The True History of Thanksgiving: Before the Massacre

Native Americans Thank Mother Earth, Mourn Loss of Culture

By Kyle Reyes
|  Thursday, Nov 27, 2008  |  Updated 12:02 PM EDT
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Remembering Connecticut Native Americans

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While many families celebrate Thanksgiving, thousands of Native Americans across the country mark a "bloody holiday" by mourning the loss of their ancestors.

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"Before European visitors arrived here, native people had been celebrating a series of Thanksgivings throughout the year for many, many generations.  Those thanksgivings recognized and acknowledged the natural world and the gifts of land provided by mother earth."

Trudie Lamb Richmond is proud to say she's a Schaghticoke.  Her tribe lived in northwestern Connecticut and eastern New York for years before the faces of the land changed with the arrival of the Europeans.  Their arrival, she said, is something that changed everything - including the very concept of "Thanksgiving."

"For many native people, it's really looked upon as a day of mourning for all that has been lost.  Cultural values, language, beliefs, and land," she said.

Richmond understands history, and said it's something she tries to help others learn from.  She's the Director of Public Programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum.  She said there's a modern lesson to be learned from the past.

"It was an extraordinary clash of cultures.  A breakdown of communication, misinterpretation, a difference in values and beliefs," she said.  "It was those cultural differences that had such an impact.  In one sense, native people were forced to exchange their culture and their beliefs for another way of looking at the world."

She said that forced exchange is something still present today.  Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, meaning those who don't celebrate it must still recognize it. 

Thanksgiving, Richmond said, is a concept that natives grasped long before the settlers arrived.

"They predominately focused around what the natural world provided.  Certainly there was an understanding and a recognition that we as caretakers of the earth could not survive without what was provided."

But as Richmond will tell you, times have changed.  Tribes have found their own way in society today.  In the case of the Mashantuckets, it's the casino.

It's something that Richmond said sadly has a sort of stigma attached to it.

"(The casino) certainly shows the extent of people who had undergone such misery, such treachery, such loss of everything are now having good fortune in a sense.  They've found a way of surviving," she said.  "But in many ways it's held against them.  Yet I don't hear anybody holding things against Donald Trump, or the guys in Vegas."

When asked if the tribe has had to sacrifice part of their heritage for growth, Richmond was torn.

"It continues to be a challenge.  It continues to be a challenge because in many ways people are losing some things, or exchanging some things for another," she said.  "We're more than casinos.  We're not just casinos."

Richmond did acknowledge that the casinos have created a unique opportunity to share a silenced voice.

"Certainly here at Mashantucket the casino has been able to give them so much more, to be able to build a museum and tell their story.  And to preserve their culture." 

It's a culture Richmond said can still be shared by those who are interested.

"Come visit our museum.  Come see who we are," she said.  "Come look through the eyes of our people, look through the eyes of  the exhibit and see who our people truly are."

 A people truly grateful for the original meaning of thanksgiving.

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