Monday, May 17, 2010

Collect Dead Indians!

This is from a series of trading cards included with packs of chewing gum back in the 1930s. This series featured notable native Americans: featured here is a "portrait" of King Phillip, the Alonquian chief named Metacom whose claim to memory is King Phillip's War, the bloody late 17th-century conflict that marked the general destruction of independent Indian nations side-by-side with the Puritan/European settlements in southern New England. The reverse of this card reads "Metacomet was the Indian name of this fearless chief of the Wampanoags who inhabited the southeastern part of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He was the son of Massasoit and was at first a friend of the white colonists. Later, fearing the whites would destroy his people, started the terrible King Phillip war and massacred many colonists."

It's a completely fanciful illustration; and the brief history is the perfect distillation of the conqueror's point of view: the noble savage was first our friend but then betrayed us. What the card omits is that the defeated Algonquins were largely rounded up, enslaved, and shipped to the Caribbean to be sold as so much chattel. Metacom's severed head was put on display in Plymouth. Pilgrim's progress indeed.

For an extraordinary read on King Phillip's War, including a remarkable exposition on "how brutality is justified and how war is remembered," I strongly recommend Jill Lepore's 1998 work "The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Orgins of American Identity."

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