Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Slice the Mythology Out of Thanksgiving

Not happy feasters eager to share and be friends, but invaders bent on genocide.

Tim Weed at TPM:

It’s what might be called the Thanksgiving Myth — and it’s not wildly off base as far as it goes. But some important context is missing. This is a problem, because a nation’s foundational mythology determines its self-image and deeply affects the behavior of its government and citizenry.
From 1616 to 1619, a series of virgin-soil epidemics spread by European trading vessels ravaged the New England seaboard, wiping out up to 95 percent of the Algonkian-speaking native population from Maine to Narragansett Bay. The coast was a vast killing zone of abandoned agricultural fields and decimated villages littered with piles of bones and skulls. This is what the Pilgrims encountered when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Not a pristine wilderness, but the devastated ruins of a once-thriving culture, a haunting boneyard which English libertine Thomas Morton later described as a “newfound Golgotha.”
Between the freakazoid Puritans who viewed the natives as demons, and the slightly later thieves desperate for land, what Native Americans remained to assert ownership quickly became a convenient enemy.
In May of 1637, colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, with a group of their Indian allies, set fire to a fortified Pequot stronghold on the Mystic River. An estimated 700 Pequots perished, mostly women and children, and the few survivors were shipped to Bermuda and sold into slavery. On the heels of the virgin-soil epidemics that had decimated the native population, the ghastly specter of genocide had reached the shores of America. In 1675, bloody King Phillip’s War put the finishing touches on what was more or less the total extermination of the eastern woodland Indians.

It is an inescapable fact, therefore, that this proud country was born in the aftermath of a shameful ethnic cleansing that is largely absent from the collective memory. It behooves us to refresh that memory. How would the current debate over immigration change, for example, if it were to be conducted in the light of a more honest consideration of our own deepest origins? Would self-righteous distinctions about “legal” vs. “illegal” immigrants have the same emotional currency? Recent popular histories such as Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower and Jill Lepore’s The Name of War have taken us some distance in this process of revision, but we need to keep telling ourselves the true story until it is enshrined in our national consciousness. It’s high time we updated the Thanksgiving Myth.

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