Ingrained upon our collective consciousness is a mental image of the first Thanksgiving in 1621: a few dozen English pilgrims, having survived a difficult first year as settlers fleeing religious persecution, give thanks to God by sharing the fruits of their harvest with a local tribe of Native Americans.
The truth of the matter and its subsequent history are more complicated than that, and our reasons for gratitude today are far too numerous to mention. But if we examine that Norman Rockwell-ish image a bit alongside the historical record, we can arrive at a few basic takeaways for our reflection.
Native peoples saved the pilgrims. If it were not for the local Pokanokets, a subset of the Wampanoag tribe, the pilgrims would never have survived a second winter. Half of them died during their first year in the settlement. The native Squanto, or Tisquantum, who previously had been taken captive to England by an explorer but had returned, spoke fluent English and was able to teach the pilgrims how to plant corn and hunt beaver as well as show them where the best fishing holes were. The Pokanoket chief, Massasoit, was wary of the new arrivals because the Wampanoag had encountered disease and violence from settlers further up the coast already, but he decided to help the pilgrims as a matter of diplomacy.
Regrettably, disease, violence, and mistreatment of Native peoples continued as European settlers expanded across the American frontier. Effects and memories of these injustices remain to this day today.
The Knights of Columbus has been supportive of Native American and First Nations communities from the Order’s earliest days. As far back as 1903, just 21 years after Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Order, the K of C called upon the U.S. government to investigate the injustices done to Native Americans, and it continues to advocate for their rights. Knights also participate in direct outreach to native communities, most recently assisting with COVID-19 relief efforts, repairing churches on native lands, and building a national shrine in New Mexico dedicated to St. Kateri, the first Native American to be canonized.
“The mission of Father McGivney to unite all Catholics is one that is ongoing; it is one that is happening now in Native American communities,” said Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Nation who also currently serves as an assistant supreme secretary for the Knights of Columbus.
But the needs on the reservations are still great due to immense poverty.
“A lot of them don't have coats or enough food for their families, or even access to fresh water,” Mason said. “It's hard for people to imagine the difficult conditions that some of these tribes face.”
At Thanksgiving, then, we ought to be mindful of our nation’s checkered history with Native peoples and resolve to pray and work for justice on their behalf.
The pilgrims sought religious freedom. Fewer than half of those aboard the Mayflower were Puritan Separatists, who had fled England for Holland because they believed the Church of England, which itself had separated from the Catholic Church only in 1534, was still too “Catholic” in some of it beliefs and practices. Their wish to “purify” England from Catholicism had provoked persecution from the Anglicans. Although fewer than half the pilgrims were Puritans — they sort of ran the show and had taken to calling their fellow believers “saints” and the other adventurers on board “strangers.” Somehow, amid daunting challenges in a strange land, they found sufficient common ground to bond together in the shared cause of survival.
“The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of man,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1747). Even as we work and pray to draw everyone to the fullness of truth in the Catholic faith, we recognize each person’s right to seek truth and believe as he or she chooses. In other words, we grant to everyone the freedom of religion that the Separatists sought, that we as Catholics have struggled for, and that our Constitution guarantees.
The Knights of Columbus was formed in part to combat the anti-Catholic prejudice of late 1800s America and has always been an advocate for those who suffer religious repression around the world as well as well as in the United States itself.
At Thanksgiving, we rightly express gratitude for the religious liberties we enjoy in our nation, even as we battle to protect those liberties.
God will provide. Here is the fundamental reason why we should constantly offer thanks. God is the source of all good things; it is he who provides for our needs. “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above,” writes James (James 1:17). “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” says St. Paul (Phil 4:19).
So, this Thanksgiving, with the early pilgrims, may Americans of all national origins stand in solidarity with one another, respect and defend our religious freedoms, and above all give thanks to God for his blessings upon us and our nation.
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