‘We do ourselves no good by hiding from the truth.’

“Serious, critical history tends to be hard on the living. It challenges us to see distortions embedded in the heroic national origin myths we have been taught since childhood.” So begins a remarkable book by David J. Silverman.

His 2019 book makes perfect reading for the Thanksgiving holiday. Silverman’s extensive research into and careful rendition of the history of the Wompanoag people exposes the myth of the First Thanksgiving for the lie that it is.

In the story that most of us learned as schoolchildren, the Indians’ legacy was to present America as a gift to others, to concede to colonialism.

Silverman tells of a young Wampanoag woman who, as a kindergartner, the only Indian in her class, was cast as Massosoit in a school pageant and made to sing with the rest of the children, “This land is your land, this land is my land.”

As an adult, she could see the cruel irony. As a child, she simply felt embarrassed.

Perhaps that is what inspired the title of Silverman’s book: “This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving.”

The  myth we’ve absorbed has European “explorers” “discovering” a “wilderness” occupied by “savages.” 

In reality, the native people had cultures older than the Europeans, evolving as the land and climate around them changed.

The myth of the First Thanksgiving portrays the Wampanoags — although they are rarely named, described as generic Indians and often dressed like Western tribes — as naive people, unaware of Europeans, awestruck by the arrival of the Mayflower.

The European mariners, called “explorers” by historians, were actually slavers who had raided the Wampanoag coast for years before the Pilgrims’ arrival. The Wampanoags had every reason to think of the Europeans as savages.

The Pilgrims raided their sacred gravesites and pillaged their storehouses of grain.

One of the many threads from which Silverman weaves his tapestry, is the story of Tisquantum, called Squanto in the children’s pageants. Tisquantum was one of many Wampanoags captured by Europeans. He and a score of others had boarded Thomas Hunt’s ship in 1614 and were double-crossed by Hunt and taken to Spain where the others were sold as slaves.

With the intervention of friars in Spain, Tisquantum made his way to London and after several attempts over years was able to return to his homeland aboard a returning ship.

But it was not the homecoming he had longed for.

The Wampanoags had been decimated by plague; unburied bones and skulls lay upon the ground. Reading Sliverman’s account now, as we are in the midst of the current pandemic, with all the tools modern science and medicine has to offer, is especially discomforting.

The most lethal Eurasian diseases developed largely because people and animals lived right on top of each other, Silverman notes. Native Americans, on the other hand, had few domestic animals and usually lived in small diverse settlements.

Unlike the Europens, none of the Native Amerians had developed resistance from childhood exposure to disease. There was no one to care for the sick.

William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, described a later smallpox outbreak that Silverman posits captures the horrors suffered by the Wampanoags from 1616 to 1619.

Bradford wrote that the Indians “fell down so generally of this disease as they were in the end not able to help one another, not to make a fire nor to fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead. But would strive as long as they could, and when they could procure no other means to make fire, they would burn the wooden trays and dishes they ate their meat in, and their very bows and arrows. And some would crawl out on all fours to get a little water, and sometimes die by the way and not be able to get in again.”

Such was the backdrop against which the Pilgrims landed just before the onset of winter in 1620. We’re all well aware of the Pilgrims’ struggles and how they persevered to overcome them, but were we aware of the Wampanoags struggles as well?

 “It was not innate friendliness or a directive from God to assist Christians that drove the Wampanoags to reach out to the English,” writes Silverman. “Rather, they were desperate.”

At the same time, the Wampanoags needed allies against the neighboring Narragansett tribe. 

William Bradford saw Tisquantum, who could speak English and therefore bridge the two worlds, as “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond expectation,” which is how the Thanksgiving myth portrays him.

Silverman layers in, against the English version of events, with which we are most familiar since many written accounts survive, the Wampanoags’ take on unfolding events. They expected their political allies to treat each other as kin with day-to-day generosity and eventually intermarriage.

For the Wampanoags, the alliance was not about conceding to colonialism. They expected, once they had recovered from the plague and staved off the Narragansetts, to continue exercising dominion in their country over anyone who lived there, the English included.

But, of course, that is not what happened. In 1624, the first cattle arrived. The invasive creatures eventually overran the country, interfering with the Wampanoags’ ability to feed themselves.

By the 1630s, twenty-thousand English people poured into Massachusetts Bay. “American history has a tradition of treating such developments as inevitable, even providential, and certainly positive,” writes Silverman.

So where are we now? For many Wampanoags, as well as other Native Americans, Thanksgiving Day is a day of mourning. It’s a day to reflect on the theft of their lands, on the genocide of millions of their people, and on the continuing assault on their culture.

What can we do to right the wrongs of our past? We can’t turn back the clock for a re-do of history. We all can’t return to the other places in the world from which our ancestors came.

But we can look to see what part we have played in perpetuating a harmful myth.

We at The Enterprise over the years, for example, have run pictures of adorable schoolchildren in paper pilgrim hats acting out the story of the first Thanksgiving with other children in feathered headdresses, never thinking of the harm we were furthering.

Although critical history challenges assumptions and authority, and often leaves us feeling uncomfortable, Silverman writes, “It also has the capacity to help us become more humble and humane.”

Silverman, who is a professor at George Washington University, urges us to seek out the Wampanoags’ own tellings of their history, which are widely available in print, film, and online. Native Americans are not relics of the past, frozen in a myth. They are here and now, with human needs like the rest of us that deserve respect and recognition.

Of course, the harm done to indigenous people stretches beyond the Wampanoags, across our entire continent.

For this week’s podcast, we spoke to Altamont’s new Lutheran minister, Eric Reimer, about it. The churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, known as the ELCA, had in 2016 repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.

Asked about this, Reimer explained that, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI gave license to Spain to claim the new lands — America — it had “discovered” the year before. “That became the foundation of every Roman Catholic or Protestant or Christian conquest of land in North or South America,” said Reimer.

“We shouldn’t use our religious authority given to us by God to justify the actions of the government and the Doctrine of Discovery did just that. It said: ‘Because these people are not Christian … their current occupation of the land doesn’t count as ownership. You can take it.’ It was giving civil authority with religious justification, and that is a misuse of our authority,” said Reimer.

Last month, the ELCA issued a declaration to the American Indian and Alaska Native People that says the Lutherans are committed to undoing the evils of hundreds of years, “building right relationships with Native nations and Native peoples, and remaining faithful to our shared journeys toward truth and healing.”

In the past, Reimer said, “Christian ministry to native peoples might have been to teach them to live our way and to attack and diminish their culture. And now Lutheran ministries to native folks would work to build up and preserve their language and culture and affirm the full humanity of all people.”

While acknowledging the problem is the first step, the next step — making amends and moving forward to equity — is harder.

One hopeful action is the Nov. 15 announcement, during White House Tribal Nations Summit, that the United States Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have created the Tribal Homelands Initiative. 

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She wore hand-beaded moccasins to the summit.

“From growing crops and taming wildfires to managing drought and famine, our ancestors have spent millennia using nature-based approaches to coexist among our lands, waters, wildlife, and their habitats,” Haaland said as the initiative was announced. “As tribal communities continue to face the effects of climate change, this knowledge — which has been passed down since time immemorial — will benefit the Department’s efforts to bolster community resilience and protect Indigenous communities.”

The two departments together are responsible for the management of millions of acres of federal lands and waters that were previously owned and managed by Indian tribes. 

The order says these lands and waters will be managed “in a manner that seeks to protect the treaty, religious, subsistence, and cultural interests of federally recognized Indian Tribes” in a way that “is consistent with the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and federally recognized Indian Tribes”

The order also notes that those lands and waters “contain cultural and natural resources of significance and value to Indian Tribes and their citizens, including sacred religious sites, burial sites, wildlife, and sources of indigenous foods and medicines. In addition, many of those lands and waters lie within areas where Indian Tribes have reserved the right to hunt, fish, gather, and pray pursuant to ratified treaties.”

“We do ourselves no good by hiding from the truth,” Silverman quotes a Wampanoag elder as telling him. The elder is right.

If we set aside our myths to look at our true history, we’ll be able to take meaningful steps forward as the Lutherans and the Tribal Nations Summit have set about doing. Our government and our churches have done great harm to Native peoples but they are institutions made up of us, of individuals. We have it in our power, each of us, to make amends.


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