By Jillian Smith
The year was 1621. A group of English Separatists known as the Pilgrims had struggled through months of disease, agricultural failure and poor weather. To survive, they had raided stores of corn buried by Native American tribes. In fear, they fired upon Native American scouts. In their search parties, they disturbed Native American burial grounds. When a Native American finally did encounter the Pilgrims face to face, he did not retaliate out of a sense of revenge. Squanto, a name which meant the “Wrath of God,” offered only a simple greeting, “Hello Englishmen.”
Squanto’s knowledge of English was developed while he was in captivity in England, having been abducted and taken there by an English trader. He was taken to England in 1605; he would not return to Massachusetts until 1619. During that time, all of Squanto’s tribe, the Pawtuxet, had been decimated by a vicious plague, likely introduced by Europeans.
If anyone had a right to be angry and hurt and vengeful toward a whole group of people, it was Squanto. And yet, for some reason, miraculously, he was not. Instead, he taught the Pilgrims how to farm properly in the New England soil by burying a fish at the root of corn so as to fertilize it. He served as a translator in a long process of diffusing the tense relations between the Native Americans and the settlers. He introduced the Englishmen to Massasoit, the most powerful chief in the region, and in so doing, started a three-day long feast of gratitude and peace-building among the two people’s groups, which we will soon celebrate next Thursday, a feast known as Thanksgiving.
In his lifetime, Squanto was hailed and celebrated as a bridge builder, one who allowed two sides to see past their differences and instead see how they could work together. At a time of tremendous tension, when the natural thing to do would have been to let hatred prompt him to violence, Squanto chose to treat that colony differently than the Englishmen, who had captured him. Perhaps he understood that not all the English were the same, and, maybe, he knew that sometimes conflict could be quite easily avoided, if only an attempt is made to understand the other side.
It is quite fitting to recognize that the holiday of Thanksgiving was not officially recognized until the Civil War. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that implored unity, “… It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemn, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
As our country feels its way through an uncertain postelection process, as tensions seem to be tearing us apart along ideological lines, let us remember what Thanksgiving truly is about, the healing of a nation full of people who have hurt one another. You may have every right to feel angry and spiteful. But as you sit down to feast on next Thursday, do not forget that the feast symbolizes a history of people who have overcome immense differences in attempts to mutually understand and respect one another.
William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony and organizer of the first Thanksgiving, said, “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.”
May that first Thanksgiving, in its small beginnings, be the candle that we use to guide ourselves forward in these postelection times.