1620. If you’re white and grew up in America, you probably think of this year as very remote in time. Wilderness. Pilgrims. Indians. Thanksgiving. If you like history, you might think of some more details: Mayflower, religious freedom, Plymouth Rock, Squanto. Our national legend about this time is a golden age of friendship, endless resources, new beginnings. Priscilla and Myles’ sweet romance, black and white clothing, shoe buckles. Turkey to eat.
If you have a thought for American Indian people, you might think this was a golden age for them too, when their traditions were strong and untouched by European ways, when they lived in a vast wilderness.
No. What you’re thinking is wrong. There’s more to the story. You can learn more about the story, and you can still act in this story. It’s not over.
Squanto was able to help the Pilgrims because he already had been taken by white people as a slave, and spent three years in Europe, where he learned to speak their broken language full of many things but few actions, a language where you couldn’t always tell who did an action, where people could slip out of their responsibilities, unlike his language, where you always knew who did something, who was responsible, where people and their actions could not be separated.
And the Pilgrims were able to survive because they moved into a ghost town—a town where everyone had died from European diseases, leaving their houses, clothing, pots, baskets, gardens, orchards, trails, and springs. Leaving their graves with pots full of beans and corn that the Pilgrims robbed and ate to survive the first winter. Leaving the woods full of kindling and fat deer, elk, bison, bear, turkeys, walnuts and hickory nuts on the ground, streams full of fish. Bushes full of berries, plants rich in power for medicine.
Wilderness? Hardly. Every trail, every gap in the mountains, every beach and cove, every spring—all these were known to American Indian people, because they walked on the trails, they traveled and traded, gathered and hunted, and made stories about every place. Stories about monsters where the rivers joined together. Giants in the gaps. Spirits on the mountain tops. Little people in the laurel thickets. Caves were explored. Stars were observed. Over thousands of years of living here, on these continents, every place was known. Every place was someone’s home.
Turkey? Not just white meat or dark meat. Turkeys were known for their fierceness. Don’t laugh. Confront a male turkey in the spring mating season, bare handed, and tell me how that turns out. They have sharp spurs and sharp beaks and a six-foot wingspan, and they can fly. There’s a reason American Indian legends compare turkey wattles to scalps taken in battle. A reason why some war cries imitate the gobble of a turkey. But, warriors can be fiercer, arrows can be faster, and turkeys are delicious.
Were the Pilgrims thankful? Not to the Wampanoag people. Within a year they had called a council and massacred peace chiefs and envoys from the Wampanoag nation.
For American Indian people, 400 years is not a long time. They remember. Their ancestors have been here for ten times more, a hundred times more.
Not only that, 400 years is not a long time for Indigenous people because this story that happened at Plymouth is still happening to them today. The shape of this story began with Columbus in 1492 and by 1620 had been replicating like a virus in the bloodstream of America for more than a century. It continues to replicate today. It is a familiar story: disease, death, enslavement, displacement. Loss. By 1650 more than 90% of Indigenous people had died from European diseases.
But another story has also replicated through the generations, a story that white people don’t really see—maybe like the shadow of a fish swimming beneath the surface. This story, like many American Indian myths and legends, is about resilience, about humor, about family, about respect. “We are still here” the People say, four words that embody survival. Not without struggle, but also with beauty, with harmony.
I am not American Indian. I don’t have a Cherokee great-grandmother, nor a DNA test showing some odd percentage of “Indian blood.” My ancestors were from Europe, and I don’t know where they were 4,000 years ago, much less 40,000 years ago. Unlike American Indian people, I can’t point to the place where our first man and woman lived, where our first town was, where the little people made fields for the eagles to hunt on the mountaintops.
Unlike most white people, I did grow up knowing that this land, all of it, was native land, because the farm where I grew up in central Pennsylvania had a ravine with “Indian graves” which my grandparents said should never be disturbed. And unlike most white people, I did grow up knowing that American Indian people were still alive, because my parents had a friend who was Menominee, who in their joking, racist way they fondly called Indian Joe.
So I know both stories. The Columbus story of great death and evil, and the “We are here” story. They have been repeated in the Appalachian mountains, in the Mississippi River Valley and mound metropolises, on the Great Plains, in the southwestern canyons, the northern tundras, the central American ancient cities, from the tip of south America to the Arctic circle, for more than 400 years. The magnitude of loss is unknowable—knowledge, civilizations, observatories, three thousand years of Mayan writing burned along with their scribes, healing prayers, songs, the love of hundreds of generations.
Those of you reading this who are not Indigenous: you have a choice. You can choose to know these stories—both stories, in their many variations among many tribes. You can learn the true history of what happened—not the whitewashed pretty version of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down at some antique buffet. And that true history is good to know. It’s good to know the price that was paid to buy the privileges that we enjoy today.
But racism is not over. You can also learn the truth about what’s happening right now to native people: destruction of their homes, murders of their activists, infection with COVID 19 by government workers in Brazil (a modern-day smallpox blanket), the missing and murdered women here and in Canada, the uranium mines and fracking, the natural gas pipelines illegally crossing their land.
And you can learn the other story too, which happens in many variations among many tribes: the story of survival. If you ask, and then listen respectfully, if you really care, you can be part of THAT story too. The Cherokees had names for their non-Cherokee helpers: “countrymen” married Cherokee women and therefore their children were Cherokee and the men had the best interests of the nation at heart, men like Alexander Cameron who fought side by side with Dragging Canoe; Andrew McDonald whose grandson was John Ross, the Principal Chief who guided the Cherokee people through the Trail of Tears; Will Thomas, who bought back Cherokee land and sacred places in their homeland after Removal. Or they called them “friends”: ginali. Today the new word is “ally.”
What do you bring to the table?
Tessentee Old Fields
July 28, 2020