It turns out that if you treat the Native Americans as human beings–complex characters aware of their own mortality–instead of saddling them with that old “friendly/savage” binary we learned from the movies and the textbooks and the NFL and you get the picture, then there are some fascinating stories. (Another reason it would be foolish to saddle Natives is that they did not feel the need to invent the saddle. They relied on their strong thighs and calloused balls.)
Here, then, is a very good, if long, article from a guy named Charles Mann about the background to the first Thanksgiving. It’s kind of an origin story, even though Squanto does not see his parents bow-and-arrowed to death by a mugger.
Remember Squanto from the Thanksgiving pageant in first grade? Cardboard feathers and buckled hats and all that bullshit? He was friendly and a people-person; he took a liking to the crackers and fed them out of the goodness of his heart, right?
Absolutely not: Squanto was named Tisquantum and he had been kidnapped and taken to England years prior. He learned to speak the language in London, where he stayed with some rich asshole who would make him dress up in full regalia to amuse other rich assholes. In the rich asshole’s defense, though: he didn’t charge Tisquantum rent or anything, which is nice because even in the 1600’s, living in London was expensive.
Meanwhile, back in New England, there’s this guy named Massasoit, who is a local sachem (it means chief, but the Europeans always translated it into “king” because the one of the recurring themes of history is people being stupidly incapable of acknowledging that reality means different things to different people). Massasoit is responsible for a bunch of interconnected family clans along coastal Plymouth and has the wonderful luck of welcoming the Pilgrims.
Massasoit has problems. Disease has decimated the Native population. Actually, it was almost an 90% death rate, so you might say that disease novidecimated the Native population. His people in particular have been hit hard by whatever the filthy, tiny, hairy boat people have brought with them. The inland tribes are eyeing his turf and so are the motherfuckers to the north; Massasoit looks at the Europeans, who will certainly die if he doesn’t help them, but also have cannons.
Massasoit says “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Tisquantum (this is a story ’bout Tisquantum) has made it back to New England by now. The Wampanoag no longer trust him, the English think he’s a savage, but he’s the only one who speaks both languages well enough to translate.
Why are you still here? Go read up on your history, fam.