If you live in the United States, chances are you recently gathered with loved ones on Thanksgiving, the official kick-off to the winter holiday season. As we move deeper into December and the long, dark nights that precede Winter Solstice, my thoughts—perhaps like yours—are of gratitude for life’s many blessings like family and friends, work and colleagues.
On Thanksgiving, I thought of the Wampanoag (“womp-u-nuck") nation, the original inhabitants of the land now referred to in part as southeastern Massachusetts, eastern Rhode Island, and nearby islands and coastal regions. The Plymouth colony in Massachusetts, established by the English on Wampanoag land, is said to be the site of a legendary friendly feast between colonial pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. As you may know, this so-called “first Thanksgiving” is a myth.
Behind the cranberry sauce and turkey is a reality that is necessary to bring into the light: that for Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is considered a National Day of Mourning.
From my privileged viewpoint, what most strikes me, besides the historic and ongoing injustice, violence, and discrimination towards Native People, is the inherent beauty and wisdom of the Wampanoag, that—like for so many other Indigenous communities—is in danger of being forever lost.
When reading about the Wampanoag, I came across a quote by traditional dance and music instructor Annawon Weeden, who writes:
“Wampanoag (womp-u-nuck) translates in the English language to mean ‘People of the dawn’ or ‘People of the first light.’ We see ourselves as the first to greet the sun on this continent known as America today, thus our name: ‘people of the first light’” (Weeden, 2013, para. 1).
After tens of thousands of years as the People of the First Light, the Wampanoag hold an intimate, sophisticated knowledge and expertise of the land and its beings. As Wampanoag member Nanepashemet says:
"We have lived with this land for thousands of generations—fishing in the waters, planting and harvesting crops, hunting the four-legged and winged beings and giving respect and thanks for each and every thing taken for our use. We were originally taught to use many resources, remembering to use them with care, respect, and with a mind towards preserving some for the seven generations of unborn, and not to waste anything" (as cited in U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d., para. 2).
This is real thanksgiving—offering daily gratitude for nature’s gifts, neither wasting anything nor jeopardizing the well-being of future generations, and living with true intimacy with the land, plants, sky, and animals. I can’t help but be reminded of my favorite saying: “where there is connection there is no pain, and where there is pain, there is no connection.”
What is connection? It is knowing and being known. It is being in relationship with what is around you, with your loved ones, with the tree outside your door, the wind on your cheek, and the rising and setting of the sun. It is feeling that you belong to the earth, as a meaningful part of it rather than a mere consumer.
I am inspired by words from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Law and Order Ordinance, that highlight the deep sense of connection fostered by Indigenous ways:
“We name ourselves after the land we live with. Because, not only are we breathing in, we are also drinking from the water that is flavored by that very land. Whatever is deposited in the soil is in that water in us. So, we are all one thing, and we name ourselves after the place that is our nurturing. That sustains our life” (Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, 2018, para. 3).
I’ll leave you to let these beautiful words wash over you—I hope they move you as much as they’ve moved me this holiday season.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. (2018, July 31). Tribal Law and Order Ordinance. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://mashpeewampanoagtribe-nsn.gov/august-2018-mittark-blog/2018/7/31/tribal-law-and-order-ordinance
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Native Voices. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/timeline/200.html
Weeden, A. (2013). Wampanoag Introduction. Many Hoops. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from http://manyhoops.com/introduction.html