Discover the Basque Country

Basques & the First Thanksgiving

Getaria2_edited-1Did you know the first person to circumnavigate the globe was from the Basque Country?  His name was Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Basque explorer who completed the first circumnavigation after his captain Magellan died in the Philippines.

Elcano was born here beside the sea in the beautiful town we call home, Getaria.  Tomorrow we will gather together to prepare a “Thanksgiving” meal with our Basque friends.

Did you know that a Basque explorer/conquistador kicked off Thanksgiving?  Well, that might not be the way to say it, as my friend Caris Adel points out, “thanksgiving” was something very natural and an ongoing frequent event for the Native American people.

In 1598, in what is today El Paso, Texas, the Basque explorer-conquistador Juan de Oñate held a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate his expedition’s survival through 50 days in the desert on their way north to colonize New Mexico.  The company had almost died of thirst before they came upon the Rio Grande and the Native Americans of the area offered them fish to eat.  Oñate, son of Christóbal de Oñate from the Basque province of Bizkaia, led the celebration with a feast, the priests said mass, and Oñate claimed all the land of the river for the King of Spain.

As a happy naturalized USA-Australian citizen, having had native aboriginal friends at university, I have always been slightly confused why Thanksgiving in mainstream USA does not include or take steps towards understanding the Native American perspective.  I’m learning about this more and more, and this year our three-year-old joined me on the journey.

I sat down with her and we talked about the stories of when people came to her motherland, the first time she has heard this story.  Her question was, “Daddy, um but… if the people had asked the Native Americans (if they could move into their land), what would they say?”

Great question. I grew up near where Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia and his men fired upon the aboriginal people who had thrown a spear on the beach as a warning: this is our land.  Somehow the message was missed and the newcomers christened the land “Tierra Nullius”—land belonging to no one.

My wife and I are busy preparing food to host our Basque friends (natives of this land) for a (hopefully!) delicious lunch on Thursday. I love the food, family & being together of Thanksgiving.  I love that it is an intentional time to be thankful, together.  Yet let’s remember it is also a time to learn from the Native American people from their perspective.

Have you seen this movie?  American Experience’s “WE SHALL REMAIN”, a mini-series that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history.

Related Articles:

By  author & activist Nicole Breedlove who’s descendant was a part of a band of Black Indians in Florida (hence her unique, Native American last name)

By my friend Caris Adel who has a great series, “The Myth of the First Thanksgiving – Resources”

My article about Basque explorer Cristóbal who sailed to “New Spain” (Mexico), and his son Juan de Oñate who followed in his heavily-armoured steps and travelled on horseback with Spanish soldiers and a few priests north to the Rocky Mountains.


Words & Photos by Jonathan McCallum

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