Seven years before Tisquantum (Squanto, to most of us) helped the Pilgrims recover from their disastrous first winter in America, he was kidnapped by an English cod fisher and fur trader who was diversifying into the human trade. Tisquantum and other stock were shipped to Spain under hatch, a murderous passage, and most of the survivors were sold into slavery. Tisquantum was among the lucky, rescued by friars before he could be auctioned, though perhaps held a few years to ensure his salvation by Christ. We do not know how Tisquantum made his way to London and finagled a job as guide and interpreter on a ship bound for New England. But in 1619, four years after his abduction, he returned to America only to find his town of Patuxet in ruins and nearly all its 2,000 Wampanoags dead of European pox. When the Pilgrims arrived the following winter, they founded Plymouth on Patuxet’s remains–a cruel symbol, that.
We do not hear much of this history on Thanksgiving. We hear instead that in the spring of 1621 Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims to grown corn and catch eel. We hear that come autumn, gratitude suffused the harvest feast, that beautiful gathering of men who had seen Shakespeare in his lifetime and men ignorant of paper but living lives of plenty. These things are indeed true, but a fuller truth is that Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims as much from fear as from charity and that alongside the goodwill at the first Thanksgiving were mutual mistrust and just-restrained hostility. The mistrust, on the Wampanoags’ side at least, was well founded, as their destruction by colonial America soon proved.
America is not alone among nations in making mythology of history. Myth comforts. History, which is to say truth, instructs, often painfully. And it is a painful truth that the guns, germs, and steel of our forebears precipitated the great bloodletting that rid Indian Country of Indians and damned the few survivors to POW camps (now called reservations) where they remain the poorest, most diseased, and worst schooled among us. The link between our myth-making and their destitution is direct. For to forget that our nation virtually destroyed theirs is to absolve ourselves of a duty to make amends. We have been absolving ourselves for half a millennium now.
The consequences are written all over America’s most populous reservations, where half the men and women have no work, half their children drop out of school, and still greater majorities, adult and adolescent, rot slowly from addiction to drink and drug. The reservation birthright is an eightfold risk, compared to other Americans, of dying of tuberculosis, a twofold risk of dying in infancy, and a three- or fourfold risk of dying by one’s own hand while still a child. On reservations like South Dakota’s Pine Ridge, a boy born in 2008 can expect just 48 years of life, a girl 52. Tell them they should give thanks on this day.
Indians have, of course, tried to better their lot. But they are cursed by a dependence on the kindness of strangers far surpassing that of others who were once written out of the American dream. Blacks and Latinos, say, make up 12 and 15 percent of America and are clustered powerfully in cities and regions like the South and Southwest. But Indians make up just 1 percent of America and are thinly scattered across its lands. They haven’t the numbers to demand power. Nor have they the natural resources to build wealth, power’s proxy. (Only a tiny handful of America’s 562 tribes, to dispel another myth, enjoy casino or mineral riches.)
And so Indians are reduced to asking our leaders to do what is right because, quaintly, it is right, not because it will win them votes or dollars. Morality has always been a weak political card, but our nation has come to a rare moment when there is at last a chance–call it a hope–that the card might play. For the man just elected president, now of necessity coldly calculating what his America can and cannot achieve, was shaped among the colonized peoples of Hawaii, Indonesia, and Kenya and by a family sensitive to the costs of colonialism. In his broad mandate for change there will be room for a few deeds of mere moral, rather than electoral, worth. These are thin reeds against the winds of Realpolitik, which will howl at Mr. Obama to ignore–that is, condemn–America’s Indians just as his recent predecessors have done. But forgive Indians and their friends if for now they cling to those hope-giving reeds.
What, specifically, Indians hope for is no mystery. They hope our new president will end their Eternal Depression (compared to which our Great Depression was a curio) with a New Deal: a CCC, a WPA, an NYA, and all the rest of FDR’s alphabet-soup work programs, only under Indian control. They hope our new president will return a few of their stolen lands; for a start, the federal tracts in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakotas and seized by rankest theft, can be given back without disturbing a single acre owned by a white man. They hope our new president knows, or learns with grief, that tribal colleges and universities–born only a generation ago in trailer homes but already, in the greatest Indian victory since Little Bighorn, turning dropouts into graduates by the thousand–have never received even half the funds our niggardly Congress has authorized for them over the years. They hope our new president will raze the corrupt and soul-crushingly inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs and erect in its place a truer friend of, by, and for Indians. And they hope our new president will free at last Leonard Peltier, the Mandela of Indian Country. Peltier has been imprisoned these 32 years for killing two FBI agents, an act he may or may not have done. What is certain is that he and his people returned the FBI’s fire only after years of savage provocation, that his trial was one of the grossest railroadings in the history of American courts, and that our government’s guilt far outstripped anything he stood accused of. The man has done time enough. So has Indian Country. Let us hope that may change.
STEVE HENDRICKS is the author of The Unquiet Grave: The FBI and the Struggle for the Soul of Indian Country. His website is SteveHendricks.org.