Despite it still feeling like March was just a few weeks ago, we’ve finally made it to November 2020, and you all know what that means. That’s right, it’s time to gather (socially distant) around with friends and family to celebrate one of the most divisive and misunderstood holidays in American history.
I’m sure that we all remember the story about the intrepid Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast together in friendship. It’s such a lovely story, it’s a shame that it’s not true and that in reality the Wampanoag (the indigenous nation who met the Pilgrims at Plimoth Settlement) were subjected to subhuman treatment in the years following the generally accepted time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. No mention is ever made of the hundreds of Pequot who were murdered or sold into slavery during the Pequot War (1636-38), many on the order of Captain John Underhill, grandfather of prominent Yorktown historical figure Edward B. Underhill, whose home sits on the corner of Route 118 and Underhill Avenue (formerly Soundview Prep) and is currently in danger of being dismantled by developers. Nor is there mention of the thousands of Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Mohegan, and more, who were killed during King Philip’s War (1675-78). Those paltry facts never seem to breach our perfectly revised version of history.
The native community on whose lands our homes are built, where we work, and where our children go to school, was called the Kitchewank. This, and every Thanksgiving, the native blood and heritage that soaks the hills and valleys of Yorktown should be well remembered. Long before Europeans first set foot in the Americas, a vibrant native civilization lived on the shores of the Hudson River. The Kitchewank were a part of the Wappingers Confederacy, a loose organization of approximately twenty Algonquin speaking polities who lived on the eastern bank of the Hudson from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan. Native researchers, anthropologists, and archaeologists believe that around 1300 CE, the Wappingers nations, while closely related to the Mohican from further north, were their own distinct people, separate from the Mohican and Munsee, descended from groups of the Canarsie people of what is now Brooklyn who moved further north to the Hudson Valley. It is also believed that the Canarsie, who operated a trading network that extended throughout the Mississippi Valley, to Lake Superior and as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, had cultural ties to the Taino people who fled Hispaniola in the wake of Spanish conquest and genocide at the hands of Christopher Columbus.
When Henry Hudson made his famous voyages up the Hudson River on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (1609-11) the world began to change drastically for the native communities living in the Hudson Valley. We know from historical accounts of Hudson’s journey, as well as those from colonial settlers and the archaeological record, that the Kitchewanks controlled a large portion of Northern Westchester. It is estimated that their territory comprised all the land from the Hudson River well into Connecticut between the Croton River and the present-day border of Putnam County. One of their primary villages, called Senasqua, was at Croton Point, with many others now resting beneath our cities, towns, and villages. In fact, archaeological investigations of Kitchewank sites that remain have yielded evidence of thousands of years of human occupation. Refuse pits comprised of discarded shells from food consumption known as shell middens have been dated to almost 11,000 years BP, some of the oldest shell middens recorded on the east coast. Historical records and oral traditions lead researchers to believe that there were at least four villages within the bounds of Yorktown, most of which have been lost to the remorseless march of suburban development. The most important of the villages in Yorktown is on the insensitively named Indian Hill on the border of Jefferson Valley and Putnam Valley. While little research has been done into this village, colonial accounts claim that it was the last occupied native settlement in Westchester County, being occupied until 1830-40 when members of the Wappingers Confederacy followed the Sachem John Wannuaucon Quinney of the Stockbridge-Munsee Nation to their newly purchased reservation lands in Wisconsin.
Throughout the early years of colonization, the Kitchewank people, probably knowing nothing of the “feast of friendship” in Plymouth, were active participants in the events that would shape colonial/native relations for generations to come. In 1640, the Director-General of the New Netherland colony Willem Kieft began a brutal, genocidal war against the Wappingers of Westchester County which would last five years. It was during this war that one of, if not the greatest massacre to stain the northeastern United States took place. Commanded by Captain John Underhill, 80 men descended on the village of Nanichkestawac in 1643, and murdered 500-700 Wappingers, Kitchewank, and others, including a sachem named Katonah for whom the colonial town that sprung up in the area of the massacre would be named. In April of 1644, the hostilities between the Dutch and the Wappingers lessened when representatives of the Wappingers nations, including the Kitchewank, met at Stamford to sign a treaty of peace. The violence of Kieft’s War would cause many more settlers to flock to New Amsterdam in the years following the treaty out of fear that the native people would attack again. In 1647, Kieft would die in a shipwreck on his journey back to the Netherlands to answer for his reprehensible personal war. The Wappingers people fought hard against those who would wipe them out. Later that year the British would claim the New Amsterdam colony from the Dutch and in 1690s, with their populations severely diminished, much of the Kitchewank nation’s territory would be “purchased” by Stephanus Van Cortlandt from various area sachems and included in his manor.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is held as a day of mourning, remembering the beginning of European colonialism and the generations of oppression, abuse, and genocide that followed. These events are only a small fraction of the native histories that surround the years in which the “first Thanksgiving” happened. It must be made clear though, that in the decades and centuries since these events, the people of the Wappingers nations, including the Kitchewank, endured. Many fled the onslaught of settler colonialism and joined other nations like the Mohicans, Mohawk, Ramapo, and Stockbridge-Munsee. To this day, their descendants continue to survive and resist the destruction of their lands, people, and cultures. The Red Power Movement and the American Indian Movement of the 1960s-70s sought to change policies of hate and ethnic cleansing enacted by state and federal agencies, and fight against rampant corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many of the ideals and resistance techniques that AIM employed were initially made popular by the Black Panther Party. This made them a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO tactics like the Black Panthers before them. Today, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, native people have joined their voices once again to the cries for justice against institutional racism in the form of the Native Lives Matter movement. The native fight against injustice is older than the United States itself and Thanksgiving, every Thanksgiving, we should always remember that no matter where you live in this country: You are on Indigenous Land.
For more information on Native Lives Matter you can visit them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nativelivesmatter1 or read the Native Lives Matter Report form the Lakota People’s Law Project here: https://lakotalaw.org/resources/native-lives-matter
For additional information on the native groups of New York, Evan T. Pritchard’s book Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York can be purchased by sending a check made out to Evan Pritchard for $28.80 to PO Box 259, Rosendale NY 12472
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- 2018. What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans? Native Hope. https://blog.nativehope.org/what-does-thanksgiving-mean-to-native-americans.
- Blansett, Kent. 2018. Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement. New Haven, CT: YALE University Press.
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- Matthiessen, Peter. 1992. In The Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian Movement. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.