Wednesday, November 24, 2010

El Squanto vs The Zombie Pilgrims!

Happy Thanksgiving! On this, the most sacred day on the year for America's food retailers, let us pause to consider the life of the man who made that first Thanksgiving possible: Squanto.
     Most of us heard vague rumors of this Indian guy back in grade school. He was a gentleman of the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony during their first miserable year in New England. It was he who taught them the fish-in-the-hole trick to fertilize their corn, taught them to plant squash and pumpkins, served as ambassador to surrounding Native tribes, and navigated them around unfamiliar territory. By most accounts, it was Squanto who saved the Pilgrims' bacon and ensured the survival of Plymouth.
     Something that always bothered me as a kid was a question my history picture-books never answered. How did Squanto learn English? In those texts the Pilgrims were Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise landing on an alien world and encountering locals who all sounded like James Earl Jones. More modern textbooks say Squanto learned his English from passing fisherman. What they don't tell you is that those fisherman kidnapped Squanto and sold him into slavery. He spent nine years in England before a sympathetic master arranged for him to return. However, an English slave-raider than captured him and sold him in Malaga, Spain. Our hero escaped, made his way to England, and after one failed attempt to return home via Newfoundland finally made it back to his home village after an absence of fourteen years. . . .
     . . . only to find that his home was gone. A smallpox epidemic had annihilated the Patuxet, passing through their village so rapidly that recently planted corn was still growing in the fields--fields that had just been taken over by the Pilgrims. For Plymouth Colony was founded literally on the ruins of Squanto's home village. Sure, Squanto was all too happy to assist the Pilgrims: he had no choice. He had nowhere else to go, and his tribe was gone. He was the sole survivor.
     Comparatively speaking, Squanto was lucky. The Pilgrims could have treated him, and the other Natives with whom they came into contact, much worse. Afterall, the Plymouth colonists--by their own admission--merely engaged in graverobbing:
The next morning, we found a place like a grave. We decided to dig it up. We found first a mat, and under that a fine bow. . . . We also found bowls, trays, dishes, and things like that. We took several of the prettiest things to carry away with us, and covered the body up again.
At least the Pilgrims left the body alone. Had Squanto ended up down south in Virginia he'd have had an outbreak of zombies to deal with. Here's the description from that wonderful book, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen:
[The Virginia colonists] spent their early days digging random holes in the ground, haplessly looking for gold instead of planting crops. Soon they were starving and digging up putrid Indian corpses to eat. . . .
Me, I prefer mashed-potatoes. One wonders how many aristocratic planter families in the Old South are descended from ancestors who ate human flesh. It's the kind of thing you wish Faulkner had written about (and you thought "A Rose For Emily" was gross!). So as many of us in the next few days sit down to sumptuous meals, let us spare a thought for a man with strength, loyalty, intelligence, and courage to rival any luchador, and for the important role that zombies have played in American history. Take care and . . . eat well.

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