By: Jocelyn Perry
Recently tears came to my eyes as I began to read about the Trail of Tears. In 1830, the United States Congress passed the “Indian Removal Act” which was the catalyst for the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was the forced disconnection and displacement of the Cherokee people from their ancestral homeland. The suffering and death of thousands of Cherokee women, children and men began in 1838. About 4,000 died on the long march over thousands of miles with minimal facilities and food. These sorts of injustices only deepened the great disaster of Western involvement in the “new world” as disease brought by Europeans and subsequent conscious efforts by the US government during the 1600s—1800s resulted in a culminated death of 10 to 30 million Native Americans people.
As we approach Thanksgiving, the anarchist critique is vital. The anarchic critique calls us to take a hard look at the historic imperialistic behavior of the first European settlers and the US government against Native American people. Also, an anarchist perspective serves to critique aggressive approaches in missionary work pushing for the “conversion” of Native American peoples to Christianity. This season is not just a season of grateful celebration but also a season of remembrance, even a season of mourning, for the Native Americans.
But in struggling with this paradox of celebration and remembrance we ask the question: how was Jesus’ living gospel of hospitality and gratitude embodied by the Native Americans during the First Thanksgiving?
The Gospel of Luke says, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Who was of service at the first Thanksgiving?
In 1600, the Wampanoag tribe of southern New England were as many as 12,000 with 40 villages divided roughly between 8,000 on the mainland and another 4,000 on the offshore islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The three epidemics that swept across New England and the Canadian Maritimes between 1614 and 1620 were especially devastating to the Wampanoag and neighboring Massachuset, with mortality in many mainland villages (e.g. Patuxet) reaching 100%. When the Pilgrims landed in 1620, fewer than 2,000 mainland Wampanoag had survived. Smallpox, most likely brought by Europeans, was the cause of the epidemic. Their relative isolation protected the Wampanoag islanders—perhaps 3,000 survived. At least 10 mainland villages had been abandoned after the epidemics because there was no one left.
As a true act of “practicing faith through hospitality” Squanto, a Wampanoag, devoted himself to helping the Pilgrims who were now living at the site of his old village. With great kindness and patience, he taught the English the skills they needed to survive, and in so doing, assured the destruction of his own people.
After this act of service, Pilgrims were grateful enough that fall to invite the Wampanoag to celebrate their first harvest with them (The First Thanksgiving). The Wampanoag brought five deer, and the feasting lasted for three days. The celebration was a little premature. During the winter of 1622, a second ship arrived unexpectedly from England, and with 40 new mouths to feed. The Pilgrims were once again starving. Forgiving an unfortunate incident (when the Pilgrims had decimated a sacred Wampanoag graveyard the previous year), the Wampanoag brought food to Plymouth.
This true act of the Wampanoag—extending abundance of Creation through hospitality and service to the Pilgrims—is Jesus’ gospel story as found in Luke. Some folk focus on the intense preparation of food and the abundance of our American culture. But the focus of Thanksgiving is the act of hospitality: the expression of love at “the Table.” The vision of the Gospel calls us to celebration and hospitality at Thanksgiving.
Re-Christianizing the story of Thanksgiving asks us also to critique the Puritan behavior of using Christianity as a tool to disintegrate the Wampanoag people socially, culturally and spiritually.
In 1640, the missionary work of John Eliot (a Puritan) was to convert New England’s Native American population, including the long suffering Wampanoag. Converts were settled in small communities of “Praying Indians” at Natick, Nonantum, Punkapog, and other locations. Native Americans that were even partially resistant to the Puritan version of Christianity were unwelcome. Attendance at church was mandatory. Clothing and hair were changed to proper colonial styles. Even subtle expressions of traditional ceremony and religion served as grounds for expulsion. As a result, tribal culture and authority disintegrated. The Puritans of New England were not the only sect of Christianity to use religion to disintegrate Native American society. Moravian and Baptist missionary to the Cherokee people also had a theology seeking conversion of Native Americans.
Furthermore, treaties that sold Native American land to Christian Europeans were not contracts that truly embodied the social, economic, and spiritual life of Native Americans. The concepts of “land ownership” and “paternal family structure” were not part of the worldview of many Native Americans historically. But Land, the Sacred Spirit of Nature, and the Native American people co-existed and could not be sold. There was no concept of private property for Native Americans. The Native Americans practiced communal land ownership. That is, the entire community owned the land upon which it lived. Thus, forcibly enforcing treaties disintegrated the Wampanoag people. This story continues throughout the American continent. Both the Wampanoags and Cherokee shared this concept of communal land ownership and were removed from Sacred Land, which was a multilevel disintegration: socially, economically and spiritually.
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