Wednesday, November 26, 2008

context & thanksgiving

Context, as they say, is all-important.

That’s probably why the dominant culture generally tends to omit context. Take the Thanksgiving holiday for example. Criticism of the holiday often elicits a response from well-meaning liberals (the pro-Chief take on it isn’t worth discussing) that goes something like this: Yes, the apocalyptic genocide of the original Americans was a terrible thing. But that first Thanksgiving was a humanitarian oasis in the midst of the insanity, a time when both populations put aside their differences and shared in their common humanity.

The story is of course largely a myth invented after the American Civil War to “unify” the country – in part against the Mexican enemy. But most historians agree that a meal, or meals, did occur at some point in the very early colonial period with English and Native American participants. What they ate has been the subject of much historical revision, but it’s really beside the point.

Of course, by then the local native peoples had already been decimated by war and disease, and theft. The incoming “settlers” recorded in fact that their very first incursion upon landing in the “Promised Land” (more could be said about that tale, too) “discovered” a store of other people’s property – food and other things – which they simply took. They didn’t consider it stealing, they wrote, becaue they intended to pay it back as soon as they got established.

The payback, as we know, was severe indeed. That’s beside the fact that the English settlers had a word for taking things without asking, regardless of the intent.

The settlers did in fact try to reach an understanding, or successive understandings, with the local populations – always on English terms. They made peace when peace was convenient, war when war was convenient. They played one local nation or faction against another to achieve dominance in the region. The rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe, as the descendants of the history-writing winners would have it, many of the Native Americans at this proverbial “Last Supper” (as my Cayuga activist friend Allen Jamieson calls it) did actually believe they were reaching a sort of détente with the newcomers. Resigned as many of them were by then that they would have to give up much of their land and livelihood, maybe a kind of Realpolitik seemed in order.

Maybe some were just curious. And anyway it was natural among them to share in this way. It is hard to predict given the extinction of so many traditions, including my own ancestors in the Wicocomico, and so much “water under the bridge.” But what a few Indians may have believed, or wanted to believe, out of the millions who anyway did not elect them to represent the entire continent is of little importance.

What matters is the context of the events, and, closely related, the current context of the mythology. The Nazis, you know, once planned to build a huge national museum to the Jewish people – once they were all gone – on the theory that the Jews had been a great and noble culture with a long and impressive history.
Perhaps they would even have held a sedir every year in their honor.

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