Monday, November 11, 2019

David J. Silverman's "This Land Is Their Land"

David J. Silverman is a professor at George Washington University, where he specializes in Native American, Colonial American, and American racial history. He is the author of Thundersticks, Red Brethren, Ninigret, and Faith and Boundaries. His essays have won major awards from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the New York Academy of History.

Silverman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, and reported the following:
Page 99 of This Land is Their Land appears early in chapter 3, which explores how the Wampanoag Indians’ decimation by an unidentified epidemic between 1616 and 1619 was the essential context to their outreach to Plymouth colony in 1621. Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth, the Wampanoags did not engage the English because they were inherently friendly. Rather, the Wampanoags needed allies and fast because the Narragansett tribe, which had escaped the disease, was subjugating them in their weakness to the status of tributaries. Page 99 is part of a larger discussion of what Wampanoag country was like just before the epidemic. It traces how the density of the Wampanoag population and the Wampanoags’ long-distance social and political networks enabled the disease to spread from human to human between the Saco River of Maine on the north and the east side of Narragansett Bay on the south. This discussion also explores the intertribal enmities that prevented the sickness from reaching the Narragansett tribe on the west side of the bay. Page 99 quotes the writings of European explorers who preceded the Mayflower in southern New England that Wampanoag country was full of people and “an excellent place both for health and fertility.” It also uses those sources, and the Indian testimony on which they drew, to sketch the close relationship between the Wampanoags of what is now southeastern Massachusetts and the Massachusett Indians of Massachusetts Bay, where Boston is now located. The Wampanoags depended on the Massachusett Indians as allies against the Narragansett tribe to the south, whereas the Massachusett Indians depended on the Wampanoags as trade partners and military allies in relations with the Wabanakis of Maine to the north. The Wabanakis were in steady contact with European fishermen from several different nations, to whom they traded furs in exchange for metal tools in high demand among Native people. To facilitate this trade, the Wabanakis began dedicating more time to hunting beaver for pelts and less to producing food, but they made up for that shift by trading bits of metal and worn out tools to the Massachusett Indians in exchange for their corn. The Massachusett Indians probably exchanged a portion of this metal to the Wampanoags for additional corn. When the corn-producing Massachusett people refused to bargain on Wabanaki terms, the Wabanakis launched amphibious raids against them in “their newly acquired sailing vessels” from Europeans. The epidemic of 1616-19 would feast on such human connections to the devastation of the aforementioned tribes.

The “page 99 test” would work once the reader has finished my book and absorbed its overarching themes, but probably not otherwise. This Land is Their Land emphasizes that the sanitized Thanksgiving myth is lousy history for a host of reasons. Those reasons include depicting America as a New World or wilderness instead of reckoning with Native people’s ancient history and civilizations; sidestepping the century of bloody contact between the Wampanoags and Europeans before the arrival of the Mayflower as Europeans repeatedly raided the coast for captives and plunder; ignoring that the Wampanoags’ “friendly” outreach to Plymouth colony stemmed from their need for military and trade allies to offset the threat of the Narragansett tribe after the epidemic of 1616-19; and using a shared meal as a symbol of bloodless colonialism and Indian consent to their own displacement instead of acknowledging the Wampanaogs’ resentment of aggressive English expansion, culminating in the bloody King Philip’s War of 1675-76. The Thanksgiving myth also elides the three centuries of Wampanoag struggles with colonialism after King Philip’s War, including the processes by which whites reduced them to near landlessness and servitude, denied their Indian identities and rights, and assigned them to romantic bit parts in the nation’s founding myth. Finally, I emphasize that the Wampanoags’ National Day of Mourning, held in Plymouth annually since 1970, reflect a centuries’-long Wampanoag critique of colonialism as a betrayal of their people’s historic alliance with Plymouth. Telling this history in its full complexity involves addressing not only the troubled history of Wampaoag-English relations, but the intra- and intertribal politics of the Wampanoags, which often drove their policies toward the New England colonies. In this respect, the page 99 test proves true.
Learn more about This Land Is Their Land at the Bloomsbury website.

--Marshal Zeringue