In that first year of the white man in Virginia, 1607, Powhatan had addressed a plea to John Smith that turned out to be prophetic. How authentic it is may be in doubt, but it is so much like so many Indian statements that it may be taken as, if not the rough letter of that first plea, the exact spirit of it:
“I have seen two generations of my people die…I know the difference between peace and war better than any man in my country. I am now grown old, and must die soon; my authority must descend to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opechancanough and Catatough–then to my two sisters, and then to my two daughters. I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your love to them may be like mine to you. Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war?”
–from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
Thank God for Howard Zinn! He tells the story of the genocide perpetrated by the European settlers in this country in a way that my elementary school textbooks never dared to reveal.
I’ve always pictured a cornucopia of the fall season’s delights at Thanksgiving time. Everybody gets along, neighbor with neighbor! In the past, we shared our great abundance, and as we all sat down for a feast, there was a lot of back-slapping and plenty of giddy toasts to companionship and peace.
The truth is that a whole civilization was razed. American Indians were hunted and massacred and pushed farther to the Southwest until they were almost off the map.
When I think of what could have been–the kind of peaceful civilization we could have joined–so in line with the laws of nature!–it feels like a raw deal.
John Collier, an American scholar who lived among the Indians in the 1920s and 1930s in the American Southwest, said of their spirit: “Could we make it our own there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace.”
Perhaps there is some romantic mythology in that. But the evidence from European travelers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, put together recently by an American specialist on Indian life, William Brandon, is overwhelmingly supportive of much of that “myth.” Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization. (Zinn, pp. 21-22)
So whether you associate Thanksgiving with a plate of turkey surrounded by all the fixings, or even with Charlie Brown, thank the people who were native to this land. They paid with flesh and blood for our great harvest.