Linguist at the Thanksgiving Table

by Translation Guy on November 25, 2009

For a hundred years, the great ships of the strangers coasted by. Sometimes they came in to trade, sometimes to rob and kill. They were the “metal men,” these Europeans, and the Indians along the coast of New England wanted their knives and axes, but feared the violence and disease they brought.

There was no common language. They relied on the most ancient of diplomatic arts to communicate–kidnapping. One of these hostage heralds (and he may have gone willingly) was Tisquantum of the Wampanog, whose village stood where the Pilgrims would one day settle. He lived for years in Spain and England, learned their languages and ways. They nicknamed him “Squanto and he became their guide to their new and his old world. When he eventually returned home, he found that his village was just a field of bones. All had died in a great plague brought by the Europeans, and he was the lone survivor. After a long exile, everything he had held dear was lost to him, irretrivably.

A year later, when the Pilgrims landed, they were surprised to meet this Indian who spoke English so well. More surprisingly, Squanto chose to live among these familiar strangers settled on the site of his old village.

Working under the auspices of a local potentate, Massasoit, he acted as agricultural and diet consultant, and as a part-time ambassador facilitating negotiations in the sword-and-buckler style of the age.

In the Thanksgiving pagent, Squanto selflessly lays mackeral fertilizer in the cornfield, but the people he worked with had a different impression.

Some accounts say that Squanto deliberately stirred up trouble between the colonists and the native Americans on various occasions, and it is probable that neither group entirely trusted this unfortunate man, caught between two nations neither of which were entirely his own.

I imagine Squanto, sitting by the fire with a bellyfull of turkey on the first Thanksgiving, watching the little Pilgrim children play in the majic hour, and thinking of his own family, a sad smile on his face, as these children spoke the same language with their parents as he once did. Wamponog or Kentish, happy families all speak the language of love… affirmation, attention, gifting, service and touch. This is Gary Chapman on the Five Love Languages, which is   sweet, and I am blessed with a happy smile in the face of these memories.

I hope it brings a smile to yours as well.  Happy Thanksgiving. Count your blessings!


  1. Jim Baker says:

    Great thanksgiving message Ken!

  2. Jim Baker says:

    I’ve never heard of Squanto before, maybe I’ll look into him on Wikipedia

  3. Jessie says:

    The info on this blog is truly valuable – love the story telling Ken!

  4. Northbird says:

    His real name was Tisquantum…

  5. On his way back from a meeting to repair damaged relations between the Wampanoag and Pilgrims, Tisquantum became sick with a fever. Historians speculate that he was poisoned by the Wampanoag because they believed he had been disloyal to the tribe. Looks like you get what you deserve in life…

  6. Michael Ross says:

    Thanks Ken, I told this story to my family over Thanksgiving dinner and it stirred quite the debate 😉

    • Ken says:

      Cultural interlocutors like Squanto stir strong passions. Are they sell-outs or survivalists? Enablers or accomadators? With three centuries of hindsight under our belt we understand what a dangerous game he was playing. But Squanto didn’t know. And he was without immediate kin, no one watching his back, must have been tough.

  7. babylees says:

    A little late to the occasion, but nice post!

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  9. Really interesting article. Really.

  10. If I had a dollar for each time I came to! Amazing post.

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