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Exploring the economics of the first Thanksgiving

November 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., probably didn't resemble the modern holiday we celebrate today. Economics correspondent Paul Solman steps back in time to explore the contrasting exchange models used by Native Americans and pilgrims in 1621 and how that alters the meaning behind the first act of giving thanks.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: We look back now at a time when organic food was the only option.

Paul Solman explores the different economic attitudes held by Native Americans and the first Pilgrims.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news or, in this case, history.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thanksgiving time at the Wampanoag Homesite, a 17th century living history exhibit at Plimoth Plantation. But what’s cooking came as a surprise.

WOMAN: Its called iompweawasapwigik. It’s a venison stew.

Would you like to try?

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PAUL SOLMAN: Well, sure.

But I was going to ask you about turkey.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: No feathered friends sacrificed for the traditional dish, Mashpee Wampanoag Kerri Helme was sharing, however.

That’s venison?

WOMAN: It is. And you would probably see more of this, you know, at the first Thanksgiving than turkey.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, while the 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is sparsely documented, it probably didn’t much resemble today’s Thanksgiving in a lot of ways, including what you might call its economics.

The Pilgrims, who had already moved toward a cash exchange economy in Europe, encountered native people with very different attitudes — toward real estate, for instance.

TIM TURNER, Plimoth Plantation: The land that was here was for everybody to use. We didn’t believe in possessing or owning land.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tim Turner manages the Wampanoag indigenous program at Plimoth.

TIM TURNER: You might see somebody use a piece of land, but there was never a fence. You were crossing people’s property all the time. People were cutting through your homesite all the time.

So, our concept of land ownership vs. the concept that the English had was totally different.

PAUL SOLMAN: Also totally different, it appears, the Wampanoag, though they did trade with each other, debate seem to have been profit maximizers.

TIM TURNER: You weren’t trying to make a profit or look better than anybody else. If you took more than everybody else, people in the community wouldn’t have liked that.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the 17th century English community, however, colonists were moving toward economic growth, through trade with the natives for land, for example.

With plantation deputy director Richard Pickering as our guide…

RICHARD PICKERING, Plimoth Plantation: I want you to meet two of the residents who were here for the harvest feast in 1621.

PAUL SOLMAN: … we stepped back in time to get the colonist perspective from so-called interpreters playing Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins.

MAN: How do you do?

PAUL SOLMAN: A merchant who explained his motive is to earn as much as he can from trade.

MAN: We are a trading company.

PAUL SOLMAN: Including trade with the natives.

MAN: There’s fellows who come in here, and they’re wanting, oh, I don’t know, a little three-penny knife like that or something, for which they’re willing to trade a pelt that might fetch 14, 15, 16 shillings back in London.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you feel that you are taking advantage of the people you trade with if you give them less than you could?

MAN: The furs they’re giving to us, they already got them on their backs. They wear them like clothes, so it’s not as worth to them, but, to us, it’s how we make our money.

PAUL SOLMAN: You could say there were two contrasting economic models at work: the settlers trading to profit, and thereby pay back their investors, and hopefully reinvest to grow the Plymouth economy, but to the native people, the exchange of goods was more akin to gift-giving, says writer Lewis Hyde.

LEWIS HYDE, “The Gift”: In the European sense, something that’s given to me becomes mine, and it’s as if it’s contained in my ego. I have complete control over it. In the gift exchange sense, it’s not yours. You are the steward of something which is just passing through you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thirty years ago, in a book that’s become something of a classic, “The Gift,” Hyde began with the origin of a pejorative he’d learned as a kid: Indian giver.

LEWIS HYDE: It meant that you have given a gift to somebody and then you wanted to get it back. So you’re not really generous. But it seemed to me that this was probably not the original meaning of the word.

So I found the first use of it, which turns out to be in Thomas Hutchinson’s book about the early colonies in the United States. So actually what’s being described is gifts which are given have to be returned in some way.

RICHARD PICKERING: So the first winter in Plymouth was horrific. Half of the company dies in two-and-a-half months.

PAUL SOLMAN: The remaining 53 celebrated a good harvest with a feast. They were joined by Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his men. Elizabeth Hopkins, wife of merchant Stephen, remembered that the Wampanoag offered gifts.

WOMAN: When they arrived, their king, Massasoit, sent several of his men out, and they came back with five deer, which they presented to some of the chief men in the town. And this was a marvel to me, for, if you look at them, you think they are wild men who live in the woods, and yet you could find good order amongst them, for they honored their king, but they also honored the chief men of our town as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: To Lewis Hyde, this was the gift economy at work, much as it functions in all cultures, at least some of the time. We give a bottle of wine when we come to dinner, for example, not a cash equivalent.

LEWIS HYDE: The key difference between gift exchange and commercial exchange is the gift exchange sets up a connection. Particularly if I feel grateful for the gift you have given me, I may want to do something in return. And this begins to set up a relationship between you and me.

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s been said that the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to their feast as thanks for helping them survive their first year.

Richard Pickering isn’t so sure.

RICHARD PICKERING: Whether the original participants saw it that way is not clear, that for them, all that we know is Governor Bradford set aside days for the special manner of rejoicing.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, regardless, the very idea that two cultures rejoiced together matters today, says Lewis Hyde, because the downside of a gift economy is its dividing line between those in the group and those outside it.

LEWIS HYDE: One critique of gift exchange is that it excludes some people.

What’s of interest in the first Thanksgiving is that it breaks this boundary. So it’s not just Pilgrims giving thanks to God in their community. It’s two communities coming together. One thing to think about in any Thanksgiving celebration is, have you invited the stranger into your circle, and could you do that?

PAUL SOLMAN: Thanksgiving in the very broadest sense, that is, of gifts creating community.