation essentially grew out of the seeds of kindness and compassion, seeds sewn by native people among strangers in their midst.
So today I do more than give thanks. Today I renew my commitment to practice compassion and kindness in my life. I renew my commitment to embrace those who are different, to welcome the stranger with wide-open arms, and to extend kindness even to those who may be an enemy or oppressor.
I do all this because, at the core, this is the "real" American way.