The story of the first Thanksgiving is always changing, it seems, moving from the simple, idealized version every schoolchild can recite...

Share story

The story of the first Thanksgiving is always changing, it seems, moving from the simple, idealized version every schoolchild can recite to more complex histories that refute the dominant mythology.

Knowing more about what happened might give us a truer sense of what we should be thankful for — that ours is gratitude that comes with a debt. Just about every society has a thanksgiving celebration, but ours is tied up with the meeting of two long-estranged parts of the human family, a meeting that yielded opportunity for one and tragedy for the other.

Our Thanksgiving is part of a monumental moment for humanity.

I’m reading a book titled “1491,” whose author, science writer Charles C. Mann, pulls from the latest research to draw a picture of the Americas before Columbus. He works his way backward from numerous fateful contacts between Europeans and natives of this continent.

The encounters between Pilgrims and peoples of the Massachusett Alliance generated a nice story about Indians helping settlers survive a rough first year, then sharing a celebratory feast.

There was Squanto, the Wampanoag villager who showed the settlers how to plant corn. Mann says his name was most likely not Tisquantum, though that is the name he gave to the English. Tisquantum means akin to the wrath of God. He might have been trying to tell them something.

Indians in what would become New England did not fear the visitors who had been coming for many years to fish or trade, but they didn’t trust them either.

They suffered their presence, traded with them, but chased off any who overstayed their welcome.

Tisquantum met Capt. John Smith in 1614. A few weeks later, Smith’s lieutenant, Thomas Hunt, killed a number of Indians and kidnapped about 20, including Tisquantum, whom he took to Europe.

Five years later, when Tisquantum made his way back, his village, Patuxet, was gone and in its place was a Pilgrim town that would become Plymouth, Mass.

The New England coast had been dense with Indian communities, but in a few short years, European diseases had wiped them out. No one in Tisquantum’s village survived.

For their part, the people who came over on the Mayflower had been ill-equipped for creating a settlement. Few of them had useful homesteading skills, and half died the first winter. The rest survived partly by robbing Indian houses and graves.

The Indians who allied with the English did so partly because their communities had been weakened by disease and they wanted to strengthen themselves against being preyed upon by traditional rivals and enemies.

The story about Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life seems to have been a misunderstanding of a ritual that Indians used to make the Pilgrims part of their alliance. The partnership may have seemed shrewd at the time, but it would be costly to all of the native peoples of New England.

Similar encounters happened up and down the Americas. Strong societies were ravaged by disease and the subsequent social collapse. Leaders made fatal choices.

Large swaths of land were depopulated, so that later arriving Europeans had the view that they were filling up space that had always been empty.

The indigenous people most subject to devastation were the ones who lived in heavily populated societies. Europeans came to view all Indians as nomads like the ones on the Plains, who were isolated enough to survive the initial onslaught.

Mann writes some scholars now think that in 1491 there were probably more people in the Americas than in Europe.

Anyone who lives here now owes something to their memory. We don’t owe guilt or reverence, but understanding and some effort to make our lives worth the price.

Because I started reading the book just after Veterans Day, I thought of a scene from the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

In the film, a group of soldiers go through hell to save one private. The government wants him home safe because his three brothers all have been killed in the war. Men die trying to save Ryan.

In the scene I’m thinking of, the leader of the rescuers, played by Tom Hanks, is wounded. As he lies dying, he pulls the young Ryan to him and whispers, “Earn this.”

We have an obligation to keep sorting truth from myth and to make the ideals encapsulated in the myths truer. Help the needy, feed the hungry, welcome the displaced, value community. That would be a start toward showing how thankful we are for our bounty.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.