Imagine All the People: Debunking the Pilgrims + Pumpkin Pie Myth
I doubt I have a drop of American Indian blood — my grandparents were born in Ireland, Italy and New York City. But I’ve been learning more and more about our landcestors.
By the time the young women in our family (now 25 and 13) were kindergartners, shaking cream in glass jars until it turned into butter, they heard pushback against the old, burnished Thanksgiving story: Pilgrims and Indians gathering to share turkey and pumpkin pie.
The true tale, even children know, goes beyond cardboard cutouts of black-hatted Pilgrims in buckled shoes, happy Indians and striped teepees. It trails back to a painful loss.
Now we are trying to make up after 400 years and honor our honest-to-goodness original landowners; the Native Americans, who were not clinking cups of cider with people who took their turf. The wooded tracts they foraged, fertile acres they farmed, the fishing coves, the sandy shores — those treasures changed hands, parcel by precious parcel, in deals that swindled the Indians.
Many of their names remain. Nantucket, according to capecod.com, is a “rough interpretation of the Algonquin term for ‘Faraway Land’ — 3,000 Wampanoags lived on the island when it was taken by the English in 1659.” Mashpee, which you zip past on Route 6 East en route to the Outer Cape, can be translated as “place near great cove.” Aquinnah, the Wampanoag name for “land under the hill,” is also the name of the smoothly paved, hydrangea-lined road in North Eastham where I first learned to ride my 10-speed bike with no hands on a summer vacation.
My lens has changed. When I visit Cape Cod now, a place I’ve loved since I was four, I think about the people before me who long ago picked the berries, harvested hay, carved hunting implements, paddled the ponds, heard the birdsong — how resourceful they were, finding ways to live by land and sea, nourish their families, take shelter. They were the First Ones, who revered this wind- and wave-buffeted peninsula centuries before any of us arrived to build cottages and cabins, stand on surfboards, line up for fried clams and swirled custard cones.
When I stand in peaceful Great Pond — a kettle pond in Eastham, right up the road from Jemima Pond— I look at the perimeter and sometimes place faces in the woods, and by the pond edge. Who saw the baby turtles first?
If I walk Nauset Marsh Trail (the Nauset tribe settled on the Cape) from Salt Pond Visitor Center to Coast Guard Beach, the path rising and falling along the way, I squint and imagine warriors in the tall reeds. Maybe you played “Cowboys and Indians” as a kid. I didn’t. But now, when I see a clearing in the woods, or old, old trees that look like they hold stories, I think of medicinal herbs, wildflowers and smoke wafting up from animal-skin teepees.
Should a Native American from the past pop out today from the swaying fronds, I, in my white denim skirt, organic cotton top and Nikes might be scared — of a shirtless man carrying a knife (to gut fish). Feathers, fringe, beads and long braids would be foreign. We would not speak the same language.
But I like to search out our landcestors in my mind’s eye, especially on old Cape Cod and also near my sister’s condo on a marina in Connecticut. When we walk our little dogs there, we pass a plaque that painstakingly documents the trade — what the local tribe got in return for that breathtaking pocket of land. They received some plates, knives and drinking glasses, among other trinkets.
Can you imagine?
I’m more attuned to this now after “Reclamation Feast” cooking via a New York Public Radio Zoom on Monday night. With indigenous chefs as our teachers, we learned how to make cranberry-studded Blue Cornbread with heirloom cornmeal that tinted the loaf earthy blue; Indigenous Wild Rice with Turkey, using fragrant nettles handpicked by ethnobotanist Linda Black Elk; and Blue Corn Squash Upside-Down Cake with Berries, the batter sweetened with pure maple sugar. We paid extra to receive a box of indigenously harvested ingredients. Check this link for American Indian Foods, a program of the Intertribal Agriculture Council.
Travel with me. What we still see that our original landowners saw: Foxes, muskrats, seagulls, deer, fish and shellfish. Snowy white egrets. Crabs. Grass. Feathery cattails. Mothers, fathers and children. Elders. Fire. Water. Sand. Tides. Seashells. Blackbirds. Clouds. Rain. The moon. No tarred paths for walking or biking. No streetlights, car lights, motorboats, stores.
I don’t want to forget them, the forefathers and foremothers of our land. I don’t want to obliterate their heritage, their bravery and resourcefulness, the gifts they have given us, in a blur of pumpkin pie, Cool Whip and canned cranberry sauce. I squirreled away some Blue Cornbread and Squash Cake for my family tomorrow, and I plan to thank the Originals with a quiet prayer and a clink of my glass.
Alice Garbarini Hurley lives with her family in Montclair, New Jersey. Her grandmother, Alice, was born in New York City and had dark, dancing eyes, so who knows — she could possibly have a drop of Native American blood?