Mitakuye Oyasin

The first celebration of Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims is an old story by now. It is enough to know that the newcomers to Turtle Island would not have survived if the Natives had not had mercy on them, sharing not only their food with them, but their skills in planting and harvesting the crops that would sustain them in the future.

Travel with me now through the next 150 years of colonization by the masses of white immigrants from Europe. The year is 1782. The Revolution is winding down. Hints of peace negotiations are in the breeze. But in the frontier territory of Ohio, the British are still supplying guns and powder, and even military support, to Native Americans who feel that an American victory will mean the loss of their land and their way of life.

Come with me to a small Moravian village in Ohio called Gnadenhutten, where, in March of 1792, 96 Delaware Indians are busy gleaning corn from their fields and gathering up meager stores of buried grains that will provide planting seeds for the next season.

These particular Delaware are Christians, converted to the faith by a Moravian missionary named David Zeisberger. Because of that, their own tribes have been angry with them, not because of their religious beliefs but because they have been suspected of spying against them and the British­­ passing vital information on to the Americans. (This suspicion had some truth to it because Zeisberger spied for the Americans and converts were pledged to neutrality in the war.)

These particular Delaware were also ravaged by hunger. They had been forced out of the area by their own people just before the onset of winter the year before. Hunger had plagued them through the winter. Their own tribes could not help them because they were busy campaigning against the whites of the upper Ohio. Three trips to the British in Detroit to plead for food were unsuccessful, but their leader did secure permission to return briefly to their homes in and around Gnadenhutten where they could gather enough food to survive.

Meanwhile, the month before, at Ft. Pitt, the commanding general had ordered Col. David Williamson and his troops into the region to punish the Delawares and Wyandots for their attacks against American settlers.

What group of Delaware Indians do you suppose Col. Williamson and his troops happened upon first? The peaceful little community of Christians gathering grain at Gnadenhutten thought nothing of seeing the Americans walk into their midst. They were peaceful Indians, after all. When Williamson asked them to give up their weapons as a show of good faith, they did so immediately.

Then their hands were tied behind their backs and they were placed in the two largest buildings in town, the mission and the missionary's house next to it. Men and boys were placed in one building, women and girls in the other. Then each of the 96, including 35 men, 27 women, and 34 children, were executed with a cooper's mallet to the head, and they were scalped. Following this, both buildings were burned with the bodies inside.

It is a sad commentary on a Revolution being fought because "all men are created equal" with rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It is a sad postscript to pictures we cherish of the first Thanksgiving Day where people, Indians and whites alike, shared together in caring for one another.

A century later, Gen. Phil Sheridan would be heard to say, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

And little more than a century later, racism, prejudice, and bigotry are still very much a part of the fabric of America. It may not be as bad as it was, but it's a far cry from where it could and should be.

And now, another Thanksgiving is upon us. May gratitude so fill us that there is no room for anything but love.

This article posted to Zephyr online November 20, 1997
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