It's time to recognize island's true history

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As most of us know, Thanksgiving began in New England at an autumn harvest festival attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe. Descendants of those Pilgrims likely are proud to trace their roots back to that very feast, while later European settlers in the New World joined in. Ultimately the new United States of America, under its 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, declared it a national holiday.

Ironically, descendants of the Wampanoag and other Native Americans mark this occasion quite differently. Since 1970, they and other Native Americans have gathered around a plaque on Cole's Hill, an historic landmark, to commemorate not Thanksgiving, but a National Day of Mourning. While the Pilgrims and other settlers in the New World thrived, the Native Americans barely survived. How can this be?

One would think that, with our access to information and resources, along with our compassion for others and our intelligence, this sort of thing doesn't happen anymore. But it does.

Do all Islanders celebrate our island, this jewel of the Atlantic seaboard, in the same way? Perhaps not. We, like those New Englanders, live in a place enriched by the history and culture of those who arrived long ago, the Gullah-Geechee. For nearly 100 years before others came to live, their culture prevailed here, and their hands and lands produced all they needed.

The passage of time and the progress of development has not been kind to them. But now, because of the persistent voices of these Native Islanders, and with the support of our Town Council, their heritage - the heritage of Hilton Head Island - is on the path to preservation. The challenge is monumental, but it is possible and most certainly worthy.

These efforts are led by the Gullah-Geechee Land and Cultural Preservation Task Force created by Town Council June 20. On July 17, this team first met and began formulating its Mission Statement and Statement of Work for approval by the Planning Commission (under which they operate) and the Town Council.

Before too long, on Aug. 7, this nine-member task force boarded a bus, determined to discover the hidden places and hampered people of Hilton Head Island. They traveled Ward 1, observing history, conditions, trends and impacts. And then they returned to the table, anxious to take the lead in formulating solutions and delivering actual results for the benefit of all Islanders.

This, so that generations to come will experience the beautiful culture of the Gullah-Geechee - not from a history book, but from the people themselves.

Remarkably, the recommendations first put forth decades ago in what is known as the R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistant Team) study continue to provide direction in the form of comprehensive and achievable actions that make sense. Some of them are reflected in the significant Statement of Work established by the task force. Gratefully, other measures are underway. Water is no longer an issue. Sewer is being installed. Roads will be paved.

Other accomplishments will require multi-party efforts - strenuous ones. Titles must be cleared. Tax situations require relief based on real values, not formulas. Education is of paramount importance. Resources need identification. Funding, strategic partnerships, and maximizing the impact of Native Island historical and cultural assets are vital in order to realize the future that's possible for the Gullah-Geechee and by extension, to all Islanders.

Won't you join me in these extraordinary efforts? Let's bring the hidden and hampered into a future as they are heard and heralded! Then, as one island, we may together be thankful in this Thanksgiving season.

David Bennett is the mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island. DavidB@hiltonhead islandsc.gov

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