Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving in Patuxet

Tomorrow, Americans will come together all over the country to feast and enjoy the company of family (to the extent that they do not wish to avoid them).  Many of them will say prayers and publicly express gratitude for the good things in their lives.  Many of the meals they share will be absolutely delicious, but some of them may disappoint.  Some people will overeat, and some will come away grateful that Thanksgiving only comes once a year.  Despite these shortcomings, I consider these gatherings to be a good thing.

However, these are not the only shortcomings to consider.  Because Thanksgiving, as it is practiced, is more than a time to gather and be with family.  It comes complete with a national origin myth, which is taught to every school child and invoked in decorations and other pageantry.  We are told of the brave Pilgrims who, bearing the twin beacons of Christianity and democracy, landed by chance on Plymouth Rock and established a colony.  They befriended the local Indians (remember Squanto?) who helped them survive the first winter; the Pilgrims set about bringing culture and civilization to the harsh landscape.  After that first year, all parties involved sat down for a glorious feast, thus beginning an unbroken tradition of thankfulness that we carry on today.

A lot of this is crap.

It's extremely easy to go through life in America and never see this kindergarten version of history seriously contradicted (by which I mean, contradicted by someone you take seriously).  But it's also fairly easy to find the truth of the matter if you are willing to look for it.  You could use the internet, or even read a few books.  To make sure I had all the important facts for this post, I turned today to an old favorite: James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this information and share it with the people of this country.

To begin with, it bears repeating that in historical terms, the Pilgrims were relatively unimportant.  Plymouth was hardly the first European colony, nor even in the top ten.  Jamestown was already up and running in Virginia, and the Spanish, French and Dutch had been planting colonies for a long time previously.  Europeans were already living on land that would later be part of the United States, in sites and communities that exist in continuity with the present day.  And of course, there were tens of millions of Native Americans living there already, many of them in permanent or seasonal settlements.  Plymouth itself was eventually absorbed into another colony.  So treating the establishment of Plymouth as our founding moment is bizarre at best, and actively biased in favor of religious Englishmen at worst.

Hardly anything the Pilgrims did was a historical "first;" not even the First Thanksgiving.  This is not a truly controversial assertion: harvest festivals are common in many countries around the world.  The timing and iconography of Thanksgiving makes it very plain that it is in essence a harvest festival, and the Pilgrims certainly held one in conjunction with the Native Americans.  But when Abraham Lincoln first established Thanksgiving as an annual federal holiday, he made no mention of the Pilgrims: declaring days of "thanksgiving" on an ad hoc basis had a long history  that preceded the Pilgrims.  According to Loewen's book, the Plymouth Rock story wasn't a part of the national holiday lore until the 1890s.

Thanksgiving is often touted as a celebration of a time when the Natives and the Pilgrims came together in harmony, the implication being that this harmony has defined our nation in some essential way.  It hasn't, of course: the Native Americans have been systematically killed and displaced from every corner of this country they originally inhabited.  The Pilgrims were gentler than most, but they represented the same general pattern: the encroachment of Europeans on land that was already populated, while treating it as though it were empty.

In fact, the biggest single piece of assistance the natives of New England gave to the Pilgrims was dying in droves of small pox.  Across the continent, European diseases had wiped out more than 90% of the indigenous population, a decline from more than ten million people.  The earliest European explorers wrote about industrious villages and even cities throughout North America.  These were drastically depopulated by the plague, and when the Pilgrims came to Cape Cod, they built their colony literally (quite literally) on the abandoned ruins of Squanto's hometown.  That town had an advantageous position on the harbor, which the natives had taken full advantage of for fishing.  There were permanent buildings and fields where corn was grown.  The name of this town was Patuxet, until the Pilgrims renamed it "New Plimoth."  Had the people of Patuxet not been decimated in a plague, they might not have been so accommodating to the newcomers.

Patuxet is not unique: the Americas are full of European settlements on the sites of indigenous towns and cities, not all of which were depopulated when Europeans "discovered" them.  But the Indians of the Thanksgiving mythos can hardly be said to have towns: they have been characterized as nomads who lived primitive, uncivilized, unproductive lives.  This is not true.  They were farmers, and fishermen, and craftsmen.  They lived differently from Europeans, but they were civilized.  Nevertheless, the descendents of those Europeans, who seldom bathed and looted the graves of natives for valuables, have painted them for posterity as savages who should be grateful for the arrival of "modernity" on their shores.

Let's bring this back to Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated today.  The holiday is a treasured part of life for many of us.  Tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to grow closer to my girlfriend and her family, an opportunity for which I truly am grateful.  I will eat the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the gravy; God willing, it will be absolutely delicious.

But for the sake of truth and justice, can we knock it off with the Pilgrim/Indian iconography?  Can we stop treating the history of our country as if it revolves around a positive relationship between two peoples that never really existed?  Can we give indigenous people a break by not treating them as characters in a diorama, but rather as dignified humans with legitimate historical grievances? 

Can we stop treating the early history of the American colonies like a forgotten passage of the Bible?  I don't know if we can.  Americans (particularly white ones) view history as an opportunity to justify our past as an ascendant path toward exceptional greatness.  They see the hand of God in this, and they always have: most Europeans in the 17th century believed that the plagues which killed the native people of America were an explicit invitation from God to move in.  Nowadays we've forgotten even that, and we imagine that this continent was gifted to us in a pristine, mostly empty state.  It wasn't: it was opportunistically seized.

We'd do best to forget everything we think we know about "the First Thanksgiving" and learn to respect the experience of Native Americans.  Do a little research and learn about the real history of this country, whether it's in books like Loewen's or on (reputable) sites around the internet.  Some of it you will like, and some of it you won't, but in either case you'll learn infinitely more than what schools have seen fit to teach you.

There's no reason to go on with the pageants and the the buckles and the feathered headdresses.   They do nothing for school children except to turn them into close-minded adults.  They do nothing for adults except to keep their minds closed. 

Thanksgiving doesn't have to be about identifying our multicultural nation with an insular band of religious separatists and their quest to populate a "new world."  Neither does it have to be about removing embarrassing realities from our history.  It can and should be about humility and gratitude.  That's the spirit with which I intend to treat it tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful essay, David, in regard to both content and composition. I only wish I had written it. Jamestown, although settled in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, ceased to exist as a settlement after the capital of the Colony of Virginia was relocated to what is now Williamsburg. It exists today only as an archaeological site, not exactly what a State looks for in establishing its mythology. Romulus and Remus figure in Rome's foundation myth because they survived their tribulations. Had the she-wolf who nursed them instead turned them into a quick lunch the traditional narratives handed down as historical (despite the miraculous elements) would surely have been cast otherwise. Then too, Plymouth always held the advantage in that massive rock which was easy to turn into a metaphor of a great nation's beginning despite the fact the first written reference to the Pilgrims landing on a rock occurs 121 years after they landed. And so by 1859 we have Alexis de Tocqueville stating, "This Rock has become an object of veneration in the United States. I have seen bits of it carefully preserved in several towns in the Union. . . Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic." Now that's something you can actually base a mythology on and have the people swallow the lie. Jamestown only ever had going for it all those magnificent ancient towering trees, many of which thankfully still stand today, but in the 1800s when this nation was being built there were still trees everywhere throughout the land and the imperative was not to venerate them but to cut them down. [genqueue; written 2/3/13]