I am grateful this year to those who taught me to be an American.

We, whose names are signed… By these present, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and among ourselves, we make an agreement and combine ourselves in a civil Political Body, for our better ordering and preservation, and promotion of the ends. above: And by virtue of the present promulgate, constitute and frame fair and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officials, from time to time, as deemed most appropriate and convenient for the general good of the Colony; to which we pledge all due Submission and Obedience.

—The Mayflower Compact, November 1620.

With this, some British religious dissidents vowed that they would not start killing each other now that they had reached Cape Cod. There had been some enthusiastic disputes on board the lily of the valley during the voyage, as The Mayflower Society explains:

English colonies at the time required “patents”: documents granted by the king or chartered companies granting permission to settle in a particular location. Since the Mayflower passengers had obtained a patent for Virginia, when they landed in New England, this patent was no longer valid. Any kind of authority that the group leaders might have derived from this patent was therefore also suspect, with some passengers threatening that “when they disembarked they would use their own freedom, since no one had the power to command them, the patent they had it was for Virginia and not for New England.”

Man, those were some runaway looking guys right there. Anyway, that was what prompted everyone to sign the agreement that they wouldn’t start killing each other, which, given 17th century monotheisms, wasn’t a sure thing no matter where the Europeans were. The problem is, of course, that having reached this agreement, they proceeded to kill everyone else, a practice John Winthrop and his team enthusiastically joined in once they appeared a few degrees north in what became Boston. They hung Quakers and Catholics. The parsons and magistrates in Salem, as everyone and Arthur Miller have pointed out, went completely mad.

And the one thing they all agreed on was that it was necessary to kill all the natives who had been here in the first place. The genocide of the New England natives doesn’t have the same buzz in popular culture as the genocide of the Great Plains, but it was brutal nonetheless and, moreover, particularly God-mad. The forced conversion of the natives to Christianity was one of the things that sparked King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict all but lost to history now. In 1675, Metacomet, known to the English as King Philip, son of Massasoit, made war on the English settlers in northern Rhode Island. The Narragansett refused to join him and dealt with the governments of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Narragansetts then fled to what they thought was the safety of a large swamp. I do not help. The Massachusetts and Connecticut militias attacked them anyway, their assault made easier because the swamp had frozen over. No one knows how many Narragansett people were killed in the swamp; estimates go as high as 1,000. Later, Metacomet was killed in another battle and his head was poked on a post at the gates of Plimoth Colony. where he stayed for decades.

This year I would like to thank the natives that I have met on my way. These include the late great Frank LaMere, basketball fan and activist, and all the Poncas who joined their white neighbors in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from running through Nebraska. They also include the natives of Rankin Inlet in Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic and, of course, the Shishmaref Inupiat in Alaska, who are literally on the front lines of the climate crisis and are desperately fighting to move their village before it the island they have inhabited for 5,000 years is swallowed by the thawed sea.

And I spent a week on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, a vast mountainous place populated by the Arapaho from the north and the Shoshone from the east. Walking, I came to a small cemetery, all the graves were surrounded by colored glass and crowned by worn wooden crosses. Many of the last names on the crosses were the same; so many were children. I remember one family name, Wallowingbull, who seemed to outnumber everyone else in the little churchyard. The ravens stood on the crosses, leaning against the wind.

From all these places and all these people, and many more like them, I learned more about being an American, for better and for worse, than from virtually any other source or from any other people. I remember the night in 2019 that Congress opened, and looking down from the press gallery, I saw Rep. Sharice Davids of the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk and then Rep. Deb Haaland of the Laguna People, both dressed in glorious finery, embracing in a chamber where so much pain originated for the native peoples of this continent. In 1830, this is where the Indian Removal Act was passed. In 1887, this is where the Dawes Act was passed. This is where the bullets that flew at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek were purchased. And there were two native women still standing, against the weight of all that history. It was a moment for me.

To be fair, my family didn’t get here until the early 1900s, so almost all the land had been stolen by then. But my grandmother used to tell me the story of how “the Indians” (actually the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma) came to the rescue of the starving victims of a dead fat, The Great Famine. I had heard of him while living on the family sheep farm in North Kerry, I guess from his old folks. Dispossessed, their native culture and language severely battered, the Choctaw came to the end of the Trail of Tears just as the Famine began across the sea.

“Mother of God,” my grandmother used to say, “wasn’t that an act of heaven?”

Happy Thanksgiving Day. See you on Monday.

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