Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book Excerpt: The Real Thanksgiving Story

That old Pilgrims' tale may have been an early example of fake news.
The authors of a book on myths about Native Americans think that the scene, depicted in this painting of the first Thanksgiving by J.L.M. Ferris, doesn't tell the real story. (Image via Getty)
“Thanksgiving Proves the Indians Welcomed the Pilgrims”
Second only to the Columbus discovery story, the Thanksgiving tale is the United States’ quintessential origin narrative. Like the Columbus myth, the story of Thanksgiving has morphed into an easily digestible narrative that, despite its actual underlying truths, is designed to reinforce a sense of collective patriotic pride. The truths are, however, quite well documented. Their concealment within a simplistic story inevitably depicts a convoluted reality about the Indigenous peoples who played crucial roles in both events, and it presents an exaggerated valorization about the settlers’ roles. The result is a collective amnesia that fuels the perpetuation of Native-American stereotypes, playing out over and over again in the classrooms and textbooks of American schoolchildren, generation after generation. This only masks the complexities of the relationships between settlers and Indians, and thus the founding of the United States.
The Thanksgiving story as we know it is a story of unconditional welcome by the indigenous peoples, a feel-good narrative that rationalizes and justifies the uninvited settlement of a foreign people by painting a picture of an organic friendship. A more accurate telling of the story, however, describes the forming of political alliances built on a mutual need for survival and an Indigenous struggle for power in the vacuum left by a destructive century of foreign settlement.
The offenses of the Thanksgiving story stem from lack of historical context. For example, it often gives the impression that the Mayflower pilgrims were the first Europeans to settle on the land today known as the United States. But by the time the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in December 1620, Europeans had been traveling to the North American continent, and founding colonies there, for well over a century. Armed with information about the region — made available by the knowledge and mapping of predecessors like Samuel de Champlain — the Eastern Seaboard was dotted with numerous European enclaves and towns. Jamestown, for example, was founded in 1607, while Florida had been populated by the Spanish since the founding of St. Augustine, in 1565. Some colonies, such as the one in Roanoke Virginia, had failed. The Mayflowerimmigrants, who came to be known as the Pilgrims, were thus, in December 1620, only the latest newcomers to the land, all of which was known at the time to the English as Virginia. Exposure to European diseases had resulted in pandemics among the Natives up and down the coast from Florida to New England throughout the 16th century, exacerbated by the Indian slave trade started by Columbus. Between 1616 and 1619 the region that would soon become Plymouth Colony underwent an unknown epidemic that decimated the Indigenous population by at least one-third to as much as 90 percent — a fact the Pilgrims knew and exploited.
The settlement the Pilgrims called New Plymouth was the ancestral land of the Wampanoag (Pokanoket) people, who called the place Patuxet. Contrary to the popular myth that the Pilgrims arrived to an unoccupied “wilderness,” it had for untold generations been a well-managed landscape, cleared and maintained for cornfields and crops like beans and squash, as well as for game. Also contrary to popular mythology, the Wampanoags, like most eastern Indians, were farmers, not nomads. Up until the epidemic, the Wampanoag nation had been large and powerful, organized into 69 villages in what is today southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. Their exact population is unknown, but estimates range from 24,000 to upward of 100,000. The epidemic decimated their population, however, and destabilized relations with their traditional enemies, the neighboring Narragansett, Mohegan, and Pequot peoples, among others. In 1620 the Wampanoags were in a state of military tension, if not full-scale war with the Narragansetts.
When the Pilgrims arrived at New Plymouth in the depth of winter, food was the first concern. From colonists’ journal entries we know that right after their arrival Native homes and graves were robbed of food and other items. Written accounts describe taking “things” for which they “intended” to pay later. Ever pious and believing in divine predestination, the religious separatists attributed their good fortune to God, “for how else could we have done it without meeting some Indians who might trouble us.” Thus, the Pilgrims’ survival that first winter can be attributed to Indians both alive and dead.

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