November 14, 2007


By Senator Mike Crapo

Although verifiable facts about our first Thanksgiving are few, they have proven fertile ground for myths, stories and traditions that have taken root over the past 386 years. Greater insight into our Thanksgiving tradition and our uniquely American spirit can be derived by examining events that occurred in Plymouth, Massachusetts, from the time a disparate group of entrepreneurs and religious dissenters landed that bleak December, to their famed celebration with a local Native American tribe a year later.


In December 1620, 102 Europeans arrived in Cape Cod Bay on the cargo ship, Mayflower. Although they lost just two people during the harrowing sea voyage, half their number perished in the ensuing months due to poor nutrition and inadequate shelter. Imagine--starving, full of despair in a strange land, death coming as surely as the sunset and almost as often.


The appearance one day of two Native American men must have inspired both hope and great fear, considering the colonists' desperate state of affairs. History tells that Samoset, an Abenaki Indian from Maine, accompanied by Tisquantum or "Squanto," came into the village, effectively saving the dying colony. Squanto spoke English and taught the colonists how to cultivate indigenous crops, hunt and fish.  He was instrumental in establishing a friendly relationship between the Wampanoag and the European settlers. 


Even though their European crops fared poorly, they had a bountiful corn crop in the fall of 1621. Edward Winslow's first-hand account of the harvest festival that year resonates with the sounds of celebration. "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors." He recounts a three-day feast in which 90 Wampanoag men celebrated with the colonists. The only foods referred to specifically are fowl and deer brought by the Wampanoag.  Historians conclude the festival also included native grown corn, beans, and squash, as well as fish, shellfish, wild vegetables, nuts and fruits-all part of the northeastern coastal diet. 


Vestiges of European and Native American harvest festivals continue in our Thanksgiving tradition. The Wampanoag fall festival included a feast and donations of items to the poor. Many people now choose to spend Thanksgiving at soup kitchens or distribute groceries for those less fortunate. The association of football games and parades with Thanksgiving is a modern replication of games and events integral to European and Native American harvest festivals. 


Those autumn days almost 400 years ago recall a celebration of hope in the face of terrifying odds. This was a time of cooperation between strangers of different countries, religions and cultures, reinforcing the awareness that sometimes, help comes when we least expect it and most need it. It was a celebration of American perseverance, humility, appreciation and gifts from our gracious God.


November is, appropriately, American Indian Heritage Month, and I've co-sponsored a Senate bill declaring the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day. In October, I was pleased to coordinate a visit by members of the Nez Perce Tribe to Washington to a private viewing of some Nez Perce artifacts located at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives. I look forward to providing other Idaho tribes the same opportunity. We can be proud of Idaho's Indian heritage and contributions these nations continue to make to our communities and our collective Idaho history.


This Thanksgiving, we benefit by remembering a festival centuries ago that celebrated a collective spirit of mutual participation and common needs. THIS is our American heritage that we celebrate at Thanksgiving.