John Tierney: That First Thanksgiving

Roundup: Talking About History

Depending on when and where you went to grade school, you've probably heard one of these versions of the first Thanksgiving:

1. After a kindly Indian named Squanto taught the Pilgrims to grow corn, the Pilgrims invited the Indians to a meal to celebrate their friendship and mutual desire to live in harmony.

2. The Pilgrims held a feast to thank God, the real hero of Thanksgiving, who had earlier arranged for Squanto to be kidnapped, brought to Europe, taught Christianity and then miraculously returned just in time to help the Pilgrims.

3. The Indians, vicious barbarians awed by the Europeans' technology, sought an alliance with the Pilgrims to get access to their steel tools and enjoy the protection of their guns.

4. The Native Americans, a peaceable people who practiced sustainable agriculture and lived as one with nature, innocently befriended the Pilgrims without realizing these imperialists would destroy their lands and wage genocidal wars.

The problem with all these versions, even the last one about the saintly Native American proto-environmentalists, is that they don't do justice to the Pilgrims' guests. One way or another, the Indians come off as primitive patsies embracing the powerful invaders.

These stories all suffer from a warped view of Indians as naïfs that afflicted the first settlers and persisted for centuries among historians. It's the fallacy dubbed "Holmberg's Mistake" by Charles Mann in his new book, "1491," an intriguing revisionist history.

Holmberg's Mistake is named after an anthropologist in the 1940's who concluded that the Bolivian Amazon had long been a primeval wilderness inhabited by a few Stone Age tribes. But as later researchers found, that landscape had been transformed by a large, prosperous society that dug canals, raised earthworks and cleared forests to plant crops and build cities.

The Indians who greeted European colonists may have seemed like barbarians - or, in later mythology, like Noble Savages - but that was only because their societies had been decimated by epidemics brought by earlier Europeans. Before then, the Americas may well have been more populous than Europe, and in some ways more advanced....

Read entire article at NYT

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Carl Becker - 11/21/2006

“…their societies had been decimated by epidemics brought by earlier Europeans.” Nice. Well I guess that lets the later Europeans off the hook.

“…saintly Native American proto-environmentalists” Tierney deserves a good smack on the side of his head for using “saintly” to sarcastically describe North American Indians with a Western term that has nothing to do with anything except the murderous Christians who claimed the land in the name of God to later conduct genocidal wars. I see a parallel with Israel and Palestine here.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 11/22/2005

Disregarding the ease with which Mr. Tierny asserts that his four carefully constructed straw men - imaginary ideas of 17th-century Indians in southeastern Massachusetts - collapse when confronted with the existence of evidence of an elaborate earlier culture in the Brazilian Amazon region, the confrontation of technology remains interesting. In the later 1980's in an exhibit at Plimoth Plantation, where I was curator, I displayed a brass arrow point that had been archaeologically excavated on Cape Cod (it has since been "re-patriated" and re-buried). Repeating the archaeologists' opinion of the time, our labelling indicated that this perfectly formed, symetrical cast brass point was an example of Native ingenuity when confronted with European objects: a colonist's brass cooking pan must have been cut into arrow points more useful in Native society. Now that I've seen similar European brass arrow points (in Europe, examples that had never been in America), I wonder why I never asked the question, which kind of stone tools exactly (granite? flint? obsidian?) were used to cut the even straight lines in the brass pot, to smooth the metal without evidence of denting or hammering, and to cut and sharpen the exact blade edges? That Indians demonstrably wanted European metal tools does not imply that they were "vicious barbarians awed by European technology." Just as reasonably, they were intelligent people acquiring more efficient tools for long-established social purposes, hunting and farming. Of course, now that the question has occurred to me, it's impossible to study the object, because of the sentimental romanticism that has led to its reburial.