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Preamble: History, Mythology, Judgment, and Analysis.

The American holiday of “Thanksgiving” is, at its most basic level, simply our version of the harvest festival common to all currently or historically agricultural societies. And the mythologized historical story we base it on can be appreciated for the morally instructive fiction that it is, rather than condemned for omissions and oversimplifications. It’s a beautiful story, after all, and if it presented itself as such, rather than as sterilized history, it would be completely inoffensive: Two peoples, profoundly alien to one another, converging in a wilderness familiar to one and hostile to the other, coming together in friendship and mutual support, and celebrating their solidarity with a great feast. We don’t want to, nor should we, abandon the warm emotions of goodwill evoked by such a story. But we allow those emotions to do us better service if we retain them within the context of the more complex reality within which that feast occurred, and within which, in a more general sense, our lives are still lived.

I did not refer to the Thanksgiving story as revisionist history, because it is largely accurate, as far as it goes. It is not so much revisionist as it is oversimplified and abbreviated with a bias. The complexities, the respective strategic calculations and miscalculations, the betrayals and differences in world view, are all as instructive as the fable itself, and instruct us in what is required to make that fable more of a reality in the future, on the global stage.

Historical mythology is simultaneously delightful and disturbing. It’s as delightful as any mythology, full of pageantry and exaggeration, mind-candy not dissimilar to a Homeric epic, or even a Dickens classic, full of spirits that visit us, and happy endings that vindicate our belief in ourselves, in our nation, and in our gods. It is disturbing because it blurs rather than clarifies history and its lessons, not, as some believe, by turning villains into heroes and heroes into villains, but rather by relegating ordinary complex people who are a little of both to one or the other category in order to serve our hunger for self-legitimation through historical amnesia.

But the truth, told well and lavishly, is as marvelous as our exaggerations and distortions, more informative than our revisions, and, for all the tragedy that is embedded in it, no less encouraging to our souls. For it is through the subtle and complex realities of history that we can learn the lessons of how to do better, and how to combine the humility and discomfort of self-criticism with the sincere commitment to the highest ideals, serving those ideals far more effectively than our  mythologies ever could.

I am not talking about a different morality play, one which simply switches the roles of heroes and villains in an inverse but equal oversimplification of reality. That is too similar to the one we should seek to transcend. What we need is a story about people, infused with less judgment and more clarity, neither cleansing history of our sins, nor reducing it to a caricature of “critical thinking” which is the mere inversion of the non-critical thinking it mirrors rather than transcends.

The Story: Enlightened Self-Interest and Mutual Goodwill Undermined By Waves of Newcomers and an Inevitably Decisive Disparity in Military Power.

(For a more complete narrative, with perhaps an exaggeratedly favorable view of the Pilgrims, see  http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mosmd/, from which some of the narrative below is drawn. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag_people and http://www.mayflowerfamilies.com/colonial_life/pilgrims.htm).

When the pilgrims arrived on the shore of North America, they may not have realized that they were the forerunners of a demographic and military onslaught. The Pilgrims (the Separatists seeking only religious freedom from the Church of England), unlike the rest of the Puritans (seeking to “purify” the Church of England and impose their beliefs on others), were a relatively tolerant and accommodating people, seeking freedom for themselves and not seeking to deprive it to others. These pilgrims, however, did harbor well-intentioned but ethnocentric and intrusive ambitions of bringing Christianity to the “heathen” people of the New World.

But the story of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth Colony isn’t just a story of flight from religious persecution; it is also the story of English mercantile interests, for the merchants who financed the voyage sent some of their own along as well, expecting (but not getting) a return on their investment.

The story of these early settlers suffering disease and hunger in their first months, with about half dying off, and then, while recovering their strength, encountering the native Wampanoag tribe and forming an alliance with them, is well known and basically accurate. The Wampanoag were a hospitable people, and had previously befriended and cared for English and French explorers in the region.

When Samoset (an Abnaki Indian from Maine who had acquired some rudimentary English when explorers had kidnapped him and taken him back to England) walked into Plymouth Colony with a friendly greeting a few months after the Pilgrim’s arrival, the Pilgrims learned from him that the nearest Indian village was that of the Nemaskets, a Wampanoag tribe of about 300 people. The Pilgrims also learned from Samoset that Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, was then staying with the Nemaskets.

The Pilgrims reluctantly allowed Samoset to spend the night, but watched over him with a certain degree of distrust. Samoset returned with five more Indians a few days later, bringing with them some tools the Pilgrims had lost in the woods, as well as furs to trade. Samoset returned a couple of days later with Squanto, who spoke English with perfect fluency.

Squanto’s assistance proved invaluable to the Pilgrims, for he taught them the skills they needed to survive in that foreign place, such as how to catch and use fish as a fertilizer for corn, squash, and beans, a technique which proved especially useful to the Pilgrims, whose English seeds they had brought with them did not fare well in the New England soil.

Squanto and Samoset convinced the nearby Wampanoag that the Pilgrims were peaceful, and that it would be in everyone’s interests to form an alliance. The Pilgrims gained the obvious advantage of having friendly advisers and protectors nearby in this unfamiliar land, while the Wampanoag gained the prestige and implicit threat to both enemy tribal confederations and rebellious Wampanoag tribes that came with the alliance with English arms.

The Wampanoag themselves had been weakened by epidemic (probably European borne plague) in recent years. The Narraganset, an insular tribe, had had virtually no contact with European explorers and settlers, and so were less weakened by plague. As a result, the Narraganset had become an expansionist power in the area. The Wampanoag had hoped that their alliance with the English would help fortify them against the Narraganset threat.

The alliance, in turn, worried the Narraganset Indians, concerned that the Wampanoag and English would attack them. After years of being delayed by wars with the Pequots and Mohawks, the Narraganset finally launched a pre-emptive attack on the Wampanoag, which, with the help of the English, the Wampanoag successfully deflected.

It would be understandable for Massasoit not to have anticipated the eventual overwhelming power that the English would bring to the region, and beyond: A small band of near-starving settlers did not portend a tsunami of colonization, conquest and displacement. The Indians had no experience of any other civilization –other than the trickle of explorers and, now, settlers– and had no frame of reference for contemplating the onslaught to come. Even if Massasoit had had any inkling of it, military resistance (slaughtering colonists and all others who tried to land on those shores) could only have delayed the inevitable; no preferable strategy to alliance existed. Better to have these powerful newcomers on the side of the Wampanoag than of a rival Indian nation. 

Despite the probable differing understandings of what the treaty, allotting 12000 acres to Plymouth Plantation, meant (due to different conceptualizations of land ownership and usage), there seems to have been a great deal of genuine good faith and friendliness between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims nursed Massasoit back to health when he was sick, and were staunch allies of the Wampanoag against Narraganset aggression.

But, intentional or not, the Pilgrims had opened the way for a flood of less well-intentioned colonists. The Puritans that soon followed, with overwhelming numbers, took the land rather than paid for it or asked permission for its use, as the Pilgrims had done. Increasingly, the newcomers subjected the indigenous people to the invaders’ laws, violently punished resistance and suppressed rebellion, and began the relentless destruction of a world and a way of life.

The Lesson of History.

What is the lesson of history in this case? It’s not that the alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was a bad choice by either, or that the disaster for the Wampanoag, and all Indians, that followed could have been avoided by some other strategy. But neither is it that good will and mutual cooperation among some triumph over all.

While it could have been less brutal and more accommodating, and a healthier synthesis could have been realized, the reality is that either the military or cultural conquest, and either the displacement or assimilation of the Indians, was more or less inevitable (not to say morally justifiable), given the historical context and the realities of human avarice. People can and will dispute this, and insist that the European invaders could have respected indigenous rights and sovereignty, restricting themselves to the small enclaves that the indigenous people willingly granted them, but, as much as we might wish that to be true, it was as far removed from reality as the more general version of the same belief, that we “could have” lived in a virtual paradise of peace and prosperity since almost the dawn of human history, had we only worked more cooperatively in our collective interests to do so.

Differences in power prevail, usually in brutal and unjust ways, unless and until the interests of both those who are prevailing and those who are not converge on some more mutually beneficial arrangement. That is not a fact that can be wished away. Some factions will be ahead of the curve, and pursue what will later be perceived to be an advanced morality, but they do not erase the tendency; they only create islands of relief from it.

That’s what our Thanksgiving story is; an island of goodwill and friendship between two very disparate peoples, in a brutal world whose brutality was destined to wash that island away. And it is all the more poignant for its seeming futility in retrospect, because our celebration of it is a testiment to how compelling such stories are: The more such islands we create, and the more we celebrate them, the better off we will be, because they reinforce those frames and narratives of our minds which appreciate and reach for such outcomes, and inhibit those frames and narratives of our minds which rationalize the brutality which too often prevails.

Just as the sins of the past cannot be erased, neither can humanity’s shining moments, those islands of goodwill in an otherwise relentlessly brutal tide. We should celebrate them, not as romanticized symbols of an unreality, but as real moments of the triumph of the human soul, against the odds and against the trend. Despite the strategic calculations, mutual distrust, and fundamental misunderstandings woven into it, and despite the difficulty of verifying the first “Thanksgiving Day Feast,” the friendship of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is an indisputable fact of history. It deserves our reverence, all the more so in light of the ways in which the goodwill it symbolizes was so cruelly betrayed by others who came later.

The lesson of history is that brutality is the norm, and mutual goodwill the struggling little zygote of hope that flickers within it. The ideologies that glorify brutality, that rationalize indifference to the welfare of others, to social justice, to common cause in the face of an inevitably shared fate, should be weakened every Thanksgiving Day, if those who give thanks do so reflectively, thinking not just about what they have to be thankful for, but what others, and generations of others past, have been deprived of in order to secure it.

Let’s all thank providence for the bounty we have been graced with, and for the minds and hearts capable of understanding that there is no bounty richer and more rewarding than working together in the shared endeavor of life, whether with friends and neighbors, or across borders and ideological chasms, sitting down to the shared feast of life in a spirit of mutual goodwill, committed to being as humane and enlightened as a small band of religious zealots and a decimated Indian tribe 390 years ago.

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