This month, many will gather around the dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, yams and pumpkin pie.

For years we have been taught that in 1620 the Pilgrims sailed from England on the Mayflower to escape religious persecution and landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts. Over 1/2 of them died during the winter of 1620—even though by local standards, that winter was a fairly mild one. The Plymouth settlers were inexperienced at farming and not used to being exposed to the elements. The next year, with the help of the local natives, the pilgrims celebrated their first good harvest and invited a group of Native American allies to celebrate with them. The feast lasted three days. And ever since then, as the story goes, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, this is a celebration that is based on a lie.

So what’s the true version of what happened?

The notion that the first Thanksgiving was some kind of cross-cultural love-fest, as it has been portrayed, has even been disputed by historians, who say that the settlers and the Indians were brought together more by their mutual need than by genuine friendship. The two struggling communities were never more than wary allies against other tribes. More like, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

The colonists were actually contemptuous of the Indians, who they regarded as uncivilized, paganistic heathens, and the fragile early peace between Native Americans and the early settlers would soon unravel into a horrific slaughter. When their “Native American allies” were celebrating their own green corn festival, a band of Puritans descended on their village and shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, women and children.

This slaughter, according to Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the real origin of Thanksgiving—so proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in gratitude for God’s destruction of the defenseless Pequot village. Thereafter massacres of the Indians were routinely followed by “days of thanksgiving.”

Native Americans and Israel

Although many of the early European settlers saw the Native Americans as savages (and treated them accordingly), others believed them to be the lost ten tribes of Israel. William Penn, for whom the US Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is named, was one who believed strongly that Native Americans came from the stock of Israelites. He was well known for his good relationships and successful treaties with the natives.

Although many Jewish scholars and historians have disputed this for years, the similarities between Israelite and Native American culture are remarkable:

They both worship one God. (Or one Great Spirit) Both groups were minorities in the face of enemy oppression—The Native Americans faced off against the expanding European colonists, while the Israelites were crushed by the powers of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Both groups have faced slavery, exile and the threat of genocide throughout history.

But what I find particularly remarkable is the similarities between Native American feasts and celebrations and God’s feasts set in the Bible. Both the Native American celebrations and the biblical Fall Feast Days typically coincide in the late summer and early fall and are tied to the ripening and harvesting of crops. They are both marked with dancing, feasting, fasting and religious observations. Activities vary from tribe to tribe, but the common thread is giving proper thanks to God.

In 1973 Dr. Joseph Mahan, an expert in ancient Indian ethnology of the southeastern Indians of the United States, discovered that the Yuchi tribe of Florida and Georgia amazingly showed strong evidence that they had contact with some form of Judaism in historic times. They had a custom that every year on the fifteenth day of the sacred month of harvest, in the fall, for eight days they lived in “booths” with roofs open to the sky, covered with branches and leaves and foliage. During this festival, they danced around the sacred fire, and called upon the name of God.

The ancient Israelites had virtually the identical custom in many respects. In the harvest season in the fall, on the 15th day of the seventh month, (Tishri) Jews and Torah observant believers celebrate the festival of booths for eight days. (Also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot in Hebrew) They live in temporary booths, covered with branches and leaves from “goodly trees”. This festival, and many others, goes back to the time of Moses and the Exodus from ancient Egypt. (See Leviticus 23)

Dr. Cyrus Gordon, of Brandeis University in Boston, was privileged to sit in on one of the fall harvest festivals of the Yuchi Indians, and listened to their chants, songs, and sacred ceremonies. An expert in Hebrew, Minoan, and many Middle Eastern languages, he was incredulous as he listened to the chants. He exclaimed to his companion, “They are speaking the Hebrew names for God!”

How is it that two totally separated peoples observe the identical custom? And since it has been a long standing custom during Sukkot to invite friends and family to share a meal inside their Sukkah, or shelter, is it possible that it was the Native Americans who invited the Pilgrims to celebrate their own fall harvest feast, and not the other way around?

Summary: 

In any civilization, error can be present, and false spirituality can arise. While I am not suggesting that Thanksgiving should become the occasion for a yearly guilt trip, we would do well to remember, as we sit around the bountiful table with our family and friends, the high price the first indigenous Americans paid for European expansion into their territories. Only by openly acknowledging the sins of our collective past, is it possible to proceed toward a future that all Americans can feel thankful for.

We need to de-program ourselves from arrogantly thinking that God would only want to reveal himself (and his laws) to just one part of his creation. We need to realize that God wants ALL of his creation to know him as Father, Creator and supplier of all our needs.

It is also worthy to note that the Native Americans themselves did not choose to identity themselves with the oppressed Jews, but outside powers did that for them.

It is clear that Native Americans possess a special spirituality, that should remind us of the holy teachings given by God—if we would only study God’s holy word and listen to his small, still voice.

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