Recently, I attended a conference at the National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan, close to Wall Street. There, one-hundred fifty teachers were learning how to unravel our nation’s founding myths so that Indigenous history might be properly taught to grade school kids. The event was sponsored by the Smithsonian and Teaching for Change, an organization that aims to encourage “teachers and students to question and re-think the world inside and outside their classrooms.”
The very next day I was in Mystic, Connecticut at the Denison Homestead, a national historic site. George Denison was granted 250 acres of Pequot land for doing such a good job with Indian extermination.
I watched a group of white people, all dressed as American Indians, re-enact a native encampment and a skirmish with colonials from the 1600s. There they were, complete with clothing and tools, and, I imagine, authentic weapons. It was a pretty severe moment of cognitive dissonance.
Instead of arguing politics around the table on Thanksgiving, maybe we could talk about the story behind this holiday. Although that topic may be just as controversial.
It was Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, who in November, 1621 brought ninety of his warriors to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. The meeting was a symbol of the mutual defense pact that had been established between his people and the small Plymouth colony.
However, the second time Thanksgiving was celebrated, according to Dakota historian Philip Deloria, the colonists killed Massasoit’s son Metacomet (aka King Philip), cut off his hands and sent them to Boston, and stuck his head on a pike.
Connecticut might be the perfect setting to re-examine how we deal with our past. It was here that the Pequot War was fought, a series of battles that ended when white Hartford colonists tried to wipe out those Native people in 1637 and then legally erase the Pequot identity, customs, and religion forever.
Even Hartford’s secular saint Reverend Thomas Hooker relished the thought of ending the Pequots’ existence. “They should be bread for us,” Hooker assured Captain John Mason as he led his soldiers toward Mystic. Easy to devour. Makes us strong, Hooker was saying.
The Hartford colonists were part of a long English tradition of conquest: the Crusades (beginning in 1096), the subjugation of the Irish (from 1169), the colonial domination of India (1612). Their aggression took place in distant lands, but it was all for the same purpose: glory, material wealth, and power. The belief that we are racially superior to the heathens often makes it easier to take their land and their lives.
Why dig up this history? It’s so old! Well yes, the way religion is old, the way the universe is old. Old things can still teach us, help us better understand our world, and shine a light on our actions against indigenous people today.
History is not a game of “Trivial Pursuit,” where only names and dates matter. We should explore not only what we have done as a country, but why we have done it. The third Thursday in November is as good a place as any to start.
As historian Howard Zinn wrote: “History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history… might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”
It might even make those Thanksgiving conversations more enlightening.