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At a ceremony in Pliny Park in Brattleboro in 2016, Rich Holschuh reads a proclamation from Gov. Phil Scott recognizing Indigenous People’s Day.

News / Column

‘The American myth of Thanksgiving’

A Native American digs into an early Thanksgiving proclamation with a link to the region. What does it say about who we were?

This interview is adapted from the Nov. 15 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WINQ-AM (formerly WKVT) and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons and now writes for the paper part-time. The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—I was so excited to speak with Rich Holschuh, who will be a regular guest on my radio show about the indigenous people of this area, as well as history, research, and some parts of the American story that are missing or that have holes to be filled in.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, we wanted to talk about decolonizing Thanksgiving and how that American story is connected to Brattleboro.

I’ve been pondering recently about Thanksgiving. On the one hand, it is such a natural holiday because so many cultures have this idea of harvest and giving thanks and gathering together. And yet, at the same time, our Thanksgiving, while it’s often told as a story of hope with two cultures sitting down and finding common ground, the reality that has played out since then has been painful and messy and filled with holes.

* * *

Olga Peters: What have you been pondering about Thanksgiving?

Rich Holschuh: There are a lot of stories out there. History is made up of everybody’s story, and everyone has their own. Some of them are better known than others. Some of them are not really known at all. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today a little bit.

At our house, because we have associations with Thanksgiving and with holidays and things like that, we’ve pretty much de-holidayed ourselves across the board. That is mostly because of the societal expectations that come with holidays.

We’re actually a lot happier right now. But, having said that: to be happy, to be grateful, is a natural thing, and all cultures include this happiness in the way they go about things.

And so Native people do celebrate, they do observe harvest festivals. They have gratitude. European settlers in this country had the same practices in their own way.

It’s in how those things came together that there is a story told but the truth is slightly different.

I personally don’t go seeking to attack or destroy, but to fill in the gaps and to widen our perspective, because I think the farther you stand back the better you can see.

And so that’s what I’m all about. That’s why I’m here.

Thanksgiving as it’s observed traditionally in this country has turned into a story, an American myth. And as with all myths, there is truth at the heart, and it’s helpful to step back and look at that truth and get into semantics with what happened on what day and what words were used to describe it. But these are details. It’s the bigger story that I think always matters, and that’s the story that could stand a little bit of correction.

O.P.: You brought a couple of documents with you, and one of them connects to Fort Dummer. I’d love to hear a little bit about that.

R.H.: In talking about Thanksgiving, I want to try to make some points that will demonstrate how Brattleboro as a New England town is connected to this momentous celebration in New England, where we think of ourselves as sort of the seat of the country.

We have that we have that conceit, I think — Jamestown and Virginia would argue with that, but if you ask your average American where America started, most of them will say Plymouth. They have successfully marketed themselves into that position. The 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims is coming up in 2020.

So Brattleboro was first settled with the founding of Fort Dummer in 1724. That was, 103 years after what is called the first Thanksgiving, so not that long. We were still very much a British colony; this was not America as we know it today.

Brattleboro is actually the place where colonization — the domination of a place and people by others for their own gain — began in what is now the state of Vermont: right here, down in the southeast corner.

The site of Fort Dummer is now underwater in the Connecticut River due to the building of the hydro dam in Vernon in 1909. The site is known and it’s been explored. The Brattleboro Historical Society was just doing some work in the past year relocating that.

So this is where it all went down, and I found this interesting connection in the form of a Thanksgiving proclamation dated 1723, the year before Fort Dummer was built. It was issued by the Massachusetts Bay lieutenant governor who later became governor: William Dummer.

O.P.: Hmm, that name sounds familiar.

R.H.: You’ve heard that name before. The fort is named after William Dummer, who was serving when it was built. We now have Fort Dummer in our history. We also have a park by the same name up on top of the hill, which is not where Fort Dummer was.

So this is a Thanksgiving proclamation issued by the governor. And this was another in a series of habitual proclamations made by the Massachusetts Bay governors, which did not start in 1621 at the first Thanksgiving. Again, this is semantics. But it’s interesting. It’s quite a diatribe for something that’s supposed to be giving of thanks. It’s mostly oriented around the King. Not at all American.

It starts out: “Thanksgiving proclamation by the honourable William Dummer Esq., lieutenant governour and Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s {Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New-England.”

Now, Massachusetts Bay was the colony centered out of Boston, not Plymouth. It was a competitor of the Plymouth colony but they get conflated all the time.

O.P.: Interesting.

R.H.: So Massachusetts Bay and New England, “a Proclamation for a General Thanksgiving” was issued on the sixth day of November. These proclamations tended to be issued in the month of November and that’s probably how we ended up where we are now. That’s a long and complicated history.

It was Abraham Lincoln who actually instituted Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 — relatively recently, as far as being enshrined on the calendar. Before then, it was by the governor of individual states.

And it says among other things here “it has pleased Almighty God to prolong the life of our most gracious sovereign lord, the king, the royal highnesses the prince and princess of Wales, their illustrious offspring, to give a happy increase to the royal family to defeat the wicked and desperate conspiracies against his Majesty’s sacred person.”

We were all about the king back then. Things changed within 50 years.

“To continue to succeed the administrations of his majesty’s government, to continue our invaluable privileges, to restore our health to us, to give us great plenty of the fruits of the Earth.”

OK, we’re getting close to what we think of as Thanksgiving now.

Then we kind of get into the part of the story which we forget: “To defeat in some measure the repeated attempts of the Indian enemy against us and to defend so many of our frontier plantations from their rage and fury.”

These were the honored guests at the first Thanksgiving, right? Not so much.

O.P.: Honored guests if they were sitting down and behaving themselves but, yeah, otherwise, no.

R.H.: So this proclamation was “[g]iven at the Council Chamber in Boston the Sixth day of November, 1723” and “By order of the Honourable the Lieutenant Governor W[illiam] Dummer, by and with the Advice of the Council, Josiah Willard, sec[retary].”

Josiah Willard is a name that should pop right up in your head, should you be a Brattleboro historian.

O.P.: It’s ringing a bell, but I don’t have the context.

R.H.: The Willards were a very very big name around here in the early days — the first commander of Fort Dummer was a different Josiah Willard. Closely related, because usually if you were in a place of importance who knew somebody you were related to them. You were married into their family, and this is the case with Captain Josiah Willard, who commanded Fort Dummer. His cousin was secretary to William Dummer.

When you start to look into this, you realize this is all about land deals.

That’s why Brattleboro is named after William Brattle, who was a land speculator and the richest man in Massachusetts Bay Colony in his day. This town was part of his holdings.

So Josiah Willard commanded at Fort Dummer, then his son, Josiah Willard Jr., commanded at Fort Dummer — a little nepotism going on here. And then his brother, Nathan Willard, was commander at Fort Dummer. It was all about men who were very very wealthy landholders in this area all around us: Westminster, Winchester, Hinsdale, Brattleboro, Guilford. The place was just rotten with Willards.

O.P.: Yeah.

R.H.: And they’re nice people. I know a few of them nowadays.

O.P.: Their descendants have moved on to new things.

R.H.: Yeah. So we have to keep this in context, that things back then were done differently. And just because they did it doesn’t make it right, but we have to keep that in context. And I want to be fair about that.

O.P.: I would love to hear from you, Rich, about what a decolonized Thanksgiving would look like to you.

R.H.: Let me start by saying it’s really really hard to decolonize. Colonization is a framework that we all operate in. And even those who try to avoid it are kind of often stuck in it and you have to constantly check yourself.

O.P.: It’s the water we swim in.

R.H.: Right. Exactly. We don’t know any differently. So to decolonize it would be to recognize the story that we’ve heard is a very, very small part, to look for the rest of the story, and to realize that that story is ongoing.

As is often pointed out, colonization is not a point in time — the colonial days are not over. This is a process that happens and continues and is going on right now.

So to decolonize Thanksgiving is to recognize the effect of what happened then continues to happen now, and how that’s played out.

I just want to wrap up with two observations.

First, this is the land of the Abenaki. This is their homeland, and the first Native person that the colonists at Plymouth met after settling there in 1620 was an Abenaki person, Samoset, who walked into the settlement in March of 1621. He addressed the settlers in English, to their astonishment, and he proceeded to ask for some beer.

O.P.: Huh.

R.H.: So if that doesn’t mess with your head...

O.P.: It does, and I love it.

R.H.: Oh yeah. It’s awesome. This is an example of the stories that can be recovered. It’s fascinating, and it flips everything on its head.

And then the other thing I want to bring up: I’m a beginning student of the Abenaki language, and I have found that it’s critical to learn the language in order to understand the culture and to bring forth the lessons that are there.

The Abenaki word to express that “I am grateful” is “Nd’alamizi.”

And so literally translated Nd’alamizi. On the surface it says I’m grateful.

But Abenaki is a polysynthetic language, in that we take little roots and and cram them together to make a larger word, a concept. Here’s what it’s actually saying.

“N” means “me,” it’s a personal pronoun. “D’ala” means “the way things are.” And “mizi” is a self-assessment: “I feel this way.”

So what you’re saying when you say “Nd’alamizi” is that “I feel that I am in the way that I should be.” Which tells us that gratitude is the default state. And if you are not grateful — and why shouldn’t we be, because of what’s around us? — you’re actually out of line.

And I think that’s an amazing language lesson to take away from that.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #486 (Wednesday, November 21, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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