🦃 Thanksgiving’s origin is a technology story
It’s been 400 years since the first feast
🌽 Reconsidering Thanksgiving and appropriately valuing Native Tech
🦪 Our interview with Native technologist Amelia Winger-Bearskin
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, a national holiday that is also a Day of Mourning for many Native people in North America.
Before the Pilgrims arrived, the Wampanoag people lived in 69 villages throughout New England — they called it Patuxet — with a history going back 10,000 years. But with the Mayflower came three years of a colonization-fueled pandemic called “the Great Dying,” which killed about two-thirds of the Wampanoag. By the time of the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth were also in bad shape. They were utterly unprepared to provide for themselves — nearly half died during the first winter. According to Dana Hedgpeth in The Washington Post, the Pilgrims were able to survive, and ultimately thrive, because Natives shared their agricultural technology:
By the fall, the Pilgrims — thanks in large part to the Wampanoags teaching them how to plant beans and squash in a mound with maize around it and use fish remains as fertilizer — had their first harvest of crops. To celebrate its first success as a colony, the Pilgrims had a “harvest feast” that became the basis for what’s now called Thanksgiving.
The Wampanoags weren’t invited.
Unfortunately, North Americans continue to misinterpret the lessons of Thanksgiving. For the Wampanoags, Thanksgiving was never anything to celebrate. The article quotes Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag cultural outreach coordinator: “For us, Thanksgiving kicked off colonization,” he said. “Our lives changed dramatically. It brought disease, servitude and so many things that weren’t good for Wampanoags and other Indigenous cultures.”
For us, this day is also a reminder that Native technology has been undervalued since the arrival of white colonizers. Non-native people need to challenge our own perceptions about what counts as “technology.” That’s why it’s important to read authors like Robin Wall Kimmerer, who properly contextualize Native agricultural contributions. And at New_ Public, we often refer to the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who challenges us to broaden and refine our understanding of technology. “The word is consistently misused to mean only the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades,” she wrote in 2004, “supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources. This is not an acceptable use of the word.”
At New_ Public, we enjoy Thanksgiving for what it has come to represent for us: gratitude, reflection, family, friends, and sharing a meal we make for each other. We appreciate the annual celebration of these values, and we also aspire to incorporate more knowledge of Native history, culture, and technology into not just Thanksgiving, but our lives year-round.
Let’s go a bit deeper: Below we excerpt our final piece from the first issue of New_ Public Magazine, Co-director Eli Pariser’s interview with Amelia Winger-Bearskin, who is a scholar, artist, hacker, and a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. We also have some bonus content below, curated by Amelia.
Decentralized storytelling, from Native tradition to the metaverse
An interview with Amelia Winger-Bearskin, on turning ideas into rhizomes for future generations
Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Eli Pariser
Eli Pariser: So let’s start with the basics: What is decentralized storytelling?
Amelia Winger-Bearskin: I grew up as a young hacker in the 90s, a 12-year-old girl with other 12-year-old girls who were hacktivists. So the dreams of decentralized storytelling, for me, started in those early days when I was first learning about the internet—when I'd go to school, and only one or two people at my whole school were online. And we would have these other lives, not just with our local friends but with people all over the world, some of whom we knew nothing about except their username.
But I’m Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, Deer Clan, which is a member of the six-nation Haudenosaunee—other people know us as the Iroquois. And we have a storytelling tradition that I believe is also decentralized storytelling.
My mom is a traditional storyteller from our tribe. Being a storyteller for the Seneca-Cayuga Nation is something that is a cross between being a historian, being a performer, being a creative writer, and being a leader within the culture.
So you need to be given the stories from elders and have the reputation to be able to receive them. But the understanding is that you're not going to just tell the story the exact same way that the elder who gave it to you would. You're supposed to add your own creativity, you're supposed to add your own perspective, and you're supposed to make it relevant to the generation that you're telling it to. You're an interpreter, but you're also a repository of information.
The way we tell our stories, key aspects of the stories are embedded within the landscape: “this is a story of Bear Mountain,” or embedded in handicrafts, like “this is the story of the cornhusk doll,” or the stories are actually told through song or through design or through imagery within basket weaving or raised beadwork.
Telling stories across multiple media is a strategy to make sure that your ideas become like a rhizome—they become sticky, and accessible to many generations. You have to make sure you can distill your information into a clear abstraction, and then embed it in as many ways as you can. So, if you're a young child, and you only have a short amount of time with a storyteller, who may only pass through your village for a short period of time, and that storyteller tells you the story of a mountain that you see every day as you as you walk along and have adventures with your friends, that story will remain in your memory better. And that story may have scientific information around planting, around seasons, might have information around the stars—the scientific advances and discoveries that people generations before you have made.
More from Amelia
🟢 Listen to an episode from Amelia’s Wampum Codes podcast, where Amelia interviews Native and indigenous people “who make cool things with new technologies.”
🔴 In this post for Mozilla, Amelia unspools the concept of “ethical dependencies in software development.” She explains how she “inscribes community values and developer accountability into code” and enforces the dependences “through consensus building and co-creation.”
🟤 Above is a short speech about “Antecedent Technology.” Amelia talks about wampum and its role as a physical, distributed ledger for Native communities. “I want people to know that Indigenous people had technologies that solved complex problems,” she says.
🟣 Here’s Amelia’s piece for Immerse, where she explores the links between decentralized storytelling and online gaming environments like Minecraft and Eve Online. She also retells the story of the cornhusk doll and contextualizes it as a technological innovation.
On November 30, join Toronto-based not-for-profit The Bentway, foresight studio From Later, and the Digital and/as Public Space initiative, as they launch their Field Guide to Digital and/as Public Space: “The Field Guide to Digital and/as Public Space is a living document, designed to be rearranged, remixed, and expanded. It provides cues for situating oneself among the possibilities and affordances of digital techniques, so that we can sense the potential of what could be, not chart what already is.” Register for free here, and download the PDF here.
Making this Cambodian-inspired herbed bread crumb topping,
Design by Josh Kramer. Public domain images of wampum and wampum-making tools are from the National Museum of the American Indian.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.