By Bob Harris
WHEN I WAS in first grade, we never spent a day talking about the “meaning” of Halloween or Memorial Day. We spent a whole week on the Thanksgiving story.
Plymouth Rock, 1621: Pilgrims escaping religious persecution and settling an empty continent shared their bounty with primitive Indians with whom they shared the land.
(Aside to uptight liberals: Most actual American Indians really don’t care much if we call them “Indians,” “Native Americans,” or “Constantin-ople.” As if a polite term could undo 500 years. You should hear what they call us.) Thanksgiving is really a creation myth for white America, a capsule of what cheap politicians consider traditional values: manifest destiny, the Protestant work ethic, cultural superiority, etc. Our ritual re-enactment of the feast is nothing less than a civil sacrament.
It’s also almost completely phony.
To begin with, the word settler is deceptive. The Indians had long before “settled” most of the east coast, and fairly comfortably at that. (Are Mexicans moving to L.A. “settlers?” Potato, potahto.)
America was not empty. Archeologists have found Indian communities of 30,000 or more all over America; the current consensus is that around 12-15 million folks were living north of the Rio Grande when Europeans got off the boat. Other explorers soon followed Columbus, but colonies were another deal entirely. Providing homes for dozens of people, thousands of miles from the nearest supplies–using only 16th-century tools you could fit on a boat–was a heck of a trick.
Spanish colonists gave it a shot in 1526, but faced with new crops, strange animals, dwindling supplies, and no cable, they bagged it right away. The first English colony was established on Roanoke Island in 1585. It was gone by 1590. Nice try.
Finally, in 1607, the Brits founded Jamestown. Good news, bad news. By the end of the first winter, two thirds had died of disease and starvation. The remainder received handouts from the Powhatan Indians–welfare for illegal immigrants, in modern terms–and survived.
To the Powhatans, Europeans looked pretty goofy: far from home for no visible reason, unable to grow crops, short-lived, and sick all the time. Boy, were they sick. Sanitation wasn’t exactly a European strong point. Remember, London and Paris still had raw sewage running in the streets. For many, religious modesty forbade routine bathing. And the newcomers had been living on a boat for months. In short, Europeans were pretty skanky.
Skip ahead a few years.
Shortly before the Mayflower landed, the area around Plymouth was ravaged by an epidemic, probably smallpox brought to shore by French and British fishermen. Europeans often survived the disease, since it was their funk in the first place, but 90 percent of the local Indians died between 1617 and 1620.
We’re not talking European Black Death rates of 30 percent, which was enough to mess things up for hundreds of years. We’re talking Ebola mortality here, albeit at a slower speed. This pattern was repeated in the Americas for centuries. It’s one of the main reasons the thriving Indian civilizations are gone. Europeans had major cooties.
Imagine the impact of anthrax, cholera, influenza, and assorted plagues and poxes on communities with no resistance. Over and over again, the first white folks into an Indian village found three or four times as many inhabitants as expeditions just a generation or two later. That’s why later Europeans were sometimes able to “settle” right in the middle of former Indian towns, growing crops on fields cleared by Indians, using the very tools the Indians left behind, using the survivors as teachers and servants.
Cutting some slack, most colonists didn’t run around infecting Indians intentionally. Many were too busy bleeding and throwing up to be bothered. Think of it as a (mostly) unintentional form of biological warfare, with the front moving west at an average of 10-15 miles per year, and you’re not far off.
Then remember that over three quarters of the federal budget in Washington’s time was spent on various methods of killing Indians and taking their land–intentional genocide is a whole other subject for another time–and you can see how, at the dawn of the 20th century, those 12-15 million Indians were reduced to just 250,000. That’s why the most famous Indian storytellers in America are Kevin Costner and Walt Disney. It’s why so much of our history–which until this century was mostly a series of European/Indian interactions–is largely white stories of white glories.
Like the Mayflower Thanksgiving myth, for example …
From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.