The unexamined historical event is not worth memorializing.
Lisa (my wife) and I had been talking about driving down to see Plymouth Rock
ever since we moved to Boston, knowing only a little bit more than what you learn in elementary school by cutting out little pilgrim hats every November.
Since Joshua (my brother) was still adjusting to life on the east coast, and this would be our first Thanksgiving with the three of us, it seemed like a good time to make the trip. After driving through about an hour of densely forested Massachusetts countryside, we arrived, and went straight to the rock—it was kind of underwhelming
, but that’s a story for another day.
Today, as you get ready to head out for your holiday weekend, I’d like to offer you an opportunity to slow down and offer your thoughts to those that made this land home for time immemorial, and in whose memorial we celebrate November as “Native American Heritage Month.”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat your turkey and enjoy your time with your family. However sad the history supposedly memorialized by our feasting in late November, we should take advantage of the days off and enjoy our time with our family. You’re gonna need that extra piece of pie anyway to give you the strength to stand your ground when your Trumper relative makes that comment
that they’ve been itching to make all year.
But I digress.
After stopping by the rock and the replica of the Mayflower, Lisa, Josh, and I walked up the beach a bit to what looked like a really small swap meet, but was actually a makeshift museum in a tent. We listened as the strange and friendly Wampanoag man told us of the legendary diplomat and sachem Massasoit Ousamequin
(Massasoit was an honorific, roughly ‘Exalted Leader.’ “Sachem” means he was the ruling head of state. “Ousamequin” was his name).
The elder told us about Massasoit’s choice to maintain a fragile peace with the settler colonialists (If you don’t know what settler colonialism is, hang out, we’ll get there). We played on the deerskin drum and danced to a song sung by our elder.
To be fair, it was the elder who sang, being the only one that knew the words to the old song about our dependence on the earth.
Josh and Lisa just watched as I volunteered to keep time on the drum, and little White children danced while their parents took pictures while the elder’s White wife sold little cups of warm apple cider and pumpkin spice pound cake to their visitors, all of whom were White (except for us Mestizaje).
After that, we climbed the stairs to “Cole’s Hill
” (who exactly is this Cole vato, and who died and made him king of this particular hill?). There on the cliff, overlooking the bay, the great statue of Massasoit keeps vigil over the nearby monument for the settlers lost (45 out of 102) in that first harsh winter.
Despite the characterization of Indigenous Americans as “uncivilized savages,” that would become popular after whiteness got good and established in the “New World,” the Anglo-Saxon settlers themselves recognized immediately the stature and authority of Massasoit and his contemporaries, describing them in the only terms they knew: as the Royalty and Nobility of the First American Nations.
“Their sachems cannot all be called kings, but only some few of them…of this sort is Massasoit, our friend, and Canonicus, of Narragansett, our supposed enemy.” and again: “Their government was purely monarchical and as for such whose dominions extended further than would well admit the Princes personal guidance it was committed into the hands of Lieutenants, who governed with no less absoluteness, than the Princes himself…nobles were either such who descended from the Blood Royal, or such on whom the Prince bestowed part of his dominions with the Royalties, or such whose descent was from Ancestors, who had time out of mind been esteemed such.” (both from Mourt’s Relation
by Winslow and Bradford, 1622)
Despite their pitifully limited understanding of the government of the Wampanoag and Narragansett nations (ask a Wampanoag and they’ll explain to you how it was actually the women who elected the sachems, but that also is a story for another day), the settlers recognized and recorded their understanding of who ruled in these lands. These descriptions are in stark contrast to the idea of an untouched, uncultivated, uncivilized landscape–because that narrative didn’t catch on until many decades and many, many boats full of White folks later.
Down at the bottom of the hill, the elder in the tent told us about Ousamequin’s son, Wamsutta
, who inherited his father’s title as Sachem, who sought out an alliance with the “Connecticut Company,” selling a large tract of hunting lands to seal the alliance. (Nothing like a real estate deal to get some wypipo all excited, #amirite)
This is when the peace with the “Massachusetts Bay Company” started to fall apart. The settlers seized Wamsutta and brought him before their court as a criminal for negotiating the land deal without their consent.
In the span of 40 years or so between Massasoit taking pity on the ill-prepared settlers who lost nearly half of their people to their first northeastern winter, the lttle devils had established a court and a police force (militia) that could be activated to capture the ruling authority and put them on trial?
What would happen if we gathered a couple hundred Black and Mestizo folks and bought Coney Island with the help of a foreign government, and then proceeded to set up our own courts and police force?
Let’s say we did that in the late 70s (sounds about right), and then in 2017 we didn’t like a real estate deal done by the local mayor, so naturally we march on City Hall, capture the Mayor, and put him on trial in Coney Island.
Settler Colonialism is when a country sends some folks (a few of their own, but mostly just those they have already colonized and/or assimilated before) to set up a colony—land that is outside the current domain of their power, but which they hope to annex as their own for one reason: profit.
The key strategy of this form of colonialism is sending “settlers”: people who are willing to permanently live, work, raise families, and die in the territory to which they have been sent by their empire.
Once you’ve got your settlers in place, you have your “Governor” (the guy who borrowed money to finance the company as appointed/chartered by your empire) order your “Captain of the Guard” (the guy your empire sent with their guns and swords) to train up a militia from among the destitute young settler men—and boom: instant government.
You think I’m kidding, but this is the road map the Massachusetts Bay Company (and all the other companies of the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Portuguese empires) followed to set up shop.
This was the plan, and “shop” is a more appropriate metaphor than you might realize. When the settlers were building their little walled city (oh man, imma need a part 2 to get into that one…), Massasoit offered to help by trading beaver skins for corn. This was a pretty generous offer, because beaver were somewhat difficult to hunt, and their waterproof and dense fur was extremely valuable during that long cold northeastern winter. Massasoit wanted to make sure the settlers kept warm because they had a way of dying when the weather got too cold.
Come fall and what did the settlers do? They had planted so much more corn than anyone could eat, and they took it by the bushel down to Massasoit. The sachem could not have predicted how his friendly offer would prompt the Brits to do their math and see an opportunity for some good old fashioned capitalist exploitation! They could pack up a bunch of beaver skins and sell them in England for a profit, thus satisfying their financiers’ demands for a return on their investment, who cares what the Indians would do with all that wasted food.
Again, I digress, but my point is that settlers = militia = gov’ment = land = money = power.
There’s nothing equal for my people in that math though, because that shiny new settler government is established with absolutely no regard for Massasoit and all that princely nobility they noticed when they got off that first boat.
When we talk about Dr. King’s “triple evils” of Capitalism, Racism, and Militarism as the very foundations of American society, we are not talking about an academic abstraction, or some philosophical construct.
No, when we say race is a construct, we don’t just mean that it is some made up nonsense—race, and more to the point racism, is a deliberate and strategic construction of ethnocentric beliefs, policies, and practices with only one goal: power. White power, to be more specific. This isn’t about being nice or well intentioned. It’s about power.
Capitalism, similarly, is a deliberate and strategic construction of economic beliefs, policies, and practices with only one goal: power. This isn’t about corporate social responsibility or public-private partnerships. It’s about power.
Militarism, as you can probably guess, is a deliberate and strategic construction of violent beliefs, policies, and practices with only one goal: power. This isn’t about national defense or promoting democracy. It’s about power.
This is the “great” that people want to take America back to, back to before multiculturalism and facts and ungrateful immigrants, coloreds, and hippies made ‘regular’ Americans feel all guilty and sad and stuff.
For evidence (and to annoy that Trumper uncle on Thursday) just take a look at the 500 or so terrible things the current regime has done over the last year or so. Stuff like fast tracking the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline within the first few days of taking office. The latter of which, sprung a 210,000 gallon oil leak into a field and water table in South Dakota last week.
When we had climbed to the top of Cole’s Hill, though, we saw a very different American story playing out, with signs that read “In the Spirit of Metacom.”
The National Day of Mourning
was something we had heard about, and were intrigued by—an alternative (or perhaps a supplement) to Thanksgiving. A rally and march to protest the distortion of our history, and to celebrate the heritage and resistance of Native Americans.
Metacom was Wamsutta’s younger brother, and unlike his father, he didn’t believe that the settler goals and the lives of the Wampanog could exist in harmony. When Wamsutta died suddenly (many say he was poisoned), Metacom took control
and launched a series of campaigns that would come to be known as “King Phillip’s War.
” (When their father died, Wamsutta and Metacom decided to honor him by changing their names. Massasoit had always wanted them to take English names so as to foster relations with the colonists. Wamsutta chose “Alexander”, and Metacom chose “Philip.” Assimilationism is a powerful drug.)
These, then, are the two competing narratives that are emblematic of the divide between (and within) all Native Americans. The party of Wamsutta, who seek assimilation and integration, the more painful but perhaps less bloody path to freedom; and the party of Metacom, who seek survival and self-determination by any means necessary.Some will try to make you believe this is an either/or dichotomy, but that thinking will only divide us from each other. Both are present in the cultural heritage of Native Americans, just as they are present in the cultural heritage of all Americans—Native or otherwise—even if we don’t realize it or didn’t know any of these stories.
But what about the Pilgrims with their funny little hats? The big dinner to celebrate surviving the winter? The family, the football, and the turkey sandwiches and Christmas shopping on Friday?
Joshua can tell you more accurately how he felt, but I remember him feeling upset and cheated, that somehow all of this history and conflicting narratives complicated and if we’re honest sort of ruined a holiday that he actually enjoyed.
We have had many long talks since, and many have focused on the ways that holidays ritualize history, and do so in that truth distorting, comforting–lie–believing way that only rituals can. Over the last two years, as each holiday rolls around, we find ourselves deconstructing and complicating the narratives that we accepted as gospel when we were children.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d like to thank you. As you reflect on the past year and the many things we have to be grateful for, may you draw the strength you need to go the next nine rounds of resisting, redefining, and reeducating yourself and the people around you.