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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Growing up at Plymouth Rock

This past Thursday, my girlfriend and I hosted seven of our friends for a traditional Thanksgiving meal, as we’ve done for the past 4 or 5 years. We made a turkey (a wee bit dry), yams, and pecan pie, and everybody brought some of the fixins. It was lovely, really.

Thanksgiving has been a comforting season for me - It takes me back to when things seemed simple and right. There were home fires burning, the world was in orange and brown, I got to see my grandparents and relatives, we made turkey art projects in school and dressed up as Pilgrims and Indians, we said grace to God, and then ate the food, which was all homemade and wonderful.

Of course a lot of that is childhood naiveté. Have you noticed how many carbs are in a Thanksgiving meal? And is your turkey free range and hormone free? A lot of things seemed simple back then, and it turns out,... not so much. Don Henley wrote a wistful song about this called the End of the Innocence. We have a mythic national memory and identity that seems to have recently been lost, though we tragically keep thinking we can get it back: “We’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales.”

And the First Thanksgiving is one of our collective fairy tales.

Everybody learns the national myths at some point, as if they were facts, don’t they? George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but could not tell a lie. Columbus “discovered” America, a “virgin” land (and knocked it up, I suppose). “Manifest Destiny” drew Americans across a continent. For much of our national childhood, these myths seem to have been supposed to be facts.

As children, we all learn how the First Thanksgiving happened: The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, apprehensive about their new lives. They struggled with the wilderness, receiving a little practical instruction from friendly Indians, and then they celebrated their first harvest by having a feast and giving thanks to God for their new land and their success.

But we as a nation have sprouted our first short and curlies recently. Compare those old myths with a more jaded - say, adolescent - sensibility that perhaps arrived with Watergate and Vietnam. Since then, we are more apt to see lies and irony and betrayal: “I am not a crook,” “no new taxes,” “I did not have sex with that woman,” “mission accomplished.” In the harsh light of our teen years, the First Thanksgiving is a travesty.

Well, we know the kiddie version. Let’s flesh out the real picture a little more. The scene is a bay on the east coast of the American continent in 1619. All around is devastation. The native American civilizations have just suffered through what may well have been the most destructive plague in the history of humankind. A thriving coastal population of probably 10 million people had been reduced to less than a million. Villages and towns were abandoned. Bodies lay unburied, and crops untended.

The culprit was smallpox, most likely. Brought by English traders and slavers. It annihilated almost a whole people, and left the rest weak and in a state of shock, grief, and despair. It accounts for the lack of resistance --physical or psychological-- from the native population to the European invaders/settlers. James Loewen wryly notes that America wasn’t a virgin country, but rather one recently widowed.

But this was all a boon to the strange interlopers. They first found provisions by stealing them from unattended Indian homes and by digging up new Indian graves for the offerings laid therein. They got in a firefight with locals who remembered the English as murderers and kidnappers, but managed to fight the attackers off. Then, these erstwhile burglars and grave-robbers landed in the village of Pawtuxet, already cleared and long tended, but recently wiped out by the plague, and appropriated it.

Incidentally, Pawtuxet was Squanto’s village. Squanto (Tisquantum) had already been kidnapped, brought to England as a slave, and escaped, and he made his way back to his home to find his fellow Pawtuxetans -- all of them -- dead. So, knowing English, he threw his lot in with the “pilgrims” (actually, 65% of the Mayflower’s passengers were ordinary settlers) and acted as adviser and interpreter. By all accounts, he saved their lives repeatedly.

None of this is to demonize the pilgrims, as such. To be fair, they were desperate and possibly in danger of starving, and they had intended to pay the Indians back. And their interactions were probably among the most friendly of the ongoing clash of cultures during that time. But one must realize that it is this humanitarian catastrophe that smiled upon their fortunes and for which they gave thanks to their god. As John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said about one of the later waves of plague, it was
“miraculous…. But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.”
Thank God and pass the pumpkin pie.

It occurs to me (not the first) that at each point, they might more appropriately have given thanks to - or at least honored - the Indians. And I suspect they did, too, although that has somehow gotten lost in the history textbooks and the 3rd grade Thanksgiving extravaganzas.

For the last several years, I’ve been celebrating an impeached Thanksgiving with this in mind: that we’ve been collectively thanking God for slaughtering the native American people and giving us the spoils. What a sick bargain.

I’ve sometimes resented that I had to grow up and learn how sausages (and countries) are made. In a sense, I’m --as Bob Seger put it-- “ wishing I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” I think a lot of folks feel that way. But I think, still, a lot more do everything they can to avoid having to grow up in the first place. They want a simple, uncomplicated, black and white world, where they are the good guys, and they tell themselves over and over that’s what they have. Their national and religious myths reinforce this view. I hope they grow up soon, because it seems to me the immature view brings conflict and suffering.

But, even so, it’s right to reflect upon our blessings and to feel gratitude, and it’s good to gather together and express that thanks. We’ve all come through harsh winters and dangers of our own, and when we think about it, we should all be thankful. But not to our vanity-deities…to one another. To our family, our friends, our colleagues, our associates, our paperboy, our cashier, our boss, all without whom our worlds would not run. To those who have made our years fuller and richer, who we may not even know. It seems to me this is something we forget - that we’re all connected, and we all rely on one another. I think our country still has a lot of growing up to do, but if we started celebrating each other, it would be a start.

This is what I do now, when I invite my friends over to eat the food I remember my mother serving me, and what we are told the Pilgrims served to the Indians. And when I remember this, I find that doing so as an adult feels just as warm now as it did then.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought of you this Thanksgiving, Warbler, maybe because I've been present at many of your Thanksgiving meals, but perhaps also because I've been around as you discussed Thanksgiving and other American holidays.

What really made me think of you, though, was when my son came home from school with a lesson about Thanksgiving - it wasn't about Pilgrims or Indians, but about how Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, made it an official holiday to promote inclusiveness and unity in a nation that desperately needed it.*

I thought that that piece of Thanksgiving history was an important one, and that knowing that it's being passed on to our youth would make you smile.


*They probably don't talk about Pilgrims and Indians at my son's school for fear that all those academics' children would set the record straight. Lord knows my child would speak the truth.

Monday, November 27, 2006 9:55:00 AM  

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