SWANTON — “We need to teach our history so it’s not forgotten,” said Brenda Gagne, coordinator of the Abenaki Circle of Courage. “As long as we are teaching it, and people are aware of what’s gone on, hopefully, people will understand what Thanksgiving means to native people.”
On the Friday before Thanksgiving for the past four years the Abenaki Circle of Courage — an after-school program teaching Abenaki lessons — hosts Pie Day, a time to honor Native traditions and learn from Gagne about the first Thanksgiving.
Around 50 students usually attend, but Gagne said this year there was a cap on attendance to keep students healthy and properly-distanced. On Nov. 19, less than 20 students — pre-K through eighth graders — gathered in the auditorium at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Swanton.
After the bell rang, students filed in and grabbed some snacks from a nearby table before scampering over to sit in the Circle with their friends. They know to never cross into the Circle, Gagne said, as it is sacred to the community. Rather, they travel around the Circle and always to the left.
Friday’s events included reading ‘Squanto’s Journey’ by Joseph Bruchac, practicing Abenaki language skills and playing Native American rock-paper-scissors. The company was lively, and students sat at nearby tables munching on slices of mouth-watering coconut cream, oreo, chocolate or apple pie.
Friday’s final history lesson, however, was a sombre one for the Circle, as Gagne explained what happened after that first Thanksgiving.
“We do not celebrate Thanksgiving,” Gagne said. “It is a day of mourning for our people. It is a day to reflect on what has happened to our people.”
The First Thanksgiving
During Abenaki Circle of Courage, Gagne explained the differences between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the one commonly-celebrated today.
The first Thanksgiving was three days long, and many of the Thanksgiving staples — like pumpkin pie, apple pie, bread or stuffing — did not exist. While cranberries and sweet potatoes were available, Native Americans feasted on their fresh catches, such as fish, crabs, lobster and venison that a leader of the Wampanoag tribe named Massasoit sent his warriors to collect during the celebration. The event also featured games of chance and musket shooting,
This sharing of food and cultures was a harvest celebration after a good year of crops, but the time of peace ended in conflict, Gagne said.
On Pie Day, she told the story of how the Algonquin people — after teaching the colonists how to farm and survive — were betrayed. Many were killed by the arriving colonists.
“The white people who moved here took our land but were starving to death,” Gagne said. “Our people taught them how to feed themselves and take care of themselves, and in the end they turned on us. They took our land, our children and our people. Thanksgiving isn’t a good day for us.”
In the following centuries, the holiday continued to overshadow the historic trauma perpetrated against native cultures, and other Thanksgiving feasts would occur throughout history to celebrate battle victories against Native Americans. One such example was King Philip’s War, which ended in 1676 after Massasoit’s son Metacom tried to rally Native tribes to drive the colonists out of their lands. He was killed. His son was enslaved, and the Wampanoag tribes lost much of their land and population.
“They made a national holiday for a day when they slaughtered our people,” Gagne said. “Teaching our history is a way for us to heal.”
Throughout time, unofficial “thanksgivings” were held to commemorate successful harvests. For Native peoples though, the holiday often acted as a reminder of the conquest of Native Americans by colonists who took their land and resources.
'1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving'
President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and for many, it's a time when families come together to express gratitude for good tidings and to eat and drink together.
For native people, however, it’s also a time to remember, Gagne said.
In school pageants, students often celebrate the holiday by wearing paper bag vests and imitation Native American costumes to show the friendship between Europeans and Native people, but that’s an oversimplification.
On Monday, Nov. 22, students at the Circle of Courage read “1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.” Written by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac, the book explains the first Thanksgiving and illustrates the evolution of the relationship between the colonists and Native Americans — what they grew, what they ate and how and what they celebrated. It also touches on how the colonists treated the Native Americans, and the conflicts that arose between them.
While Thanksgiving is observed differently by different people, the joy at the Circle of Courage’s Pie Day was palpable. Children and adults together laughed and shared pie, played games and practiced their Abenaki lessons. There was an air of togetherness and reverence that connected them, both Abenaki and non-Abenaki alike.
“We are all a part of this community,” Gagne said. “This is N’Dakinna. This is our homeland.”