We Didn't Land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock Landed on Us

Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Professor, Rabbinic Literature
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

posted on November 22, 2022

It is almost universally accepted today that the mythology of Thanksgiving has no relation to history. On the one hand, the story as it is performed, practiced, and retold in American grade schools and town squares has some notion that a band of New England “Indians” (who are universally never named) helped the Pilgrims through their first winter, and as a sign of gratitude and thanks, were invited to celebrate a Thanksgiving feast together after the harvest. Aside from the true fact that Pilgrims came to North America both to escape religious oppression and to make their fortune, and that the Wampanoags saved their lives, nothing here of the gratitude and mutual celebration is true. As Frank James says in the speech quoted below: “The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans.”

It is a rare and illuminating moment when oppressors can hear the voices of the oppressed, unfiltered through their own mythology. It is a disruptive moment which can occur only when the oppressor is able to step out of their constructed, comfortable, safe reality and face the oppression which they are colluding in.  A fascinating example of this occurs at the beginning of the Israelite story of redemption—when Moshe left Pharaoh's house both physically and existentially, Moses’ story of resistance starts with the following tale.

And it happened at that time that Moses grew and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. (Exodus 2:11, Robert Alter’s translation) The Medieval commentator Rashi notes that “he set his eyes and mind to share in their distress.” It was not coincidental that he saw their burdens, and that he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man. Moses crossed over the Rubicon and was no longer an Egyptian prince. He was a sibling of enslaved people. He was then able to come back and challenge Pharoah “Thus said the Lord, God of Israel: ‘Send off Israel My people that they may celebrate to Me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

We are fortunate to have a similar thread of brilliant and courageous interventions in American history in real time. The challenge that faces us is: will we also open our eyes to see and our ears to listen? Following are four voices that hopefully will disrupt our Thanksgiving for at least a few moments.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to address the citizens of his hometown, Rochester, New York on the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Douglass was a very famous abolitionist orator by that time and what he said should not have surprised anybody. 

In 1936 Langston Hughes, a poet and a member of the Harlem Renaissance, reflected on the status of his and others’ outsiderness in America. He faces the reality of oppression and pain and yet, still, grasps onto the hope of something better. “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath—/ America will be!”

Finally, in 2006, Sarah Littlecrow-Russel, of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) and Han-Naxi Métis heritage, who is a lawyer and professional mediator as well as a poet, uses the image of the nineteenth century Ghost Dance movement to draw out a contemporary futility, and messianic hope for Native Americans in the everydayness of life. 

Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. …

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

Langston Hughes "Let America Be America Again" (1936)

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

I speak to you as a man -- a Wampanoag Man. I am a proud man, proud of my ancestry, my accomplishments won by a strict parental direction ("You must succeed - your face is a different color in this small Cape Cod community!"). I am a product of poverty and discrimination from these two social and economic diseases...

It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.

Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry.

Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. 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.

Although time has drained our culture, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. We may be fragmented, we may be confused. Many years have passed since we have been a people together. Our lands were invaded. We fought as hard to keep our land as you the whites did to take our land away from us. We were conquered, we became the American prisoners of war in many cases, and wards of the United States Government, until only recently.

We forfeited our country. Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we must work towards a more humane America, a more Indian America, where men and nature once again are important; where the Indian values of honor, truth, and brotherhood prevail.

You the white man are celebrating an anniversary. We the Wampanoags will help you celebrate the concept of a beginning. It was the beginning of a new life for the Pilgrims. Now, 350 years later it is a beginning of a new determination for the original American: the American Indian.

Sara Littlecrow-Russel "Ghost Dance" (2006)

Two hundred seventy

Ghost Dancers died dreaming

That humanity would drown

In a flood of White sins.

Then the renewed earth

Would reclaim city and town,

Leaving only Ghost Dancers

And those who lived by nature’s laws.

History books say the threat is gone.

The Ghost Dance died with the ancestors—

Wovoka and his sacred dream

Were destroyed.

Each time it rains,

I go out to the sidewalk,

Where the tree roots

Have broken the concrete

Listening to the water’s whispering:

“It is coming soon.”