We should always give credit where credit is due. I’m thinking of the Native Americans in this season of Plymouth Rock, Captain Miles Standish and John Alden, who both wanted to marry Priscilla Mullins, the only marriageable woman left after all the others died of disease and sheer heartbreak on the pestilential tub called the Mayflower. Priscilla must have been pretty tough. Tisquantum was there, the kidnapped and returned Patuxet Indian better known as Squanto. He had learned English during his sojourn in Europe and was able to translate for the Pilgrims and negotiate with hostile tribes, which saved the Plymouth colony from annihilation. Indians helped Europeans in the New World. This relationship is part of Thanksgiving lore, a gift from American mythology. We think of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown, Leatherstocking and the Mohican, Chingachgook, Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, and the cowboy version–the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Native Americans helped white people in this land, which for Europeans was often strange and savage. Of course, it never seemed to work the other way. We give thanks for Indians like Squanto, who introduced us to the turkey which the Pilgrims ate at the banquet in 1621, when they celebrated the anniversary of their arrival. Except they ate venison, not turkey, but turkeys are part of the myth. Besides, they are so much more fun for kids to draw, along with men carrying blunderbusses and wearing hats with buckles.
We honor the New England Thanksgiving, but there was an earlier one, on the banks of the Big River, el Rio Grande, when the Spanish mining magnate, Juan de Onate, brought 500 settlers north from Santa Barbara in the the present state of Chihuahua, in 1598. This is important to know because American history is incomplete without the Spanish contribution. Knowledge of Spaniards, Indians and Mexicans is crucial if we are to understand our present situation. Onate’s aim was to colonize northern New Mexico, which meant that the Pueblo Indians had to bear the brunt of European exploitation. This was true whenever Europeans encountered native peoples. But the Spanish were different from the English. Spain did not drive out the Indians to make room for white settlement, unlike the English. Spain sent mainly soldiers and priests to the New World, unlike the English who sent entire families. This meant that Spanish men often married Indian women. Onate was married to the granddaughter of the Aztec emperor, Moctecohzuma, and the settlers he led had already begun el mestizaje, the mixture of Spanish and Indian blood and culture, which characterizes Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.
The settlers crossed 600 miles of waterless desert, a journey every bit as hazardous as the Atlantic crossing. They finally reached el Rio Grande in what is now El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. So grateful were the people to find water that they had a real thanksgiving, the same as the Pilgrims more than twenty-years later. They prepared a feast of fish from the river, and staged pageants, among them the reenactment of los moros y cristianos, the battles between Moors and Christians, celebrated to mark the reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Moorish king Boabdil in 1492. The Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabela, drove out the best part of their industrious population, the Muslims, and also many Jews.
The Spaniards, in spite of extensive intermarriage with Native Americans, transferred their rage against Muslims to the Indians The following year, 1599, Onate sent his nephew, Juan de Zaldivar, to Acoma Pueblo, to demand provisions from the people there. The Indians attacked the soldiers, which prompted Onate to retaliate. He punished the Acoma people by cutting off the right feet of the men and selling many of the children into slavery. The Acomas have never forgotten this but Spanish justice caught up with Onate. He was tried for his crimes and banished from New Spain. I cannot think of similar punishment for English crimes. Regardless, we can learn from this and truly give thanks for the Indians who made European settlement possible.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.