Thursday, November 25, 2010
Dear Indians, Sorry 'bout That!
Every American child knows the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. Having fled Europe in a quest for religious freedom, thanks to the friendly Indian Squanto and his tribe, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in their new home back in 1620. Squanto already spoke English! It's kind of like in the Bible how Adam and Eve are supposed to be the first people created by God and then all of a sudden other unexplained people start popping up. A wise person might question the general narrative. Well you soon learn that Squanto learned English from...being captured and enslaved by previous English "visitors." So yes, the earliest interactions of the English and the native population of what they called New England was not the sharing of food and farming techniques, but the random enslavement of the locals. What kind of people come to a new land, rip people away from their families, and turn them into forced-labor slaves?
Here's the thing. The land of New England was not empty wilderness. It already had residents; it didn't need new ones. Tribes like the Wampanoag and Pequot lived across the region, farming and hunting. Not gathering berries in the forest, growing crops. Growing crops, agriculture, implies something quite different about native American society and civilization than the simple-minded Thanksgiving myth suggests.
I recommend an article on a leftist blog "Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle" that details the relationship of the Pilgrims and other English colonialists in early New England. It's called Native Blood: The Myth of Thanksgiving. It recounts the Pequot War in the mid/late 1630s in which the English settlers exterminated the Pequot tribe from Connecticut. It quotes William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, on the destruction of the Pequot town Misistuck (Mystic): “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.” Wikipedia quotes participant in that massacre John Mason, "Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling [Mystic] with dead Bodies." The Pequots captured by the English were, yes, sold into slavery and shipped to Bermuda.
So in fifteen years the English settlers went from accepting the food aid and survival help of the Indians to repaying this debt by committing genocide against them. The Indians were in the way of the English; the new world was empty wilderness only because the Indians were not considered real people; they were ungodly heathens, little better than wild animals.
It's nice to gather with friends and family and give thanks for the blessings and bounties of life. A traditional or not-so-traditional Thanksgiving meal is a great way to connect with the memory of one's ancestors and mark the rhythms of the turning of the seasons. And hey it's a day off work! But along with the thanks offered up to God, to each other, to life, maybe we should be offering up apologies as well.