Each Thanksgiving for the last twenty years, students from my classes have startled their families by announcing that the Pilgrims were not part of the first thanksgiving in America.
They know this to be true because I always tell this story, a mix of legend and history, on the last school day before the Thanksgiving break. The story of the Five Thanksgivings that Native Americans in Southeastern New England celebrated each year for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years before ever seeing a European was recorded by Princess Redwing (1896–1987), a Native American leader known for her wisdom and her storytelling. Her father was Narragansett and her mother was Wampanoag.
I hope you will learn the story of the Five Thanksgivings and share it with your children, your students and your friends. For it carries deep wisdom about humility, forgiveness and gratitude.
The Five Thanksgivings
a story from an audiotape recorded by Princess Red Wing transcribed and edited with explanatory additions by Kim Allsup
The first thanksgiving ceremony came in late winter as the snow was melting. That’s when we thanked the Great Spirit for the maple trees that give the sweet syrup.
There was always some clean snow back in the woods. We children would find birch bark and twist it into a cone and fasten it with a split stick. We filled these cones with clean snow and our fathers poured warm maple syrup over the snow. We didn’t have ice cream, but that was our delicacy.
Our second time of thanksgiving came in the late spring. One day a brother and a sister quarreled and each stomped off in opposite directions. The brother walked west with the sun in his face and the girl walked east with the sun on her back. The boy became sorry they had fought, so he asked the Great Spirit to turn him around. The girl also felt sad that she had quarreled with her brother and she wanted to bring him a peace offering. The Great Spirit told her to look down at all the bright red berries. She filled her basket with them and brought them to her brother. Today when we celebrate the Thanksgiving for the strawberries it is always a time for forgiveness and we sing this song:
“Squaws have gathered the strawberries, come and feast to your heart’s content. Give me a pat on the shoulder friend and all our troubles will end. Hey ya hey ha hey ya hey ya.”
The third thanksgiving came in mid-summer. One day a boy was walking by a brook and he saw a canoe coming toward him. It was the smallest canoe he had ever seen. In that canoe was a tiny man who held a bow and arrow. The little man said to him, “I’ll trade my bow and arrow for your bow and arrow.” The boy said, “no, your bow and arrow is too small” and he ran back to the village to tell the people what he had seen. His grandmother said,” Never refuse anything offered to you because it is too small.”
The boy saw the little man again and this time he did trade his bow and arrow. But, the little man said ” because you refused my bow the first time, go home and tell your people to pick the green beans and eat them.” The boy replied, “but the beans are so tiny, there are only the green pods.”
You see, in those days, beans were always left on the vine to dry and the green pods were not eaten. The boy gave his grandmother the message from the little man and she told the medicine man and medicine man told the sachem. The drums began to beat. All the people sat in a circle. The sachem said Ho! The little people have spoken! Go and pick the green beans.” All the squaws went to the fields and filled their baskets with beans. They cooked the green beans and ate them and found them to be nutritious even though the beans inside were still very small. Ever since then we have been thanking the Great Spirit for the green beans.
The Great Spirit gave us a berry. He used all the sweetness on the raspberries, strawberries and black berries and fruit, so the cranberry is just a little sour. But we gather the cranberries just the same and make our cranberry juice and cranberry sauce and Indian cranberry bread. And, on the first Saturday in October, we thank the Great Spirit for the cranberries.
The fifth Thanksgiving of the year was the Thanksgiving for the harvest and was celebrated each autumn. In the year 1621 Squanto said to Governor Bradford, “When things look dark and your crops are poor, that’s the time for the biggest feast of all to show your Creator that you are not complaining about your hard lot.” Governor Bradford agreed saying, “We will feast and we will give thanks for what blessing we have.” So the Wampanoags came with wild turkeys, deer meat and bear meat, and beans, squash, pumpkins, melons and cranberries.
And the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims gave thanks for the harvest and enjoyed a feast together.
May we feel gratitude for the gifts of the earth throughout the year:
in late winter when the maple syrup flows
in early spring when the strawberries ripen
in mid-summer when the green beans are picked and
in early autumn when the cranberries turn red.
And in late autumn as we appreciate the bounty of the harvest.
Now you are ready to tell this story at your Thanksgiving table about the hundreds (and likely thousands) of years of seasonal celebrations of gratitude on this continent before the arrival of people from Europe. You can get everyone’s attention with this question, “Did you know that the pilgrims did not participate in the first thanksgiving in America?”