Some notes on Thanksgiving and other matters

By Dr Stephanie Pratt, independent scholar, art historian and first cultural ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Nation

Dr Stephanie Pratt

Independent scholar, art historian and first cultural ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Nation, passionate about portrait and other images of historical Native American figures in all areas of visual representation

  • Dual nationality UK and USA citizen/American Indian
  • Co-curated two shows for the National Portrait Gallery, London: Between Worlds: Voyagers to Britain, 1700–1860’ (2007) and George Catlin: American Indian Portraits (2013)
  • Associate Professor (Reader) of Art History at University of Plymouth from 1993–2013

Dr Stephanie Pratt

The first Thanksgiving

This year Plymouth (amongst several other cities and international locations) will see the 400th year commemoration of the 1620 sailing of the Mayflower

Its English passengers had a mission to find a place where they could practise their form of Christian belief freely, beyond the bounds of Europe. 

They came via Leiden in the Netherlands, stopping briefly on the southern coast of England at Southampton, Dartmouth and then at Plymouth, before setting out for what these Separatists called Virginia, to found a colony and name it after their last English landing place. Its actual name took many Indigenous spoken forms.

The place the English called ‘Virginia’ was in fact Tsenacommacah, or ‘densely inhabited lands’ in the Powhatan language. How strange it is that the Europeans who landed in North America often claimed it was sparsely inhabited.

Indeed, the Separatists noted that a village already existed close to their landing place, houses constructed, and food stored away. This clearly was not an uninhabited land.

Now we know that prior to the arrival of the Mayflower this village had become depopulated due to the unchecked spread of infectious diseases brought over by previous groups of Europeans making their way to Tsenacommacah and other landing points. Keep this in mind when we turn to the image on which I have chosen to focus.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (1932 print)

The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (1932 print)


Jean Leon Gerôme Ferris’ picture [1] ‘The First Thanksgiving’ is supposed to give us a sense of what it was like on that day in 1621 in coastal Wampanoag territories (part of present day Massachusetts) when a large meal was served up to the community. 

A friendly and yet hierarchically arranged meeting is shown taking place. [Am I right in thinking those baked goods being served to the Native visitors look very similar to Devonshire pasties?

Those of us in the know, who have read the histories of the founding of Plymouth Colony, realise that no such friendly coming together happened in 1621. 

The Wampanoag heard shots being fired from the English camp [are guns also to be a part of the lasting national persona of Americans?] and came closer to investigate the ruckus. They brought food to the starving English people [so the feeding happened the other way around to what the image shows] and later instructed them in agriculture. 

And despite the smiling faces in the image, mistrust underlay all encounters between those plainly invading and those plainly being invaded. 

Ferris’s naturalistic and descriptive formula plays on the supposed facts of the event, showing us who are the Pilgrim Fathers [a name for them invented much later] and who are the ‘Indians’.

The Pilgrims are much too healthily apple-cheeked for what we know about the diseased and malnourished English Separatists of 1621.

His Indigenous peoples are totally inaccurate, too, dressed not in Wampanoag traditional clothing but in generic Plains peoples’ regalia, from untouched communities thousands of miles away, wearing ceremonial chieftain’s headdresses and leggings decorated with European-made seed beads that were not yet fully available to the Eastern Algonquians of this period.

So why has Ferris been so inept in his conceptions? Or is his task something different to imaging this encounter? 

What this image is about is cementing a myth and confirming a racial hierarchy.

The Europeans have houses, furniture, manufactures and textiles; they eat at a table; they are civilised. The Indians have few possessions and are dressed in animal skins; they eat on the ground; they are ‘primitive’.

How could it possibly be the case that Wampanoag Indians like these could take care of the colony in its distress? Better by far to show the Pilgrims’ material wealth and have them feed the Indians.

In short, Ferris’ image is not only an airbrushed confection, and a historical lie, it is also implicitly racist.

For any school child in the USA growing up between the years 1932, when this image appeared, and the present day, this unreal and untruthful encounter is somehow burned into the national psyche.

Nothing questions its supposed veracity and no one dares to ignore or make fun of its empty tropes [one exception is of course, the character of Wednesday Addams of Addams Family Values (1993) who I cheer on every time I watch her].

I chose this legacy of the so-called first Thanksgiving to help integrate my thoughts on what it means to be Native American in 2020.

This image, with all its glossy advertisement-style slickness, is my choice mainly for what it doesn’t reveal and for what it has hastily and negligently covered up.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (section)
It was the Wampanoag who brought food to the starving English
The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (section)
Ferris's depiction of the indigenous peoples clothing is totally inaccurate
The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (section)
Despite the smiling faces, mistrust underlay all encounters
The First Thanksgiving 1621, J L Gerome Ferris. (section)
The Pilgrims are portrayed as much too healthily apple-cheeked

Being Native American and living in the UK has been an unstable identity, almost an oxymoron.

Some people early on in my time here didn’t quite know what ‘Native American’ even meant. I suppose they thought I was just saying I was born in the United States, rather than immigrating there. 

I have lived in England since 1985 and based myself in Exeter. One might think it fortuitous that I landed here in a county where there are so many links and reminders to the earliest voyagers across the Atlantic and around the World. 

At times I do feel I was brought here by unknown forces. 

This feeling came specially when I saw the Simcoe Memorial in Exeter Cathedral and found it contained a lone figure of a Mohawk or Haudenosaunee brave on it. Or, when I walked up to the memorial plaque in Bideford Church which recalls the man they named ‘Raleigh’ but who was captured in his homeland in North America and brought to Devon to act as a servant to the local Lord. Can Raleigh see me looking at him and his memorial? 

Many people who know me well here are aware of my Native American ancestry and appreciate how rare a thing that is. They are interested certainly and even admire those in my Indigenous past who fought against oppression and the loss of their lands, their language and their culture. 

They even shake their heads and say how sorry they are that this went on and that the results are what they are. They don’t really feel responsible for all this of course. 

The bottom line is that European Westernised people haven’t changed anything as yet, they haven’t said sorry and meant it and they haven’t addressed the elephant in the room, which is that they cannot bring themselves to say that the world their ancestors live in has been built on the horror, death and decimation they have brought to so many others.

Even though I live in the western world of privilege and economic stability and do not have to confront the everyday trials of life on an Indian Reservation, I still feel the hurt.

My suffering comes from the grief and trauma experienced by my ancestors but handed on to me via my DNA.

I am grief-stricken and my heart hurts to see such things as the Exeter Rugby club call themselves the Chiefs and by that mean the Indian Chiefs. The club rebranded themselves as late as 1999 and took on the logo of an Indian Chief’s feather-bonneted head which created a fanbase of supporters who like to ‘dress-up’ in fake feather-headdresses and do the war whoop and the ‘chop’ during the club’s matches.

The Exeter Chiefs have a mascot, too, whose costume and persona can only be described as derogatory and utterly thoughtless, his name being ‘Big Chief’, a comic figure who runs around with a large toy-like plastic war club. Only a few months ago, the Executive Board of Exeter Rugby Club announced the retirement of 'Big Chief' the mascot as being denigrating to Indigenous North American peoples. Too little and much too late I feel.

This team and its supporters aren’t being honourable or respectful and everyone knows it. It brings back all of the embarrassment and humiliation which I experienced in grade school in the US when my Anglo-American mother innocently brought in some films taken of the annual Pow Wow dances held at my Dakota father’s birthplace on the Crow Creek Dakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota (where I am also an enrolled tribal member).

My classmates didn’t know what to do or how to react. It seemed that long minutes went by in stunned silence. They simply didn’t know that I was an [dreaded word] ‘Indian’. I have the same reaction every time I hear the 45th President [no name needed] call the US Senator Elizabeth Warren, ‘Pocahontas’. It may be that she has not been fully accurate in her claims of Indigenous ancestry but that is another matter. The fact is that the President of the United States attacks a rival by mocking her claim of indigeneity, using ‘Pocahontas’ not in reference to the historical Powhatan/Mattaponi woman who died in 1617, but as a stereotype, as superficial as the Disney cartoon of that name. 

Shockingly, this President’s agenda also has overseen an unwarranted attack on the federally-recognised status of the Mashpee Wampanoag peoples, threatening to take away many of their federal rights and privileges to be recognised as Indigenous as well as their rights to their inherited tribal lands, thus disinheriting the community whose ancestors helped the Separatists at the very moment we should be honouring them. 

Is this just one President’s malice or do we see a pattern here? 

This is a problem which needs to be solved top down, for if a US President can behave this way, then anyone is given permission to do so.

A young Dakota person living on my father’s reservation today has a gravely shortened life expectancy not only due to cruel acts of history and colonisation but also because they can and do take their own lives at much, much higher rates than the general population. A funny mascot to you is a stab in the back and the heart to someone struggling to survive.

In this significant year for the planet which has seen the rising up of millions of people to give protest to a long-standing United States-based racism for so long institutionalised and embedded and stemming from its violent acts of origin, steps should be taken right away to address not only the terminology used against Native Americans/First Nations/Inuit but also the much needed recognition of the sovereign status of Indigenous North American peoples: the treaties that were signed into law protecting them and their lands, the human rights that should be afforded them in the US Constitution and the many billions of dollars of reparations still owed them.

Is there an end in sight? When and how can we start to redress the imbalances created by these detrimental acts and their legacies? 

My criticism of the Exeter Chiefs’ fans and their behaviour as recounted in Exeter’s Express and Echo newspaper in 2016 met with many negative comments in the feed underneath the news item when it was published. A few spoke up in my favour [and indeed there is a growing movement among some supporters to rethink the branding] but the club itself made no reply even though I offered to work with them about this. 

Am I asking too much? Can appropriate PC attitudes really go wildly wrong? 

Hey, don’t worry, it’s 2020, this too shall pass and so just put a costume of an Indian Princess on your kid or don a feathered headdress and wear some brightly coloured beads around your neck. We still have Halloween coming and Glastonbury will be held again in 2021.


End notes

[1] He painted his picture first and then it was photomechanically reprinted in 1932 to disseminate the image as widely as possible.

For more information on the image chosen see, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA).


Mayflower 400

2020 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's pioneering voyage to America in 1620. The University is working in partnership to commemorate this historic voyage.

Find out more about Mayflower 400

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