US Politics

The First Thanksgiving… and Diplomatic Empathy

Image: Faith and History

In late September or early October 1621, the Pilgrims hosted a celebration of their first harvest. The Native American tribe, Wampanoag, that had helped them through the spring came with twice as many people, making it an overwhelmingly Native American celebration. While there was turkey, deer was the main course, it was a multi-day affair and there was not enough tables nor chairs to seat everyone. This celebration has been heralded as the first Thanksgiving, despite the fact, Puritans defined a Thanksgiving as a period of prayer and devotion to God, not a meal or celebration. Every year, Thanksgiving is held throughout America with a turkey dinner on the fourth Thursday of November commemorating that celebration. Despite the historical fallaciousness, the sentiment shines through. In modern America, Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for what you have, the first Thanksgiving was the Pilgrims celebrating their first harvest and possibly was their way of thanking the Wampanoags. The Pilgrims owed the Wampanoags not only for single-handedly saving the Pilgrims lives that wretched first year but also for the political connection to the Native American tribes that allowed the Pilgrims to be active diplomatic players in North America and would continue to help them for years to come. The political bond formed between the Wampanoags and Pilgrims was an incredible feat given the huge cultural difference between the groups and that the Wampanoag’s past experiences with white settlers had been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, the Wampanoags and other Native American tribes had at very least discussed killing the Pilgrims when they first arrived. In the end, the Wampanoags helped them out of their own necessity. They were a small tribe, weakened by diseases and increasingly threatened by the stronger more populous tribes surrounding them. They decided to become allies of these new settlers who brought technology the Native Americans were familiar with but didn’t have a source for. For the Wampanoags, it was a risky bet that they hoped would have a high political and financial payout.

The Pilgrim-Wampanoag alliance was an extremely beneficial one. They both benefited in trade and were much safer than they would have been alone. Amazingly this alliance lasted nearly 50 years, and so did peace between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags despite the fact that everything about the culture of Native Americans and Pilgrims was different, their languages, their traditions, their religions. The alliance was an incredible feat of diplomacy between the two groups, created primarily by mutual necessity and opportunism but also an incredible amount of empathy. The Pilgrims came from Europe in the 17th century, where people were seen as less for having a different religion or race, but in this new world, the Pilgrims couldn’t afford to be intolerant. The two peoples coexisted in a way future settlers wouldn’t even be able to imagine. The Pilgrims hired Native Americans, stayed in their Wigwams during diplomatic meetings and a few Native Americans even lived with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims treated Native Americans and their ways with respect, they were even subdued in their Puritan evangelism. Possibly the best account of how much respect the Pilgrims had for the Native Americans was a trial. In 1638 four European settlers robbed and killed a Native American. The Pilgrim’s court found the settlers guilty and executed them. The Pilgrims saw a Native American life as equal to a European’s.

Leading up to King Philip’s war in 1675, the European settlers became less and less empathetic to the Native Americans. Missionaries began converting tribes to Christianity, a religion Philip, the new leader of the Wampanoags, was increasingly wary of. More Europeans poured over from Europe and they bullied the Wampanoags into giving up more land than the tribe could survive without. The Europeans provoked the Wampanoags more and more until one event finally sparked King Philip’s war. Three of Philip’s men were accused of killing a European educated Native American. The three were found guilty despite the fact only one witness had seen the alleged events and the law required two witnesses. The Pilgrims hung the three Native Americans, the last of the three hangings failed because the rope broke and the Pilgrims forced a confession from the third Native American after already hanging the other two, securing their second witness. It was a demolition of justice and started the war Philip had already been preparing for. A war that the Europeans had forced upon the Native Americans by trying to take over and bully them. The Pilgrims had treated their neighbors as subhuman. The result was a war. One that the Europeans won, but not without paying a heavy price. One in ten soldiers on both sides was killed and 1,200 homes of colonists were destroyed. The colonists lived in terror during the war and felt its financial effects long after.

That war might have been inevitable for America due too the number of Europeans coming in who needed to take land from someone and the natural clash between government and cultures, but if the Pilgrims had been more respectful, diplomatic and empathetic with their neighbors they could have left that war for another group of colonists. As it was, they put themselves in a similar situation to the one they had been in 55 years prior, months before the first Thanksgiving when they were low on supplies and terrified. That Thanksgiving was the Pilgrims reaping the benefits of a win-win alliance they created with the Wampanoags when they had been in that dark desperate situation. In the modern world, our countries need win-win solutions. Life is better in a peaceful world. Any conflict, whether physical, economic, or political, hurts civilians. Also, bullying may have worked for America’s forefathers but the world is different today, the United States can’t force Mexico to pay for a wall, or North Korea to give up its weaponry or China to stop building islands, we need diplomatic win-win solutions and we need people who have empathy, who can look at thing from other people’s point of view, to create those win-win solutions.

This Thanksgiving let’s be thankful for the leaders around the world working in governments, nonprofits, and privately to make the world safer. Let’s be thankful the UN exists, as an organization that is dedicated to creating diplomatic solutions. Let’s be thankful the United States and any other country that signed the UN charter into law must seek diplomatic solutions before starting a war. Let’s be thankful the world has come a long way in diplomacy since 1675.

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