In their own stories they had been there just shy of forever. Their father’s fathers roamed those same woods, hunting for game and fishing along the riverbanks. Their villages were dotted throughout lands both wild and cultivated, for they were a people who knew how to work with the land.
They knew that the “three sisters” (beans and squash from the twisting vine, and sacred maize, standing tall and golden in the sunlight) would grow best in fields that had gone unplanted in the previous season. They would take fish from the river and, thanking them for their sacrifice, would lay them in small mounds as an offering and inducement to the spirits of the sisters.
As the first shoots of corn, planted first, began to grow from these fertile mounds, beans and squash would be planted next, so that as the stalks of corn grew tall, the vines of the other sisters would climb and grow strong, blending their spirits and changing the soil for the better.
The people had lived this way for as long as any could remember, farming the land, gathering the wild fruits and nuts, fishing it’s rivers and coasts, and hunting it’s game. And always, they were thankful, calling out in gratitude to the departing spirit of the fallen beast, blessing the land and the trees and the spirits that watched and cared for them from above or beyond.
These were the people who where called the Wampanoag, which in their own language, means ‘People of the Dawn’.
We do not know why they were called such.
Perhaps it was because their stories seemed to reach back to the dawn of time. Or maybe, inhabiting the very edges of the Eastern seaboard as they did, they felt that their tribe, more than any other, was closest to the rising sun.
I wonder what it did to them, seeing a new people arrive on their shores as if from out of the dawn itself.
The truth is, we don’t really know that much about them.
By the time the passengers of the Mayflower began to disembark, they had already dwindled to a fraction of their numbers, killed off by disease – an early gift from their European visitors. We know that they worked in cooperation with the settlers of the Plymouth Colony, and indeed are responsible for the survival of that colony through it’s second winter. They taught the colonists how to hunt and grow native crops, and it seems likely that they attempted (with mixed success) to impart upon their new neighbors something of the ‘spirit of thanks’ with which they moved through their world.
The holiday which we celebrate today as Thanksgiving, is more likely a memory of traditional Wampanoag harvest celebrations, than anything organized by those ‘oh so famous’ Pilgrims.
So where now are the People of the Dawn?
A couple thousand of them still survive. Christianized, of course, and with only scarce hints of their previous culture and history upon which to cling. The last native speaker of their language died over 100 years ago.
Today the Wampanoag and their traditions have all but vanished from this land.
And still we give thanks. Not moment by moment, of course, or even daily for the most part. Today we seem to save it all up for but a single day. We gather our families and friends. We feast and make merry. We are thankful to our loved ones and our god(s). We even remember, however briefly, that none of these things would have come to pass, had not a dying people taken pity on their new neighbors and shown them how to survive in a world that was being stolen from them, bit by bit.
And then the next morning, as the light of the sun begins to break over the horizon in the east, it will find them gathered by the tens of thousands (or is it millions?) outside the stores. The Black Friday shoppers will be waiting for the doors to open so that they may descend like locusts upon the goods therein, freely sacrificing personal dignity for the chance to save a few precious dollars on some tacky doorbuster.
There will be no ‘thankfulness’ to be found in that mob, only hunger, and greed, and the angry noise and stink of the crowd.
These are the new People of the Dawn, and I can find no sympathy for them.
Sleep in, if you can, on Friday.
Be thankful in the moment for all that you have and always mindful of the things you can live without.