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Reflections on The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving

By Ginger Costen

In June when I was asked to write a Thanksgiving story for the November edition, I immediately thought about the previous articles that I’d written that were from a global perspective, a historical view and even the traditional foods we eat on Turkey Day. So when our editor suggested that I look at it from a different perspective and talk with local author and Nipmuck Indian, Larry Spotted Crow Mann, I couldn’t wait to get started.  

During the summer I once again took some time to work on my family tree with Ancestry.com. Surprisingly, I’ve been able to track both sides of my family back to 1100 A.D. So I was celebrating the 4th of July and the fact that many of my family members fought in the Revolutionary War and were here even before the Mayflower arrived in December 1620, when it hit me… like the boxes of tea hitting the harbor in Boston.

My ancestors were here in Massachusetts and other parts of the country before the “First Thanksgiving” - in Plymouth, Boston, Grafton, Paxton, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia  - all along the East Coast we were farmers, store owners, ship builders, politicians and community leaders. “But did we treat the Native American Indians with respect and appreciate or use them?” I’d ask with each new discovery.

The lump in my throat and dread in my heart only grew as I read more about each group and found they owned large parcels of land and held military titles. Sadly, the pending interview with Larry Spotted Crow Mann was quickly becoming one of apprehension, embarrassment and guilt. The questions I had wanted to ask him became insignificant as I tried to reconcile in my mind that four hundred years ago my ancestors where probably treating his ancestors with little to no respect and value. “Please don’t tell me that we killed anyone,” I’d pray before opening each new family hint on the Ancestry website.

So in October when Larry and I met for the first time at The Booklover’s Gourmet in Webster, I wasn’t sure how the interview was going to begin. Do I tell him what I had found and more probably than not my family had been part of the European immigrants that took away his country – his land – or do I just ignore the past and focus on the present.

Within minutes of meeting him and seeing the genuine warmth and respect that he brought to our meeting, I knew I had to be up front with him and tell him what I’d found. My heart was breaking as I shared the news about my family. I apologized for anything that had transpired in the past and asked for his forgiveness.

The interview went on for hours but it seemed like only minutes. I could’ve listened to him and the stories of his life and those of his ancestors for days and never gotten bored. He made me feel comfortable and engaged within the images and history he shared from within the pages of his books and life.

As we got up to leave, I once again felt the need to apologize not only for my family but for the thousands of other European immigrants that had so thoughtlessly taken what belonged to the Nipmucks, Wampanoags, Pequot, Mohegans, Narragansett and all of the other Native American tribes that once opened their hearts and hands to help a rag-tag group of immigrants survive the winter in a country that neither asked them to come nor expected their generous spirit to be callously pushed aside.

Writing the story was more difficult than I’d anticipated. I tried to be neutral when what I really wanted to say was filled with unbelievable indignation and anger at the genocide that was committed during this time in our country’s – their country’s – past.     

With the story complete and the information ready for the printers, I think once again how can I make the past have a better ending? Why can’t we correct the first big mistake and change Columbus Day to Native American Day? Christopher Columbus never set foot on North American soil. He did not discover America! In fact, he discovered Bermuda and treated the indigenous people there with the same disregard as the rest.

Why can’t we have a day that recognizes all that the Native American tribes and people did to make America what it is today?

In 1620 there wasn’t a Statue of Liberty in New York harbor with a plaque stating "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free - the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It’s not like the Native American Indians invited us to come here and we’ve over stayed our welcome. We came, we conquered and we cast them aside like they had no rights or value. This was an American Holocaust and it’s time we make amends for what was done. I for one will be telling the real story of the “First Thanksgiving” to my children’s children and it won’t be out of a picture or history book.  It will be from a chapter in Larry Spotted Crow Mann’s book, The Mourning Road to Thanksgiving.