Written Reviews

Confronting Colonialism through the Myth of Thanksgiving


University of Notre Dame

This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving (Bloomsbury, paper, 2020, pp. 528, $20.00)

Loss of the past, whether it be collectively or individually, is the supreme human tragedy. It is above all to avoid this loss that peoples will put up a desperate resistance to being conquered.

— Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

In his historical account of the Wampanoag tribe’s resistance to colonization, David Silverman, professor of American History at George Washington University, describes the human tragedy of three-century long struggle to guard the treasure of a people’s past and to resist colonization. The nearby Wampanoag, a coastal Indian tribe with a rich culture developed over the millennia, reside in Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard Island, and Mashpee on Cape Cod. There, in 1617 the “Separatists” (Pilgrims) established early settlements. The ubiquitous myth of a supposedly joyous feast of mutual thanksgiving celebrated between these two groups was not only contrived, but originated later from an ulterior motive.

Professor David Silverman

Silverman deconstructs this fable to reveal the false claim of a harmonious relationship and also the ugly reality of the white European settlers’ determined destruction of the Native Americans’ heritage. The fantasy of the First Thanksgiving, formulated in the nineteenth century with national unity in mind, sugarcoats the painful history of oppressing the Wampanoag people. They became victims of a severe form of affliction, involving depression, poor health, alienation, and a depreciation of their vibrant culture. The abusive intent to dehumanize the Wampanoag echoes the debasement inflicted on the multitude of Native American tribes throughout North America. 

For one’s country to be a fertile place for sending down roots, its history must truly represent what occurred, including abhorrent behavior. In her book The Need for Roots, Simone Weil claims that true love of one’s country requires compassion and humility for its past rather than a flawed sense of national pride. Silverman confirms the need for truth; he states that by overstating the Pilgrims’ noble religious and democratic principles, instead of honestly confronting the shameful Indian wars and systems of slavery more typical of the colonies, whites [were enabled] to think of the so-called black and Indian problems as exceptions […] to an otherwise inspiring national heritage. 

The author deftly disentangles the fraught relationships within the various Southern New England Indian tribal groups when confronted with the European powers competing among themselves for trade, land, and dominion in the “New World.” Early on, these powers were routinely represented by European mariners, who often stole food, desecrated graves, and carried off unsuspecting Natives as slaves. Pestilent disease, harsh climate, and changing markets complicated the formidable obstacles to peaceful co-existence.  Because the Wampanoag did not produce many surviving historical documents, Silverman had the monumental task of combing through oral histories, newspaper articles, personal letters, and official records, most of which were composed by the dominant group. Nevertheless, in his narrative, all the Native American figures interacting with well-known white settlers are individualized and dignified with their names and personalities.

The Wampanoag Struggle 

This Land is Their Land opens with the 1970 celebration of the First National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth inspired by the Wampanoag activist Frank James. James, a musician, who, after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, was denied a position in any national orchestra due to racial prejudice. He had originally been invited to give a speech at the official 350th anniversary of the Plymouth colony’s founding, but the officials rejected the draft of his speech as “too incendiary,” so he withdrew and initiated a counter Day of Mourning.

A Sculpture of Womsettan Moonanam Wamsutta

Always sensitive to the persistent degradation of his Native American patrimony, Frank James, at the age of fourteen, took on the name Wamsutta, an illustrious Wampanoag forbearer. A Wampanoag custom was to change one’s name when faced with a challenge. The 17th century Wamsutta had assumed the name with a new leadership role and the decision to pushback against English expansion. His father Ousamequin had dealt with the arriving Separatists in good faith and was painfully facing the reality of being reduced to landlessness, subordination, and even slavery.

The Clash of Two Cultures

Could there have been a more harmonious joining of the two cultures? As an historian, Silverman doesn’t project, but he does portray the early settlers inextricably caught between outside hostile forces. While recognizing that their survival depended on the Natives’ generosity, those early Pilgrims did Christianize many of the Native peoples; although in the long run the “Praying Indians” received no particular consideration. Had the settlers’ own situation been less perilous as they grew stronger and more numerous, they might have been able to honor the inherent obligation imposed on every human being to recognize the dignity of every other person. Had they not been swayed by the idea of white supremacy, they might have been able to honor the inestimable and unique value in the Native Americans’ long and rich culture.

For the prior several decades, sailing ships full of marauders interested in personal gain had been making sudden and vicious attacks along the coast, leaving suffering and hatred for White people in their wake. The group of investors, called Adventurers, on which the Pilgrims depended, demanded a return in goods or they would terminate monetary support; with no alternative, the Separatists had to send a sufficient amount of beaver pelts, wampum, and other goods back to their financers. Eventually, the European market became glutted with skins, diminishing their monetary value. Weil echoes the observation that “moral death is always brought about by an obsession in regard to money.” Financial gain had become the driving motive for despoiling the Native American people, who in turn resented the English violation of their sovereignty, cultural autonomy, and dignity. 

Consequently, the force increasingly imposed on the vulnerable Natives perpetrated a spiral of intensifying violence. Silverman recounts one exceptional situation, unfortunately too rare, in which a volatile situation was defused by the European settlers, hoping to restore peace. They voluntarily returned, without punishment or demanding tribute, some Natives captured for wrongdoing to a threatening band armed for attack. Both sides recognized and accepted this gesture as generous and peaceful. As Weil illustrates, self-perpetuating force can only be stopped by one of the combatants refusing to retaliate.

The Value of Historical Truth

David Silverman’s scholarly and well-researched manuscript presents the truth of an historical travesty in which an illusory sense of superiority allowed a great wrong to take place and then be distorted with a lie. Professor Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny maintains that when a country indulges in a lie and then continues to act on the basis of that false narrative, no one is free. Such a pretense wreaks its own retribution. The truth of Simone Weil’s repeated motif – “Contact with the sword causes the same defilement whether it be through the hilt or the point”  — implies personal degradation from willfully indulging in the obliteration of another human culture.

Silverman deserves our thanks for bringing necessary balance and truth to an historical wrong. He concludes that our replacement of this dishonest Thanksgiving Day myth will tell future Americans about how we envision both ourselves and the path of our society. Today, in the United States, we are all becoming painfully aware of the overriding dangers in ignoring such truths.

E. Jane Doering is the author of Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force (2010), co-author (with Ruthann Knechel Johansen) of When Fiction and Philosophy Meet: A Conversation with Flannery O’Connor and Simone Weil (2019), and co- editor (with Eric Springsted) of The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil (2004). She is also on ATTENTION’s Board of Advisors.

3 Recommendations
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