Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian

Social Education, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth: The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian


This lesson was originally developed by Johanna Gorelick, education manager at the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, and has been adapted for this publication by Genevieve Simermeyer. the museum's school programs manager in Washington, D.C. Special thanks to Linda Coombs, associate director of Plimoth Plantation's Wampanoag Indigenous Program in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for her contributions.

Level: High School

Teachers: Have students read the below essay and use the Classroom Discussion Topics to stimulate dialogue about the reading. These topics can be extended to encompass more comprehensive research projects.

Summary: Native American people who first encountered the "pilgrims" at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, play a major role in the imagination of American people today. Contemporary celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday focus on the idea that the "first Thanksgiving" was a friendly gathering of two disparate groups--or even neighbors--who shared a meal and lived harmoniously. In actuality, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and an effort at temporary peaceful coexistence. Although Native American people have always given thanks for the world around them, the Thanksgiving celebrated today is more a combination of Puritan religious practices and the European festival called Harvest Home, which then grew to encompass Native foods.

The First People

In 1620, the area from Narragansett Bay in eastern Rhode Island to the Atlantic Ocean in southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, was the home of the Wampanoag. Although culturally, politically, religiously, and economically similar to the Narragansett people to the west, Wampanoags did not speak the same language and considered the Narragansett their traditional enemies.

The Wampanoag practiced agriculture and followed a seasonal round of gardening and fishing near the coast in spring and summer, moving to sheltered inland locations for hunting in fall and winter. They cultivated several varieties of corn, beans, and squash. These were dried and stored in underground caches and--along with numerous wild vegetables, nuts, and fruits--traded to other groups for things the Wampanoag needed, but did not produce themselves.

Wampanoag society was stratified and social position was inherited. Each village was headed by a leader called a sachem, who ruled by persuasion and by consent of the people. Ordinarily, the sachemship was passed down through the male line in "royal" families, but a woman could inherit the position if there was no mate heir. A sachem could be usurped by someone belonging to a sachem family who was able to garner the allegiance of enough people. An unjust or unwise sachem could find himself with no one to lead, as sachems had no authority to force people to do things. If people did not like their sachem, they were free to move and switch allegiances.

There were 69 autonomous villages within the Wampanoag nation. The sachem of each village collected tribute from the people of his village, such as a portion of the hunt and harvest. This food was redistributed to the needy of each village. In 1620, one very influential sachem of the Wampanoag was a remarkable statesman named Massasoit.

Spiritual beliefs involved a reciprocal relationship with nature. Offerings in the form of food and precious objects, such as shell beads, were given back to the earth to express thankfulness and respect to supernatural beings. The Wampanoag people understood that one couldn't keep taking from the earth without giving something back. It has long been customary for horticultural Indian people to have ceremonies in which they express their thanks for a bountiful harvest. The Wampanoag celebrated their harvest with a ceremony that combined feasting, dancing, and ceremonial games with a "give away" in which families gave away personal possessions to others in the community who were in need.

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