Grappling with Colonialism at Thanksgiving

by Mark Miles

Thanksgiving used to be one of my favorite holidays. The reasons for this are numerous and obvious: there’s good food in abundance, there’s time to laugh and visit with family, there are exceptional movies being released in anticipation of awards season, and there’s pecan pie. Needless to say, any holiday with pecan pie has a special place in my heart. In addition I’m an avid aficionado of history and I love the Baroque era, during which the first recognized celebration of Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth Colony.

But all of that belies the fact that Thanksgiving is also a celebration of genocide, which took place hundreds of years ago and which is still taking place today. This genocide is the ugly side of Thanksgiving and is frequently ignored by our culture for any number of reasons. These reasons are numerous but not so obvious, and they are rooted in events that took place hundreds of years ago and spanned thousands of miles. I can only begin to illustrate the depth of this history in one brief article, but I’ll do my best to condense the story and make it easily understood.

The time was the early seventeenth century. Europe had been wracked by religious conflict for decades, revolving around the emergence of Protestantism and the resistance of Catholicism to any potential competitor for spiritual supremacy. These religious differences were primarily superficial but provided a thinly-veiled rationalization for the expansionism and colonialism of European monarchs who were quite frankly besotted with their own deification. James I of England was one of these monarchs and never flinched from using his authority to persecute those whom he perceived to be religious dissidents. Separatists who wished for independence from the Anglican church formed one of these groups of dissidents, and it was persecution at the hands of James I that led them to emigrate from England.

Portrait of James I (Jon de Critz, 1606)

In 1609 these Separatists–who would later come to be known as Pilgrims–emigrated to the Netherlands. They were however unfamiliar with the culture in which they found themselves and became worried about the prospect of losing their identity in the fray of the rapidly industrializing city of Leiden. Events went from bad to worse when English authorities came to Leiden to arrest one of their number for writing comments critical of James I, and by 1619 these displaced Separatists were actively planning to emigrate once again. In this case, the Netherlands wasn’t far enough to escape James I. Only the distance provided by the Atlantic Ocean would satisfy their desire to be free of religious persecution at the hands of their own king.

After a hazardous passage over forbidding seas, the Separatists landed on this continent in 1620 and established relations with local Native American peoples, including the Wampanoags and their chief Massasoit. There had previously been a wave of epidemics in the area, precipitated by the intrusion of European colonizers who were quick to exploit the rapid depopulation of entire communities. Some estimates indicate that as many as two-thirds of native people in the region of what is now New England died from infectious diseases introduced by Europeans. In any case the Separatists were not responsible for this, and Massasoit made no attempt to blame them for other people’s misdeeds. Consequently a peace treaty was signed in 1621, and there was a level of trust between the colonists and natives for a short time to come.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Jennie Brownscombe, 1914)

Decades passed, and with time the number of Plymouth colonists increased. In 1621, the number of colonists was fifty. By 1630, the number had climbed to three hundred. By 1643, the number had skyrocketed to two thousand. Combined with the fact that colonists continued to acquire Wampanoag land at an alarming rate, there came to be increasing hostility between the natives and colonists. The Wampanoags had kept their end of the peace treaty of 1621, but increasingly the Separatists of Plymouth Colony were reneging on their end of the bargain. In the peace treaty, there had been an implicit understanding that the colonists would limit their numbers and would respect Wampanoag territorial sovereignty. This, however, was clearly not the case.

By the 1660s, tension between colonists and natives was thick enough to cut with a knife. Massasoit had died in 1661, and his son Wamsutta succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. Wamsutta had witnessed the collapse of the fur trade–by which his people had previously made a living–and had begun to resort to selling his people’s land to the Plymouth colonists. Doing commerce with the Wampanoags had by this time been made illegal, and Wamsutta was arrested by the governor of Plymouth Colony. After being administered a “portion of working physic,” Wamsutta was released from custody and died within three days. Proof was circumstantial, but it nonetheless pointed to the conclusion that the governor had ordered the poisoning of Wamsutta.

Wamsutta’s brother Metacom–who came to be known by the title of King Philip–then succeeded to the position of supreme leader of the Wampanoags. From the events of recent decades, Metacom had learned that the colonists were untrustworthy. They continued to encroach on Wampanoag lands and continued to deal with the Wampanoags unjustly. After a Christianized Indian had died under circumstances that may have been suicidal, three Wampanoags were hauled before a court in Plymouth colony, convicted on scant evidence, and promptly executed by hanging. The date of this hanging was June 8th, 1675. By June 20th, 1675, the Wampanoags were at war with Plymouth Colony.

Philip, King of Mount Hope (Paul Revere, 1772)

This war has been named Metacom’s War, though it could just as easily have been named the War of Territorial Acquisition or the War of Colonial Belligerence. In any case, it was a devastating event in Wampanoag history and resulted in the further decimation of their numbers. By 1676 the Wampanoags numbered no more than a thousand, while colonists in the whole of New England numbered eighty thousand. By the end of Metacom’s War, forty percent of the Wampanoag people had been killed. Of those few who remained, a great number were sold into slavery. By the early 1700s, the Wampanoag people had effectively been wiped out.

This story would be awful in and of itself. It’s made worse, however, by the fact that what happened in the seventeenth century is still happening in the twenty-first century. Only now in place of a colonialist government seeking to steal native land, there’s a neocolonialist corporation seeking to despoil native land. Specifically Dakota Access, LLC, is in the process of desecrating land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota. To make matters worse, Dakota Access is doing this for the express purpose of enlarging their own corporate profit margins, regardless of the consequences to anyone living downstream from the projected path of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This is bad for a few reasons: 1) the projected pipeline will be crossing the Missouri River, which is a major source of drinking water for many Midwestern states; 2) every pipeline has a significant risk of leakage; 3) the crude oil which will be transported is highly flammable and toxic; and 4) the Missouri then feeds into the Mississippi River. From this, you can see that the effect of the pipeline could be devastating for millions of people whose drinking water could easily be contaminated by fossil fuels in the near future. If there’s any consolation in all of this, it’s the fact that the Standing Rock Sioux have done their best to defend their land against this desecration by blocking access to certain projected construction sites for the pipeline; how long they’ll be able to continue this, however, is uncertain due to the persecution they’ve experienced at the hands of private security forces and law enforcement.

Standing with Standing Rock (Pax Ahimsa Gethen, 2016)

So this is why I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. As much as I love the prospect of eating lots of delicious food with friends and family who enrich my life on a daily basis, I’m nonetheless torn by the realization that this entire celebration is built on the blood and pain wrought by centuries of genocide perpetrated against native peoples. It’s not a pleasant thought, and it doesn’t bring me any kind of happiness to dwell on it. Quite honestly there are times when I wish I could bury my head in the sand and forget about it. But that wouldn’t change the reality of what has happened and what is happening. On the contrary, it would be a betrayal of all that’s worth fighting for in this life. And if there’s one thing worth fighting for in this life, it’s the land we love.

How My Cat Disappeared and Taught Me a Lesson

by Mark Miles

Living with a cat is rarely boring. I’ve known this for a long time, but Heidi has reminded me of the fact in numerous ways in the time I’ve had her. Since the two-year-anniversary of her adoption was last month, I’ve been thinking about those early days lately. It was a time during which I was almost certain I would lose my hair or my sanity or both. I didn’t, but it was a hard road that led to the relationship we now have.

First of all, I was given Heidi by a friend of mine who knew I wanted a cat and took the initiative to help me to find one. I wasn’t picky about the details, so she ended up settling on one from Craigslist who was in a family that already had too many other animals and needed to find someone with the time and energy to devote to her. I’m passingly familiar with Craigslist’s reputation in general, so I was bit a hesitant but relented when I realized the amount of paperwork that many shelters require of potential owners. Consequently I found myself with a new cat, and the adventure soon began.

From the beginning Heidi was a handful. She was thankfully housebroken, but that was basically the extent of her socialization. She was extremely confrontational, rarely made eye-contact, tried to attack me, had little patience for my dog Bella, howled in the middle of the night, refused to eat virtually anything, and was generally a pain in the ass. Nonetheless, I realized that a great deal of her attitude was simply the result of being taken from her home–however overcrowded and neglectful it may have been–and being brought to a new place about which she knew nothing and where she had no reason to trust anyone. I understood the difficulty for her, and I gave her time to acclimate accordingly.

The biggest problem turned out to be her nocturnal proclivities. She was extremely active at night and would frequently jump very loudly from one place to another directly outside my bedroom. She would also howl with the most infernal regularity. As much as I didn’t want to resort to it, I eventually got her a kennel and started to use it at night to keep her out of my hair so I could get some sleep, which I desperately needed.

The kennel, however, presented issues of its own, which I soon discovered. Heidi is extremely energetic, and when I would put her in the kennel at night, she would struggle valiantly to resist my efforts. It was really frustrating for me and obviously traumatizing to her, since she had no way of knowing if I would forget about her and leave her there permanently. Of course I never did and never would, but she had no way of knowing that.

So we continued the nightly charade. I would attempt to round her up using whatever means I could, and she would jump from one surface to another attempting to evade capture with the agility of a trained athlete. By the end I would generally find myself frustrated, exhausted and guilty. At the same time she would be disgruntled and ready to take advantage of any opportunity for payback. Tension was rising, and a breaking point was inevitable.

Finally it happened. I’d been making sure to keep Heidi inside, since I was afraid she’d run away and get hurt, and I’d been successful in preventing her departure until this point. Then the day came when I opened the front door, didn’t pay attention to where she was at the time, and promptly saw her bolt into the wild blue yonder with all the speed that a homesick cat can muster. I was sad to see her go, but strangely I was also relieved–relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with her contentiousness, relieved that I wouldn’t have to clean up her litter box, and relieved that I could get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in weeks.

But I was still worried. The first day passed, and my worry was at a manageable level. I figured that she was scouting the terrain and acquainting herself with the neighborhood animals. By the morning of the second day, my worry was at a moderate level. I was beginning to think of how easily she could be run over and how awful I would feel if that happened. By the morning of the third day, I was basically grief-stricken and had resigned myself to the inevitable. I assumed that I had seen the last of her and that our story had come to end almost before it had begun.

And then, on the night of the third day after she’d left, I heard a plaintive meow coming from my backyard. I was at the back door and started searching for her with the intensity of a blue-tick hound. I called her tentatively, and with hardly any hesitation she sauntered up to me from the shadows and rubbed against me as if nothing at all had happened. In that moment, I was more grateful than words could say.

As a result I stopped shoving her in the kennel at night. Instead I kept her in the laundry room and gave her free reign of all its considerable shelving. I also started making a habit of letting her go outdoors whenever she wanted, since I realized that the danger to her was lessened if she had the experience and confidence to handle herself in the outdoors on a daily basis. If I had attempted to force her to stay indoors, she would’ve resented me, escaped at the first available opportunity, and eventually done something stupid because she didn’t have the experience to know to avoid it. And that would’ve defeated the purpose of everything I’d done.

And so a new peace was established between us which has lasted to this day. She comes and goes as she pleases, and I rest easy knowing that she can handle herself with skill and composure in a variety of situations. She sleeps anywhere in the house she wants except my bedroom, and I get a good night’s sleep without having to hear her howling to the moon. I can genuinely say that we’re the best of friends, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though what she gets out of snuggling amongst my underwear is anyone’s guess.