Though turkeys were indigenous to America, they may have been familiar to Pilgrims before they arrived. It's believed that the Spanish brought the meaty birds back to Europe, and by the 16th century turkeys had found a place on the tables of England. Colonists were drawn here by just such discoveries. The Pilgrims, like many American colonial ventures, were part of a commercial scheme that hoped to profit from the region's wealth of natural resources — from fish to right whales, lumber to beaver pelts, game to fowl . . . like turkeys.
By 1851, hunting and clearing of Massachusetts wildlands for farming had eradicated wild turkeys from the commonwealth. Now, thanks to a recovery effort begun in 1972, it's believed that some 20,000 turkeys reside in the Bay State, and the birds once again strut about Dorchester, Brookline, and Boston's Theatre District. They're not New England birds, however — the wild turkeys in Massachusetts today are actually transplanted New Yorkers.
Komi Wild Horse weaves a minoot at Plimoth Plantation.
The beginning of the end
In 1970, a Wampanoag named Wamsutta Frank James was invited to speak in Boston at a September dinner hosted by the governor celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing. State officials rejected his speech when they learned that he planned to give a candid accounting of the Wampanoag point of view. So James and other Native Americans from across the country gathered instead at Plymouth's Massasoit statue on Cole's Hill, where he delivered his talk that Thanksgiving, which the group had declared a "National Day of Mourning."
Massasoit, James said then, "welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. . . . This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people."
At noon this Thanksgiving, United American Indians of New England (UAINE) will meet with hundreds of people at the Massasoit statue to hold their 40th annual National Day of Mourning, followed by a protest march through town.
"We must be the longest continuously running demonstration in the United States," says Mahtowin Munro, an Oglala Lakota who is co-leader of UAINE. "I guess it's a shame that we have to keep doing it. And indeed we do, because the historical record hasn't been corrected."
Thanksgiving, she tells me, is "really part of an overwhelming national myth. The idea is that the Pilgrims came over and Native people came out and welcomed them and they all sat down together at this dinner and nobody had ever had such a fine feast before and there was tremendous friendship among the peoples and all the little children were playing together and all that kind of thing. . . . It was about how wonderful the Pilgrims were and this was such a wonderful way to start a country and everybody lived happily ever after."