Wampanoag People Serve Up Much-Needed Thanksgiving History Lessons

A new documentary features interviews with native people in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Photo Credit: PACTV Video Share / YouTube

Wampanoag people working at the Plimoth Plantation share their ancestral history with visitors year-round. But you don't have to visit the Massachusetts museum to hear firsthand about what Thanksgiving means to them. 

In August 2016, Plimoth Plantation and PACTV collaborated on the new documentary People of the First Light: Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. The film shares how the Wampanoag continue to educate and inspire Americans to rediscover history. 

"The Wampanoag tribe, who hosted the first Thanksgiving, are people who have been [in America] for 12,000 years," John Brown, material culture specialist at the Plimoth Plantation, explains in the film. And many Wampanoags are still living in the very same area.

"This my ancestral land, I have my grandmother's teaching in my culture, my traditions are still here," Shirley High-Rock, an educator at the Wampanoag Museum, says.

Nearly every part of the modern Thanksgiving traces its roots to the 19th century, when American author Sarah Josepha Hale pushed Abraham Lincoln to designate it as a national holiday.

But for the Wampanoag, "Thanksgiving was every day. Anything that you did well—whether you fished, whether you hunted, whether you cut down a tree—you always gave thanks for what the Creator had given us. [But today] we really don't celebrate it; it's more or less [that] we recognize the ones we've lost in the past," explained Darius Coombs, director of Wampanoag and Algonkian research at the Plimoth Plantation. 

"For us it was just [about] sustaining life," added Melissa Costa, site supervisor at the Plimoth Plantation. 

There's very little historical recollection of what happened on that day, but the Wampanoag people view the original feast as nothing more than a political dinner. 

"What happened in the past was that Thanksgiving was was not truly Thanksgiving for us from a historical perspective," Brown said.

Plimoth Plantation is closed on Thanksgiving. However, the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum, located in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, is open until 4pm.

"On that day, actually, I'm here at the museum and most of their staff workers are here [too]... so we educate the public about that day," Coombs said.

Museums are the best resources for learning about Thanksgiving, according to the Wampanoag people. 

"We kind of specialize in Thanksgiving here at Plimoth Plantation, so this is a fantastic place to come to," Coombs said.

Watch: "People of the First Light. Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective"

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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