First Thanksgiving: Forget what you learned in school

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Nov. 27, 2013

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Tomorrow, millions of Americans will sit down to feast with their families in a spirit of gratitude, thinking they are reenacting a joyful interracial harvest festival.

In fact, the first Thanksgiving was more akin to a tense state dinner shared by parties who hadn't yet decided whether they were allies or adversaries.

That's according to a descendant of someone who was there.

If it was a solemn sort of party, Quadrequina was the life of it. He's the guy who brought the popcorn.

"The Pilgrims loved it," said Quadrequina's descendant, author John C. Hopkins. "They begged Quadrequina to teach them how to plant and make it."

That, says Hopkins, is how white people got popcorn.

"I wish he had taken out a patent," mused Hopkins, who lives in Fort Defiance with his Navajo wife, Sararesa Begay. "I would have been from a very rich family."

It's about the only story of that day that has survived in Hopkins' family lore, but Hopkins, an enrolled member of the Narragansett tribe and a descendant of its royal family, has done extensive research on the East Coast tribes in the 1600s. He says there's a lot more to that first Thanksgiving than you learn in grade school history.

Quadrequina was the brother of the great Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, who famously accepted the Pilgrims' dinner invitation their first fall in Plymouth, 1621. Hopkins happens to be related to him because royalty of the two tribes were occasionally given to each other in marriage to cement relations.

But the fact is that the great East Coast tribes at that time -- the Pequot, Narragansett and Wampanoag -- were in a constant joust for supremacy, Hopkins said. If the Pilgrims thought they had left in their past a land of interlocking empires and scheming aristocracy, they were mistaken.

Their arrival was not met by a band of happy-go-lucky savages eager to share their wealth with the starving newcomers. The tribes were wondering how the palefaces were going to fit into the power structure, and whether they should befriend them in the hopes of gaining new allies, or dispatch them on the spot to preserve the status quo.

"Massasoit wanted to make friends with the Pilgrims so he could get their help against the Narragansetts," Hopkins explained. "It worked."

Although Squanto, a Wampanoag who spoke English, had taught the Pilgrims what to plant in the New World, the two races were not quite on friendly terms by the time of that first harvest.

"What most history books don't tell you is that the Pilgrims limited the number of Indians who could attend that first Thanksgiving," Hopkins said. "They made sure to seat a white guy on each side of each Wampanoag warrior, just in case something happened."

An uneasy truce

The two peoples did make peace that day, agreeing to leave each other alone for the most part and help each other when necessary.

"They agreed that if an Indian broke the treaty, the white people would punish him, and if a white guy broke the treaty, the Indians would punish him," Hopkins explained.

It wasn't long before the treaty was tested. Massasoit discovered that Squanto's motives in befriending the newcomers weren't exactly altruistic. He had hoped to enlist their aid in overthrowing the sachem.

The Wampanoags demanded the Pilgrims show their good will to Massasoit by putting Squanto to death.

"They wouldn't do it," Hopkins said. "Squanto was way too valuable to them."

Then there was the matter of the grave looting.

In spite of the Wampanoags' aid, the Pilgrims' first harvest was not as bountiful as we were led to believe in third-grade history. It wasn't long before they were starving again.

"The Pilgrims had learned that the Wampanoags buried food with their dead, to tide them over on their journey to the next world," Hopkins said. "They started digging up Indian graves and stealing the food."

It's probable, Hopkins said, the Pilgrims would not have survived that first winter without the grave-looting.

"In spite of insults like that, the peace was kept," Hopkins noted. "At least, while Massasoit was alive."

A Pilgrim had saved the sachem's life once when he was sick, using medicine he had brought from England. The Natives were afraid the Pilgrims could use their medicine against them just as easily.

After Massasoit

Upon Massasoit's death in 1661, his son Wamsutta, whom the Pilgrims named Alexander, became the sachem. He was starting to tire of the immigrants, who were buying up and plowing under all the best land.

The Pilgrims invited Alexander to Boston for talks with their leaders, but the sachem refused to go.

"They went and got him with an armed escort," said Hopkins, a huge insult to the Wampanoags' royal family.

Alexander mysteriously died in Boston, prompting his younger brother Metacom, whom the colonists dubbed "King Philip," to declare war against the settlers.

The ensuing battles, collectively called "King Phillip's War," were probably the bloodiest, per capita, this country has ever seen, according to Hopkins.

"Of the sixty-six towns in existence at the time," the author said, "thirty-nine were either completely destroyed or damaged to the point that it took years for them to be rebuilt."

Hopkins' tribe, the Narragansetts, attempted to stay neutral. But they were a huge wild card that made the Pilgrims nervous. In a surprise attack, the colonists surrounded a major Narragansett camp and burned it to the ground.

"My tribe never recovered from that," Hopkins said. "At the time, it was said we could send two thousand men into battle and leave another two thousand behind to guard the camp. Today, there are about twenty-five hundred of us total, and we don't dare marry within our tribe because we're all cousins."

By the time the dust settled, the once-great empires of New England were reduced to ragged, fugitive bands. The colonists were capturing Natives and selling them to ship captains who took them to the West Indies as slaves. (Hopkins' novel "The Pirate Prince Carlomagno" provides a fictionalized account of the life of King Philip's son during this period.) Needless to say, the East Coast tribes that are left do not celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the beginning of the end for them.

"In fact," Hopkins said, "every year they go out to Plymouth Rock on that date and hold a protest."

As for Hopkins, he plans to spend tomorrow "eating and watching football," like most everyone else in America.

"To me," he said, "it's a day off. I don't think about the history."

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