Monday, November 23, 2009

The Lie Called Thanksgiving, and Squanto's True Heroism

Thanksgiving? It's complete historical bulls**t.

You know the story: Pilgrims land, a bad winter, things look worse the next year, the local Indians, including the special friend Squanto, showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn and catch fish, they finally have a wonderful fall harvest, and everyone, settlers and natives alike, sits down at a table groaning under the weight of plentiful food to give thanks.

Nothing but lies.

The true tale is far more fascinating. Lies My Teacher Told Me is a fascinating book by historian James Loewen, which I highly recommend.

Tisquantum, who we know as "Squanto," was an amazing man. American schoolchildren are taught that he was a simple Indian who befriended the Pilgrims, but in fact he was nothing of the sort. Tisquantum was captured and enslaved, and taken to Europe, where he learned English and European ways.

After his first enslavement and return to America, he was captured and enslaved again, to be sold in Spain. He was rescued by some Spanish friars who took control of the slaves and tried to convert them to Christianity. After four years and at least one aborted journey, Tisquantum made his way back to America, only to discover that his entire family and village, everyone he knew, had been killed by a plague, probably smallpox.

This was the Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive the second winter – a man who was enslaved twice, forced to learn English ways, and who had just discovered everyone he loved was dead.

The American Myth called Thanksgiving paints the Pilgrims as hard working and resourceful. In reality, they landed in a virtual paradise, with the previous farmers all dead from smallpox, and their fields cleared and ready to plant, and fish aplenty, and yet they still nearly starved to death. Tisquantum, in spite of the mistreatment he'd received at the hands of the English, and in spite of the tragedy of losing his people, decided to help the Pilgrims. Historians agree that without Tisquantum's help, the Pilgrims would probably have starved to death.

And the most fascinating part is that Tisquantum may have been the only man alive who could do this. He knew how to fish, how to farm American crops, and he also spoke English well. His presence in the Plymouth area changed American history.

So why has this fascinating story of a resourceful and kind Native American been replaced by the boring story we now tell at Thanksgiving? The answer is remarkably parallel to religion itself: People believe what is most appealing, not what is true.

In the case of religion, memeplexes like the Christain religion, with its promise that the meek will inherit, and that all of this suffering on Earth is nothing compared to the wonderful rewards to come, are very appealing. The atheist will tell you that when you're dead you're dead, and so it goes. Which do you want to believe? The Heaven myth is much more appealing, so that's the meme that survives. Truth has little to do with it.

Thanksgiving is very much like that. We want to think of the founders of America, our spiritual forefathers, as being strong, capable explorers who opened up the "new world." The fact that we exterminated the Native Americans with disease, war, slavery and simple murder is an embarrassing footnote that we'd like to forget.

So when the stories are told (America's history memes), they evolve. The memes that make the Europeans look better get retold, become the memetic survivors in the "survival of the fittest" battle of stories. Conversely, the memes that make Tisquantum and his kin look like clever, resourceful people get diminished. Ultimately, we get a story in which our ancestors endured hardship but prevailed through courage, etc., etc. to found this great nation.

It's a damned shame, because the true story is one in which there were many heroes and many villians. If that story were told, instead of the myth that we call Thanksgiving, we'd all be richer, and our view of current events would be far more mature.

One small footnote: It happens that one of my ancestors was aboard the Mayflower, and became one of the very Pilgrims who Tisquantum helped. If not for Tisquantum, I wouldn't be here today.

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Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

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