Now that November is here, I get to draw the Pilgrims. Starting in 2nd grade, the teacher would cover the back wall blackboard with butcher paper and then she would tell us the Lesson of the First Thanksgiving.
The way I remember her telling it goes something like this: The New England area of the United States was settled first by Indian tribes like the Algonquins, and then by Englishmen like the Pilgrims (also called Puritans), who were escaping persecution for their religious beliefs back in England. They were so unprepared for wilderness, they were going to starve completely to death. The local Indians felt sorry for them, and showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn, using fish bones for fertilizer. They also showed the newcomers that pumpkins were edible. The best part was the Pilgrim and Indian men and boys went hunting together. They used long rifles with bell shaped barrels to shoot deer and wild turkeys, Then, everybody got together for a big feast. Pilgrim kids learned some games from the Indian kids, something like shooting marbles.
The popular culture of my childhood was shot through with Cowboys and Indians, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Wyatt Earp. There was not a single kid in my class that didn't want to be at that First Thanksgiving Feast so we could learn some Indian games or learn what food was edible in the wilderness.
When the teacher announced we could draw on the butcher paper-covered blackboard our own illustrations of this holiday history, I was hooked. I started thinking of the group of Indian and Pilgrim men carrying in a deer slung on a long pole, other men with dead turkeys thrown over their shoulders. I planned the boys gathered near the men, shoving and pushing, acting like it was their own kill being brought to the camp. I pictured the women bending over long tables, setting out loaves of bread, Indian women sitting on the ground with their knees out, their ankles crossed (I was sure that is the only way they sat). I imagined the older girls keeping an eye on blankets where babies sat or lay, not too far from the food tables, using the women as a shield from the shoving, shouting boys.
The day came, finally. It seemed we had delayed for weeks. Everyone lined up at the back of the room, facing their own section of paper. I had maybe 16-18 inches to call my own. I drew the line along the bottom for the grass. I drew the sun at the top. I got in a table, a couple of women, a girl, some boys, a Pilgrim man, and Indian chief with full headress. I colored the costumes, colored the sky. I think I added a tree consisting of a vertical bar of brown topped by a large circle of green. It wasn't what I saw in my head, but each element was recognizable.
I stepped back then. We were told that any additional coloring would have to be done tomorrow. Now, I could see the entire scene, maybe 20 feet of mural. Some of the other kids didn't draw so skillfully yet, only managing stick figures and lollipop trees. Some of the kids had drawns creeks, rivers, even a cutaway view of the earth where the corn was being fertilized with dead fish in a hole. What was the most surprising part of the whole thing to me on that day was that everybody had drawn the sun! There must have been at least 18 or 20 suns trailing along the mural. It was such a shock and such a discomforting feeling to see all those suns!
Each year, when November rolls around, I begin to draw the Thanksgiving Story. Starting in 3rd grade, I've left out the sun in my drawing. This year, I started by making my own face into that of an old Pilgrim lady. Without ever reading up on the true history, and only relying on the teachings of my childhood, I know that Pilgrims are supposed to have tall black hats with buckles on them. They are also supposed to wear black clothes with big white collars. Their shoes are also black, and shiny, with big buckles on them. I wonder if the Pilgrims, in this strange land with nothing to eat, really did wear such a costume. Maybe they did, since they couldn't eat the buckles and collars. Maybe it was a comfort and a reminder of home.
The Lessons of the First Thanksgiving are: Be prepared, don't go into the wilderness if you can't identify edible plants. Be resourceful, make something you know work in new ways to solve new problems, like fertilizing the corn with fish bones. Be friendly, accept people who are different from yourself, learn their language and customs, and learn from their experience. Be thankful, even with 18-20 suns, we got to spend a couple of days doing nothing but drawing and coloring, and it was so good, I can still remember how proud we all were that we had made it.
images © diana ani stokely 2010
(click on portrait to enlarge)