The Thanksgiving Reality

Hurray! Think of the aggravation we’ll be saved!

This year, to save our lives and those of people we love, we will NOT be traveling to Thanksgiving dinner somewhere, to gorge ourselves alongside 14 relatives with whom we cannot bear to sit! So here are some thoughts, elevating and sobering, to perhaps dwell on in the interim. One reason to be grateful: our recent, accurate election. The second reason to be grateful: well, it’s at the end of this post.

Remember the old rubric: a land without a people for a people without a land? It was promulgated most recently about Palestine/Israel, for European Jews fleeing the Nazis. It wasn’t true then because Palestinians already had inhabited that land for many generations—and it wasn’t true of the New World, either. There were approximately as many people living in the Americas pre-Colombian conquest as there were in Europe. Keep that number in mind.

The U.S. government officially recognizes 562 tribes (which is like saying “this handful of sand is a beach”). Major tribes comprise larger culture areas–for example, the Navajo nation is made up of Pueblo people, Apache, Hopi, Ute, and other groups. Indigenous Americans could not become US citizens until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act as late as 1924—and even then were denied voting rights until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Still, states often demanded that Native people renounce tribal citizenship in order to vote, a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, which provides dual federal and tribal citizenship.

An older and even greater example of tribal consolidation is that of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy, known also as the Five (later Six) Nation Confederacy, comprised of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onandagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. This confederacy was founded before anyone can remember, making it the first and longest lasting participatory democracy in the world, credited far too rarely for being the model for the U.S. Constitution, due to Benjamin Franklin’s reverence for the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee system of government. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the United States formed its Constitution not on the principles of European governments but on that of people considered “savages”?)

Through this confederacy, each of the nations were united by a common goal, to live in harmony. What makes this Confederacy unique is its blending of law, society, and nature, valued as equal partners. Each nation maintained its own counsel with chiefs chosen by the Clan Mothers, to deal with its internal affairs, but allowed the Grand Council to deal with grave issues such as war, for which the permission of the Clan Mothers was also required—though rarely bestowed. The Grand Meeting Place still exists today on Onondaga territory. The Seventh Generation Principal refers to decisions made ensuring that energy, water, and natural resources are sustainable for seven generations in the future. But it can also be applied to relationships—friendships, lovers, family, groups—every decision should result in sustainable relationships for at least seven generations to come. Seven generations. Can contemporary thought even stretch itself that far ahead?

Not only the Constitution’s Framers but the suffragists, too, were heavily influenced by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Throughout most of the 1800s, leading suffragists Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and the great Elizabeth Cady Stanton were visiting, studying, and documenting the Confederacy. Mott spent months on Haudenosaunee lands and in 1893, Gage was arrested for registering to vote by authorities and simultaneously honorarily adopted for her views on women’s rights by the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk. Haudenosaunee women had political and social equality, proof for the suffragists that female subordination wasn’t natural or ordained by god.

Above my desk sits a map of continental North America. It shows contemporary State borders we easily recognize as those of New York or Florida or California. But spilling over those borders are scores of names: peoples, tribes, nations, civilizations. Those we easily recognize—Comanche, Crow, Pawnee, Kiowa, Cree, Chickasaw—and hundreds of lesser-known ones, for whom our very geographies are named: the Ottawa, the Miami, the Biloxi, the Mobile. I keep the map there to remind me that the land on which I dwell in New York City goes back far more than seven times seven generations, and was inhabited by multitudes before me, most recently (pre-invasion) by the Lenape, who farmed and fished and loved and laughed across New York down to Delaware and over to what’s now Pennsylvania, who had settlements throughout “Manahatta,” including around the beaver pond that would become Times Square, who planted squash and beans in earlier earths than that enjoyed by my little urban garden.

There’s no knowing how to begin this story because the beginnings are shrouded in archetype and myth, but in all the great origin tales there is always the Creatrix: First Woman, Corn Woman, Earth Woman, Spider Woman, White Buffalo Woman to the Lakota, Thought Woman to the Keres, Hard Beings Woman to the Hopi, Sky Woman to the Iroquois, and of course Grandmother Turtle Island on which the earth itself is formed.

We do know about the Adena people, hunter gatherers who nonetheless formed well organized societies living in parts of present-day Ohio and Indiana east through Kentucky to Maryland; they were the very first mound builders, about 1000 B.C.E. We know about cultures like the Mississippian, who also built earth mounds around 500 C.E., and established a series of urban settlements and satellite villages linked by loose trading networks; their largest city was Cahokia, a major religious center located in what is present day southern Illinois. Or let’s look at New Mexico, where researchers found a cave painting appearing to depict a supernova explosion: the orientation of a crescent moon and stars indicate that the art represents the Crab Nebula, formed in 1054 C.E. by supernova. These were cave-dwellings carved and inhabited by the ancient Anasazi, whose lives remain mysteries, although researchers found they had built a solar observatory, suggesting that the sky was central to their way of life.

So great is our ignorance about this land called North America! We know the Apache and Cheyenne as fierce warriors—but only and shamefully from Caucasian actors wearing walnut make-up in old Hollywood movies. The magnificent Sioux nation, and the Hopi—the peaceful ones of the southwest—are known to each other, but we’ve been blinded to them. And oh, the Cherokee, driven from their homeland near northern Florida onto the Trail of Tears—that long march in which thousands died and the survivors wound up in the alien landscape of Oklahoma.

These Indigenous peoples perished not from heroic conquest by the Spaniards or English or French. It’s not what we were taught in school. They died as most Native people died.

Smallpox. Yellow fever. Measles. Influenza. Bubonic plague. Cholera.

Within 200 years of the conquest, three quarters of America’s population had been erased.

Those and many other infectious diseases had not existed in the Americas. The Native populations who resided here back then were descended from migrants crossing the Siberian land bridge from northern Asia thousands of years earlier–so they remained relatively isolated and had absolutely no immunity. (An aside: Although here I’m focusing on North America, it should be noted that Hernán Cortés with fewer than 600 men conquered the Aztec Empire, which numbered in the millions—because of smallpox and measles.)

Back up north, the first recorded epidemic swept through New England from 1616 to 1619, killing an estimated 95 percent of the Algonquian peoples living there, and by 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived, as many as 90 percent of Native Americans in New England had already perished from smallpox. Throughout the 1630s and ‘40s, smallpox also claimed 50 percent of the Huron and Iroquois. John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first governor, wrote, “The natives they are near all dead of the smallpox so the Lord has cleared our title to what we possess.” Distributing blankets previously used by smallpox patients to tribes—an early form of biological warfare–certainly helped his Lord clear title, and was imitated centuries later by the Rockefeller barons as they moved into South America.

The mind can barely compute the numbers. In 1738, nearly half the remaining Cherokees died in a smallpox epidemic. Two thirds of the Omahas died after contagion from European expansion facilitated by the Louisiana Purchase. As late as the 1820s, 80 percent of the Columbia River Area people died in a fever epidemic.

The steep decline in the Indigenous American population spurred European involvement in the west African slave trade, as the demand for labor intensified, one horror propagating another. But that’s not the whole story of enslavement.

We dare not romanticize these earlier people who were, after all human (which is the whole point, isn’t it?). The day after Columbus landed in 1492 on an island in the present-day Bahamas, he wrote about the peaceful, welcoming Tainu people there that “with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do what one wished.” The following year he had 17 ships that dropped 1500 perspective settlers on Caribbean beaches. There was a demand for minors to dig for gold, and the Spaniards exploited human bondage forms already in existence. The Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, a more aggressive tribe, regularly raided the Tainus, enslaving them. By 1517, the Tainu population had declined from 300,000 to only 11,000, and within 10 more years the villages were empty. Indigenous and European American slave systems evolved and innovated in response to each other.

Silver mines opened in northern Mexico, and the demand for manpower increased, so Spanish and Indian slavers sent Pueblo and Comanche slaves to the mines, and seized slaves from the defiant Chichimec of northern Mexico. We also know that throughout pre-Colombian America under-age and female captives from inter-tribal warfare were routinely turned into workers, and remained indentured their entire lives. We know, too, that war prisoners made up a servant underclass in the mound building cultures, and that succeeding tribes—the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek—perpetuated the practice of serfdom, keeping a stock of what was called “those who are owned.“ Some of these same tribes participated in the buying and selling of African-Americans to work their Indian-owned plantations. When the Civil War broke out, there was a splitting of southern Indigenous nations into Confederate and Union allies. It was not uncommon for stronger tribes to focus on weaker ones. In the southeast the Chickasaw regularly took slaves from the Choctaw; in the great basin the Utes stole women and children from the Paiute–and then traded them to Mormon households happy to pay for them.

By the mid-18th century, the Comanche military machine had stopped Spanish expansion, as their cavalry regiment of 500 disciplined horsemen spread 800 miles north to the Arkansas River and south to within a few hundred miles of Mexico City, plucking slaves from Apaches, Pueblos, and Navajos as their prime currency in business deals with Mexicans, New Mexicans, and Americans. Until the U.S. government conquered them, the Comanches held sway over a quarter of a million square miles of American and Mexican borderlands. The Navajo termed the 1860s, when their entire tribe was hounded for enslavement or incarceration, “The Fearing Time.”

But this was nothing compared to the assault from European settlers themselves—for instance, the killing in California between 1846 and 1873. The U.S. victory over Mexico in early ’48 opened the way to the last great American land rush, but until that happened in 1850 there were two years of lawlessness. Moreover, the discovery of gold in ’48 multiplied immigration and aggressive colonialism, including pervasive racism toward the state’s peaceful, diverse Native population. They were denigrated as animal-like “diggers,” a pejorative term based on their food-gathering customs. Political, military, and civic leaders build a de facto genocide campaign against these people. They shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system and granted immunity to those who attacked them; the state legislature funded state vigilantism; and California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, pledged that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Settlers were bold, keeping numerous diaries and records of how many hundreds were killed here and how many thousands killed there. At the start of the gold rush, the Ute Indians had well over 3000 members and were reduced to less than 200 by its end, while the Yuki people were wiped out. Of the estimated 80 percent decline in the California Indian population during these years, around 40 percent has been attributed to outright extermination killings alone.

There is no space left in which to list the treaties betrayed, the children abducted, the languages strangled, the belief systems forbidden, the ignorance enforced, the histories erased.

Yet each of these tribes and tribelets was an independent cultural world. Each was knit by weaves of kinship, deep attachments to place, and oral traditions passed from generation to generation. So the soil of this continent was saturated not only with the blood of human bodies, but with the death of entire world views.

The grief we buckle under, the grief that brings us to our knees, is that the very peoples decimated by the conquest’s pestilences—the Black and Brown peoples, the Xichana, the Latinex, the Indigenous peoples—those are the same ones still, here, now, today, this minute overlooked, dismissed, and dying from this new plague named Covid.

The astonishment is that any Native Americans are even left.

The miracle is that those who survived are willing to speak with us at all.

To them I offer a word the Lenape use, a greeting of humility: Wanishi (With deep gratitude I approach you).

Let that be our Thanksgiving.

[This blog post will return week after next.]