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Thanksgiving in Indian Country, Essex: Duyukta

November 26, 2009

I was actually trying not to get worked up–and to keep any crankiness to myself–today. But, Thanksgiving is pretty fraught as hoked-up celebrations go. For some of us, it may as well be called “Historical Trauma Day”–if not “Thanks For Not Killing Us All Day”, as archanglrobriel called it on LJ a few years ago! “Let’s Pretend We’re Not (Still) In The Grip of Wétiko Psychosis Day” would also be appropriate, if not very catchy.

In that spirit, I feel compelled to offer some links. Thanksgiving: a myth-debunking, record-straightening roundup offers a good overview of the historical reality behind the politically convenient mythology.

So, we find out that Powhatan’s people kept feeding the Jamestown crew to keep them alive (not to mention that, indeed, women were chiefs). That settlement would not have survived at all, were it not for local Native help. A lot of the people the Virginia Company sent starting out didn’t even know how to fish or grow food at all, and had to be shown. They even needed help building houses, apparently; thus the same construction materials the locals were using. The site was uninhabited for good reason, and a lot of people died from drinking bad water, not knowing any better. I saw something on PBS a few years back, about some shocking new discoveries about how much practical help they did get, and how many of the initial group married locals–really amazing, since they were mostly young men! Marriage into a matrilineal society (with plenty of food!) was a major reason so many of them went to live with the Natives, hardly the only time or place this has happened under colonialism. A lot of the feast mythology was based on Powhatan Federation people repeatedly pulling English chestnuts out of the fire. I already knew all of this, but it’s hardly common knowledge in the U.S., for good reason.

The area I’m from got multiple waves of coastal refugees, including Powhatan Federation people (Renape), Meherrin, Delaware (Lenape), and escaped slaves of all descriptions (including Irish and Highland Scots). Thus did my family. It’s hard to forget.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman has written an excellent piece: Indians and English Meet on the James, about each group’s attitudes going in. Often overlooked/obfuscated points: this was not the first time the Pamunkeys and related nations had dealt with Europeans around the Chesapeake, and the English saw the Natives as “accomplished people living in highly developed societies. It was the Indians’ accomplishments that made colonization feasible in English eyes…Moreover, the advanced nature of Indian societies was the best indicator of the land’s potential.” The “primitive” slur came in much later, as justification for grabbing other people’s stuff. As for Renape experience:

For almost a century ships had been in and out of Chesapeake Bay. One had taken a young Pamunkey man with them and this man, baptized as Don Luís de Velasco, had spent a decade with Dominicans in Spain, Havana, and Mexico City before he returned to the James River in the company of Jesuit missionaries in 1571. The mission, which posed a fundamental threat to Pamunkey culture, was soon destroyed and Don Luís returned to his own people. Through his lore the Pamunkeys acquired detailed knowledge of Europeans and their capacities.

So, with all the emphasis on the Plymouth Bay Colony (Massachusetts) in modern Thanksgiving mythology, what really happened there? Daniel N. Paul* shows us some history in his The Real Thanksgiving; the whole thing is worth reading. Hmm, separatist Puritans relied on God to provide, and it happened: through Native compassion, and however gadugi is expressed in Wampanoag. Paul’s page describes nicely how this help was returned: “Once the European settlements stabilized, the whites turned on their hosts in a brutal way.” The differences between approaches to warfare (“internal policing” is a good description on the Native side) are also instructive. The Native version, though the specifics were different, bore more resemblance to Highland cattle raiding; “Indian ‘wars’ were largely symbolic and were about honor, not about territory or extermination.”

Bit of a pattern developing here. It does, indeed, seem to have been a common one, with lots of “feasts” involved wherever a colony was started. Mitchell Cohen wrote something good about this, starting with Columbus.

I tracked down one rather illustrative piece I’d seen before, What are the Underlying Values of Haudenosaunee Culture?. Note that, in the “ethics” section, “To feed others” is listed separately from “To be hospitable,” “To be generous,” and “To share”.** The fact that all of these ideas are individually emphasized might give you a pretty good idea of their cultural importance. This doesn’t just come from the Haudenosaunee; these are all values stressed in my own upbringing.

Living in a house with just Nigel and the animals, immersed in a very different culture, with not a lot of other people likely to stop by, I still consistently cook more than we need. It would be a shame if we did not have enough to feed anybody who should happen by. That’s OK; the extra is rarely wasted, but gets eaten as leftovers and/or dog food. It’s worth it.

This cluster of cultural messages is very strong. On an individual level, my attitudes have been taken advantage of by people from different cultural backgrounds. (Not to mention expectations of politeness, however strained.) This has also played out multiple times within my family. Elizabeth Moon’s fiction actually helped me understand how this difference in approach to giving and taking works in a lot of cases, as I described in the last few paragraphs of this economic post. The assumed power dynamics involved are still very different between cultures. Experiences living in the U.K. have also illustrated this point.

Still, I have to consider living correctly by own standards to be far more important than the fact that some louts are inclined to take advantage of this. I’ve also had to learn to temper this with recognition that, past a certain point, people forfeit any right to the politeness and generosity they insist on misinterpreting as chumphood. They still deserve compassion, but you do not have to carry a snake down the mountain in your shirt.

It ‘s a good thing in multiple ways that I’m no longer concerned about sending whatever punk cred I may once have had up in flames, by mentioning Billy Ray Cyrus twice in as many weeks. 🙂 (Though a lot of my earlier embarrassment there came straight from carefully inculcated internalized racism.) Considering the continuing clash of cultural values, I can’t help but think of his “Trail of Tears”:

Too many times you walked away
And was made to feel ashamed
And though you only tried to give
You were often blamed

Yeah, some themes are still very much with some of us after 400+ years. The personal is very political indeed.

Another point I’ve been thinking about a lot today is the anger factor. Again, I try hard to temper it with compassion–in the interests of duyukta–but a lot of people would still consider me unreasonably angry and shrill about things that happened centuries ago. That’s privilege for you, and it’s hard not to see how some of the same crap continues if you don’t have that privilege. I guess it’s more internalized BS that keeps nagging at me that maybe I’m being unreasonable even thinking about these things.

Daniel Paul put it nicely, in one newspaper piece:

I’ve been asked so many times, by non-First Nations people, about the cause of the high rate of suicides, violent crimes, alcoholism, drug abuse and so on within First Nation communities that I couldn’t put a number on the times asked if I tried. My response to these queries has more often than not been, “you figure it out then give me your views.”

In order to help them figure it out, I spent over four years of my life writing a book called We were Not the Savages. I wrote this book for people to use as a tool to help in their efforts to understand. Yet I still get asked the same questions. And, interestingly enough, not more than a handful of the people who tried to come up with an explanation were even in the same ballpark as the answer.

Well today I will try to provide an answer. What has caused and continues to cause children in such places as Davis Inlet to overdose on drugs and substances, the suicides at Big Cove and other reserves too numerous to mention here, the alcoholism, drug dependency, and so on, among our people is quite simple. Try the after-effects of centuries of unmitigated racist persecution for an answer. . .

The trauma you experience by being subjected to racist persecution practically destroys your self-esteem. To overcome the experience of being brainwashed by a foreign society into believing that you are descended from an inferior civilization, peopled by inferior human beings, is nearly impossible. I can vouch for this personally; its been a struggle of mine for more than half a century.

Historical/multigenerational trauma is very real. I am working hard “[t]o overcome the experience of being brainwashed by a foreign society into believing that you are descended from an inferior civilization, peopled by inferior human beings” (in a dubious “New World”, to boot). Learning helps you deal with it. That’s part of the “truth” sense of duyukta helping bring you to the “harmony and balance” and “dignity and honor” senses; most of us could use more of all the above!

Edit: I was about to completely forget the bizarre nature of setting aside one day of the year specifically for giving thanks. To quote Tecumseh:

When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself.

That’s every single minute of every single day.

Also, from the Haudenosaunee values piece linked to earlier, “People should be thankful everyday.” It seems simple to me, but obviously not to everyone.


* I have spent some time on (Mi’kmaq) Daniel N. Paul’s website before, and would like to pick up his book at some point. Chilling stuff, bearing an uncanny similarity to what happened further south. The same people were even involved, in some cases; e.g., the Cornwallis family.

** And a lot of them are ways of trying to wrap English around the northern Iroquoian version of gadugi. Another linguistic insight I’ve had? English concepts of “generosity” and “hospitality” map about as well as “charity” onto the values we’re trying to express here. The English versions imply some alien things about power.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2009 6:00 am

    Another linguistic insight I’ve had? English concepts of “generosity” and “hospitality” map about as well as “charity” onto the values we’re trying to express here. The English versions imply some alien things about power.

    You’re right; all these English terms for compassionate giving have some subtext of noblesse oblige — and not just that, but a sense that strings are attached. We give to demonstrate how rich we are, how powerful, how large-hearted; also, giving is often used as a way to wrest respect/attention from people who might otherwise not give it. (I am thinking specifically of a lot of religious organizations, that do give food to hungry people, or a place to live to homeless people, but do so on the condition that they listen to a sermon or whatever. This kind of “Hey, I gave you something, now you have to humor me!” is definitely not restricted to religious charities, or even to institutions — I think it’s pretty endemic in Anglo-American conceptions of giving — but that was the first, best analogy I could think of).

    • urocyon permalink
      November 30, 2009 3:34 am

      Hmm, you’ve given some extra food for thought on this subject. 🙂

      Have you read Sylvia Caras’ On Gratitude? I think some of her thoughts/observations on this apply in a lot of different situations, not just in medical and psychiatric settings. If you do not express the expected level of “gratitude” when someone has tried to help you–even if it was not the kind of help that actually helps, nor the kind you wanted, and even if you never asked for help at all–they will get really hostile sometimes. I was not sure what was going on with that, when it happened in past!

  2. November 29, 2009 1:23 am

    Good to see (even though i’m not any kind of American) someone posting something like this – i’ve been pretty shocked by blogs like Feministe (which i generally consider the best at intersectionality of the Big Feminist Blogs) blithely posting threads about recipes for celebrating Thanksgiving without apparently even stopping to consider that it might be a pretty fucking offensive “festival” to celebrate in the first place.

    I do also find the whole concept of “giving thanks” rather problematic, for reasons that are pretty well outlined by PZ Myers here (well, before he decides to post a cartoon gratuitously attacking Facilitated Communication…), but also for reasons to do with how the oppressed are so often expected to be “thankful” (or “grateful”) for acts of “beneficence” that are actually acts of oppression, which i think is so deeply ingrained in normative-(post)-Christian-white-Western culture, and all the cultures it’s colonised, as to make me feel instinctively opposed to the whole concept of “thankfulness” or “gratitude”. Maybe that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, i don’t know, but i do know that i feel as uncomfortable with anyone thanking me for something i gave them or did for them, not out of any desire for thanks, but simply because to me it’s the only right thing to do, as i did as a child with “having to” thank my parents or other relatives (eg. at christmas or birthdays) for things that i never wanted to be given anyway.

    Then again, i first heard of Thanksgiving from this… which i think was a pretty cool introduction, even if it could be accused of appropriation 😉 (LOVE the kid in the powerchair whizzing round with the rope to tie her up…)

    • urocyon permalink
      November 30, 2009 3:27 am

      Hmm, I’ll have to give the “giving thanks” some more thought–particularly with all the ways the words have been applied. Off the top of my head, I tend to think of it more as not feeling entitled, and being aware that a lot of good things happen (including things like our having food and shelter) that could go very differently. It’s more gratitude to the universe in general that things are as good as they are.

      This doesn’t require, as PZ Myers suggests, something “out there that can be aware of just how glad you are to be alive”; I fall somewhere toward the atheist side of panentheism. For me at least, it’s more internal/psychological, decreasing the risk of turning into an entitled ass, and helping keep me from focusing mostly on what’s going wrong.

      That kind of thankfulness doesn’t really incur any obligation to anyone, other than possibly to try to help other people where you can.

      This reminds me of an anecdote in Michael Garrett’s Walking on the Wind. “Cringing at the thought of eating a chicken candy bar, I refused his gift, saying, ‘I don’t want it.’ My parents’ faces were frozen stiff with horror and disbelief at my behavior. I had just rejected an unselfish offer and insulted a good man…What I got was a good long ‘talking to’ about how we Garretts do not act like that, about how important it is to be gracious and respectful and appreciative of things that come our way…Now, there is no way that I could have known that Chick-O-Sticks are not made out of chicken, but, nonetheless, that was not the point. I had hurt the Greek man’s feelings.”

      That pretty well sums up the way I’ve thought about thanking people for things I didn’t necessarily want. If they’re trying to do something to help me, I do appreciate that much, and try hard to keep up the manners. The “unselfish” and “not doing it to make themselves feel good” bits make a huge difference to me in this kind of situation. If the other person obviously feels entitled to some kind of gratitude, they’ve forfeited any real thanks.

      Your comment reminded me of Sylvia Caras’ On Gratitude, which I ran across a couple of weeks ago, along with a piece by a different author which deals with similar themes. (I can’t find that one right now.) That’s the kind of “thankfulness” I definitely don’t want anything to do with! And repeatedly ran into difficulties over not pretending to express, now that it’s pointed out.

      I have run into similar reactions to the idea of “humility”. It’s often presented as such an ugly, grovelling thing–sort of like some versions of “respect”. Argh.

  3. November 29, 2009 3:41 am

    Also, i found this, which, if it’s accurate (of which i have no idea), seems somewhat at odds with the idea that pre-Invasion American wars weren’t about territory – unless the territorial-competition aspect was introduced by the Europeans.

    Of course, i can’t help thinking the world might have been a better place if Tisquantum and co had taken something closer to the Wednesday Addams approach. But, 20/20 hindsight and all that…

    (In general, when reading about colonial history, i have to work quite hard to avoid coming to a Nation of Islam-ish position that white Europeans are an unredeemable monster-race like the orcs in LOTR. Rather like how i have to work hard to avoid coming to the SCUM Manifesto conclusion when reading about rape culture, i guess. As a (nominally) white (nominally) male, i doubly damn myself…)

    • urocyon permalink
      November 30, 2009 2:43 am

      I started out writing a reply, but it ballooned into another post. 🙂

      With you totally on the “20/20 hindsight”. There must have been a way to deal with these situations without too seriously violating one’s own ethical and moral beliefs. People certainly tried later, but it was a bit late by then!

      work quite hard to avoid coming to a Nation of Islam-ish position
      I know what you mean, sometimes. Usually I try to fall back on pragmatism, and think of these things more in terms of having had a very bad upbringing. If people can admit they’ve behaved badly, learn better, and honestly try to behave better in future, that’s the best possible outcome. Becoming able to see that people are still gaining benefit from previous generations’ bad behavior is an excellent start. (I’m definitely in on that one, including on “gods forbid anyone should mistake us for Black people, especially when some of our ancestors really were!” grounds. They may have thought they had good reason, but it was wrong, and is still helping perpetuate a lot of problems.) It’s not the people themselves who are the problem, it’s certain sets of philosophies which are also hurting the people living by them. General rule of thumb: if your approach is hurting other people and/or yourself, you’re doing it wrong.

      Sometimes staying optimistic is kinda hard, though. *wry smile*

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