THE SCOOP for November 28, 1996 -- The Stuff They Didn't Teach About Thanksgiving, part 1 of 2

Hot Zone in the New World
(C)1996 Bob Harris
TheScoop@earthlink.net

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[Note: these articles were intentionally released after the holiday. It didn't feel right to bug anyone on a well-deserved long weekend. This way there's a year to let it all sink in.]

When I was in first grade, we never spent a day talking about the "meaning" of Halloween or Memorial Day. We spent a week on the Thanksgiving story.

Plymouth Rock, 1621: Pilgrims escaping religious persecution and settling an empty continent shared their bounty with primitive Indians with whom they shared the land.

(Aside to uptight liberals: most actual American Indians really don't care much if we call them "Indians," "Native Americans," or "Constantinople." As if a polite term could undo 500 years. You should hear what they call [us].)

Thanksgiving is really a creation myth for white America, a capsule of what cheap politicians consider traditional values: manifest destiny, the Protestant work ethic, cultural superiority, etc. Our ritual reenactment of the feast is nothing less than a civil sacrament.

It's also almost completely phony.

To begin with, the word "settler" is deceptive. The Indians had long before "settled" most of the east coast, and fairly comfortably at that. (Are Mexicans moving to L.A. "settlers?" Potato, potahto.)

America was [not] empty. Archeologists have found Indian communities of 30,000 or more all over America; the current consensus is that around 12-15 million folks were living north of the Rio Grande when Europeans got off the boat.

Other explorers soon followed Columbus, but colonies were another deal entirely. Providing homes for dozens of people, thousands of miles from the nearest supplies, using only 16th century tools you could fit on a boat, was a heck of a trick.

Spanish colonists gave it a shot in 1526, but faced with new crops, strange animals, dwindling supplies, and no cable, they bagged it right away. The first English colony was established on Roanoke Island in 1585. It was gone by 1590. Nice try.

Finally, in 1607, the Brits founded Jamestown. Hoorah. By the end of the first winter, two-thirds had died of disease and starvation. The remainder received handouts from the Powhatan Indians -- welfare for illegal immigrants, in modern terms -- and survived.

To the Powhatans, Europeans looked pretty goofy: far from home for no visible reason, unable to grow crops, short-lived, and sick all the time.

Boy, were they sick. Sanitation wasn't exactly a European strong point. Remember, London and Paris still had raw sewage running in the streets. For many, religious modesty forbade routine bathing. And the newcomers had been living on a boat for months. In short, Europeans were pretty skanky.

Skip ahead a few years.

Shortly before the Mayflower landed, the area around Plymouth was ravaged by an epidemic, probably smallpox brought to shore by French and British fishermen. Europeans often survived the disease, since it was their funk in the first place, but [90 percent] of the local Indians died between 1617 and 1620.

We're not talking European Black Death rates of 30%, which was enough to mess things up for hundreds of years. We're talking Ebola mortality here, albeit at a slower speed.

This pattern was repeated in the Americas for centuries. It's one of the main reasons the thriving Indian civilizations are gone. Europeans had [major] cooties.

Imagine the impact of anthrax, cholera, influenza, and assorted plagues and poxes on communities with no resistance. Over and over again, the first white folks into an Indian village found three or four times as many inhabitants as expeditions just a generation or two later.

That's why later Europeans were sometimes able to "settle" right in the middle of former Indian towns, growing crops on fields cleared by Indians, using the very tools the Indians left behind, using the survivors as teachers and servants.

Cutting some slack, most colonists didn't run around infecting Indians intentionally. Many were too busy bleeding and throwing up to be bothered.

Think of it as a (mostly) unintentional form of biological warfare, with the front moving west at an average of 10-15 miles per year, and you're not far off.

Then remember that over [three-quarters] of the federal budget in Washington's time was spent on various methods of killing Indians and taking their land -- intentional genocide is a whole other subject for another time -- and you can see how, at the dawn of the 20th century, those 12-15 million Indians were reduced to just [250,000].

That's why the most famous Indian storytellers in America are Kevin Costner and Walt Disney. It's why so much of our history -- which until this century was mostly a series of European/Indian interactions -- is largely white stories of white glories.

Like the Mayflower Thanksgiving myth, for example...

[In part 2, next week: communists, cannibals, gold buttons, and tassels.]

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[Bob Harris is a political humorist who has lectured at over 275 colleges nationwide. The Scoop is archived at www.goodthink.com.]

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THE SCOOP for December 5, 1996

The Stuff They Didn't Teach About Thanksgiving, part 2 Most Americans Don't Know Squanto
(C)1996 Bob Harris
TheScoop@earthlink.net

[] = italics

[Note: these articles were intentionally released after the holiday. No need to disturb a well-deserved long weekend. This way there's a year to let it sink in.]

Only about a third of the passengers on the Mayflower were Pilgrims -- "Separatists," actually, radicals who considered the Church of England beyond help -- and they weren't fleeing persecution. They'd done that a decade earlier by running off to Amsterdam. After which they had kids, and then Holland suddenly seemed [too] tolerant.

It happens. You hit 30, you start watching VH-1. Probably genetic.

The Mayflower was originally headed for Virginia, where Jamestown was throbbing with activity. By 1620, tobacco traders had kept slaves, robbed and poisoned the local Indians, and occasionally resorted to cannibalism to survive. (You don't hear much about the latter, and for good reason -- just try building a ritual feast around [that].)

So how'd they wind up in Plymouth? They weren't lost; latitude was simple to navigate. They probably steered north to settle in the area so recently cleared by smallpox.

See, British leaders considered the first major epidemic among the Indians a sign from heaven that the English should own America. Before the Mayflower even raised anchor, King James himself was praising "God in his great goodness" for "this wonderful plague among the savages."

James was a real creep.

Anyway, you can see how a bunch of religious Separatists would prefer open land to Jamestown, which by now was only missing Siegfield and Roy.

Incidentally, the famed Mayflower Compact, in which every guy on board agreed to a "civil body politic," is supposed to be this big precedent for our democracy, but it's not. Both Jefferson and Franklin, for example, were more impressed with the Iroquois Confederation (even while they considered Indians savages). What the Compact did was prevent a mutiny from the non-religious majority who had sought fortune in Virginia.

Their actual landing spot is another head fake. Although the city of Plymouth has moved the Rock (which is only about as big as I am) at least three times to bring in more tourists, the Separatists actually first landed at Provincetown. Which figures.

Once ashore, the Separatists forced everyone to surrender all their private supplies for the general good -- buncha damn commies -- and immediately set about the important business of getting sick and starving.

Fortunately, help arrived. Remember Squanto, the "good" Indian (where "good" meant "whiter")?

Squanto only spoke English because in 1614 he was kidnapped by a British slave trader. That's how he missed the Plymouth plague. By the time Squanto escaped and returned home, everyone in his village was dead, and a bunch of starving Brits were moving in and smelling up the place.

So Squanto did the best he could, as did the nearby surviving Wampanoag Indians, who salvaged their economy by setting up the colonists in the fur trade and teaching them to cultivate local crops. The Mayflower colony survived the winter of 1620 and had a good harvest the following year.

Thus the big shindig.

As to the Thanksgiving meal itself, it's entirely Indian. Harvest feasts were a coastal Indian practice, and all the food involved was indigenous to this continent.

One more thing: forget the silly hats, black outfits, and buckled shoes. The Separatists wore bright colors. The one contemporary portrait depicts -- get this -- gold buttons and tassels. Not quite Liberace, exactly, but not the Dutch guys on the cigar box, either.

A few years went by. Puritans (who wanted to reform the Church of England, not leave it) formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and soon the Separatists and their primal patio party were largely absorbed and forgotten.

Two hundred years later, the Separatists were resurrected as "Pilgrims" by 19-century Victorian moralists, who mythologized the story to reflect their own beliefs regarding race, God, and destiny.

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Lincoln seized on the symbolism to fortify Yankee confidence and declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

After that, you turned six and someone handed you construction paper. End of story.

Bottom line: Thanksgiving was an Indian meal eaten in the wake of a plague at the dawn of a holocaust by a bunch of desperate proto-communist theocrats who had no real historical significance.

Sorry.

Here's the point of all this: the myth built around the colonists -- that "we" Europeans were superior to the Indians -- is both false and dangerous. If we believe that "our" culture is better, anointed, and inevitable -- as the Thanksgiving story teaches -- we can rationalize darn near anything.

Think about it. Maybe stuff like this helps whites ignore the fate of Indians past and their poverty in the present. Maybe it's part of how we live with ourselves as we drive cars built in Latino maquilladoras, wear clothes sewn together by Asian children, bomb the crap out of Arabs, and deny obvious racism toward our African neighbors.

Almost four centuries later, are we still no better than King James?

Maybe teaching a false, unnecessary, and racist myth isn't the best way to nurture love in our children's hearts.

Next time, let's do the other, better Thanksgiving stuff: providing food and shelter for the needy, expressing gratitude for the blessing of another year of life, and teaching our kids how to love others as ourselves.

Even better, let's not wait for next year. Today will do just fine.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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[Bob Harris is a political humorist who has lectured at over 275 colleges nationwide. The Scoop is archived at www.goodthink.com.]

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