Considering Squanto or The Lost American History

During the past few weeks I’ve been working on three film viewer’s guides for The Native American Public Telecommunications group.  One is on the trial of Standing Bear, another on a Tlingit man from Alaska, and a third on a Laguna Pueblo feast day called “Grab.”  Just working on these guides makes me once again ashamed to call myself an “American” and have so little knowledge of our first Americans.  It reminds me of the many years we worked on the Native music series, Oyate Ta Olowan–The Songs of the People that we produced for public radio.  At the time I wrote a rather long article about our (my) lack of knowledge about Native People.  I want to post it below since it never found a home in the publishing world.  It also has a nice summary of our Oyate adventures.  But the whole deal still makes me want to say, “shame on us.”  I hope you’ll take the time to read it and tell me what you think.

Considering Squanto

Microsoft word refuses to recognize Squanto and squiggles a red line beneath it.  It suggests I try squint, squints, squinty, squat, and Quanta with a capital “Q”.  In truth, his real name was Tisquantum, or Squanto, for short.  Squanto, born in 1590, was a Wampanoag man from a small village called Patuxet.  As every good elementary school child in America knows, Squanto taught the colonists how to hunt, grow food and basically survive their first winter in the new land after The Mayflower docked at what is now Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.

I want to tell you the true story of Squanto, and of the adventures we had in Indian Country while producing a public radio series called Oyate Ta Olowan—The Songs of the People.  And I want to tell you what I later discovered about our modern culture as I studied the systemic work of Bert Hellinger.

Since the early nineties my husband, Milt, and I have been producing

documentary programs for public radio on mostly Indian issues.  We began this work with a little project documenting the complex relationship between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Lakota people in four half hour programs.  The Black Hills, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, He’Sapa to the Lakotas, swirl with ancient stories and beautiful names.  The stories say it is here that the people first emerged from Makah, Mother Earth and here that the great race was run between all creatures to see who would dominate and here the heart of the world pulses out from.   By the time we finished that project, we were hooked on this unusual journalistic form.

We roamed from one project to another throughout Indian country.  We examined AIDS in Indian Country in a show called “Does Mother Earth Have AIDS?”  We honored Lakota singer, Buddy Red Bow on the anniversary of his death, daring to acknowledge the painful destruction of a talented man who couldn’t control his drinking.  “Mama, I’m sorry, sorry I booze a lot,” he wrote.

We looked at The American Indian Movement (AIM) and how a caravan of cars made a fateful turn off a road and landed in Wounded Knee Village where they held off federal marshals and the FBI for 73 days.  I learned that my hometown, Cass Lake, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Reservation was one of the birthplaces of the American Indian Movement.  I was a senior there in 1972.

We found Milt’s birth family on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in a search that ended with his enrollment in the tribe and the discovery of two lost brothers and two lost sisters.  The show was called “A Search for Indian”.

In 1995 we wrote a proposal for a native music documentary series called Oyate Ta Olowan, The Songs of the People that, to our great surprise, was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The National Endowment for the Arts.  We embarked on a project that would take years to complete–and that was completely dependent on our acceptance into Indian country.

To ease our fears we headed first to Hupa country in northern California because at least we had some friends there.   The first few days looked bleak.  People said “Forget it, nobody will talk to you”.  They said most Indians in the Northwest were sick to death of being exploited by media people, anthropologists, and anybody else who thought they had a mission in Indian country.  We grew discouraged.

Then, in a series of circuitous phone calls, we spoke to a Siletz Indian woman in southern Oregon named Aggie Pilgrim.  I remember it was already past noon and there had been snow during the night.  The air around Hoopa, California was crisp and fresh.  Aggie got on the phone with Milt and said immediately, “Oh my goodness, I think the creator must have sent you to me.  Could you come right now?”  We were stunned.  We got in the car fifteen minutes later and traveled across winding snowy mountains about four hours north into Oregon to record a Yurok Indian man named Grant Pilgrim.

By the time we arrived it was already dark. We followed Aggie’s careful directions finally pulling into a long driveway and stopping at the front door of a complete stranger’s house.  (This was an odd pattern that we were to repeat over and over again in the next several years.)

Aggie stood framed in her doorway with a warm smile and words of welcome.  Her hair hung in long, gray braids that trailed down her shoulders and gave her a sweet, girlish look.  Inside the house many family members had gathered and the women stood before large frying pans and steaming kettles preparing a feast of salmon, mashed potatoes, corn and warm bread.

Milt and I felt like intruders, self-conscious and a bit shy, but the family welcomed us.  For months, Aggie had prayed that there would be a way to record and capture Grant’s music and voice one final time for his family and people. Her husband, we discovered, was dying of cancer and our call came just as Grant was in between chemo treatments and was strong enough to sing.

As we set up our meager field equipment, more and more family members and friends came through the front door.  They parked themselves on chairs and on the floor and stood along the walls waiting.  To them, Grant was not just an old, sick man but their father, grandfather, uncle, brother and elder.  This was to be his swan song and they knew it.  I can’t describe for you what unfolded in me that night.  We’d been invited to join in a family’s most intimate moments, the gathering of their clan, and the great love and respect the family had for their beloved elder was palpable.

We ate at their table, blessed their food, and listened to Aggie chirp and chatter.  Her mantra was “The Creator is so good to us.”  I thought it the most beautiful mantra I’d ever heard.  After supper we gathered in the living room to record.  Aggie planted herself on the left arm of Grant’s chair and supported his weakened voice with her own while he sang.

This night gave us confirmation from a greater source that the work we had chosen had finally lifted gently off the paper–and that it was good work.  Grant Pilgrim died a few weeks later and, in my heart, I dedicated the series to this gentle man.

Since that night so many years ago, we’ve arrived again and again on the doorsteps of strangers.  We’ve been to Alaska, north of Hudson Bay and south of James Bay.  We’ve been to the tip of Nova Scotia and the opposite tip of Washington State.  We’ve been south to Mexico and over the waters to Hawaii and American Samoa and everywhere in between.  Our travel plans most often involved small twin-engine planes, trains, rental cars and long, lonely miles over forgotten country.  We spent the equivalent of a year in hotel rooms, and in home economic rooms in schools, and tiny trailers in places where there are no hotels.  We set up our recording equipment in garages, carports, living rooms, kitchens, churches, and schools, and hung a microphone before dozens of these native people and pushed a button that said “record”.

We stopped wondering whether somebody would be there or whether they would open the door once we arrived.  We let go of our worries about being accepted into Indian Country and turned that burden over to “the creator”.  Our understanding now is that Indian people want to be heard–and that they have something important to say.

Before Oyate, our programs had been a bit distant and safe.  They’d been “about” Indians.  Suddenly, we were in a whole different sphere; eating with Indian people, accepting gifts, giving gifts, patting their dogs, kissing their children, and recording what is most valuable to them in the entire world–their stories and music, no longer just journalists but what is called “immersion journalists”.  The work has been painful and beautiful, forcing my eyes to open and look upon things I didn’t always want to see.

I became a pack rat, buying any available resource book and stuffing it into my luggage.  It was a struggle to find dependable resources.  The Triple A books were bleak–one or two sentences to cover the thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. In my notebook computer, I kept copious notes with that blasted Word program constantly drawing squiggly red lines under tribal words like Cree, Hoc’ak, Maliseet, Micmac, or Wampanoag.  The Microsoft Word dictionary does not recognize these ancient names as “real”.   Ironically, we discovered that even these commonly known (but deleted) names are not the names the people call themselves.  In the language of the real people, Pima becomes Akimel O’Odham, Sioux becomes Lakota, and Papago  becomes Tohono O’odham.

During the spring of 1998, we completed the first round of the Oyate series and I began what I thought would be a simple project of writing a two-page biography and short history of all the tribes featured in the series.  My goal was to produce the series as a library set.   I gathered my resources around me, searched the Internet, went to the library, bought several more hefty reference books and went to work.  I’m somewhat of a tenderhearted person by nature and, in my daily life, I seldom watch the news or read ordinary newspapers because I can’t sleep well if I know too much about what one person will do to another.   So, for this project, I moved tentatively through the tribal research.

I read about the valiant and sustained efforts of the Seminole tribes of Florida to maintain their lands and lifestyle and their final retreat into the Everglades where, eventually, corporate masterminds eventually drained so much of the swamps that even that life-giving resource was taken away.  I read about the epidemics of smallpox and other illnesses that hit the east coast, the west coast, the plains, the south, the north and wiped out over 80 percent of the native population.  By the second week of this endeavor I was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  My head hurt, I lost my appetite, and I dreaded going to those damn books to finish what I’d begun.

Next I studied the trail of tears, the Hudson Bay Company, and the gold rushes in California, and South Dakota.  It didn’t stop.  I read about the damming of important waterways in Arizona, and the restriction of hunting and fishing for Native people in Alaska.  I learned about the formation of the infamous “rancheria” system in California and the taking of the Black Hills by the U.S. government.  I read about the missionaries and the government boarding schools and so many ugly, ugly tales of how a continent was conquered.

By this time I was weepy and cried at the smallest things.  Finally, I let sadness crystallize into anger and sheer determination, and finished the damn project.

I felt betrayed.  How had I gotten to age forty-five without knowing even a small portion of this information?  How had I gone through elementary school, high school, and college and never been taught this dark segment of American history?

At this time my daughter was studying the history of Ancient Persia, a meaningless task from what I could see considering the historical landscapes I had just traversed.  And this brings me back to Squanto.

We began a second round of the Oyate Ta Olowan series with blessings, cudos and dollars from the CPB.  One of our collection trips was a 12,000-mile trip through Canada and down into the Northeast coast. Here we interviewed a Wampanoag man named Daryl in Mashpee, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.  Since we were so close to Plymouth Rock we decided to go up and visit “the rock” to gather additional sound.  Milt always gathers natural sound from places to create a rich bed of sound in each piece.

We got up early and drove up along the coast to Plymouth.  The place is very touristy and the famed Plymouth Rock is enclosed in an iron cage with a replica of the Mayflower sitting proudly out in the bay.  It all smells a little fishy but there you are, it’s on the seashore.   We took pictures, recorded the sound of tourists walking around, visited the small gift shop, and bought a couple of children’s books (there were no real reference books on Wampanoag or coastal tribes).  The quick tour left us both feeling a bit thin, and we wearily headed back toward South Dakota after 30 days on the road.

Once home I went back to my research with the intention of discovering how exactly the Wampanoags assisted the English colonists at Plymouth Rock and that’s how I came to consider Squanto.  In the glorified version of American history, it was the Wampanoags that met the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.  In elementary schools all over the nation at Thanksgiving time the teachers spend their classroom hours creating little Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands and re-enacting the meeting of the Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Rock.  It’s all very genial and sweet.

One day I sat in my studio reading one of the hefty reference books and actually shaking my head in disbelief and disgust.  The story was not what I thought it was.  Now, I’m not a historian by nature and tend to overlook details in a preference for the big picture of events rather than the small nitty-gritty facts.  However, even I have trouble making the leap from the tragic story of Squanto to the mushy little plays I’ve seen over and over again in elementary schools as my children were growing up.   Here is the story of Squanto.

Squanto (Tisquantum) and his village began producing surpluses of goods to exchange with the wanderers from other places.  In 1614, following a visit from John Smith, a second ship in Smith’s fleet under the command of a man named Thomas Hunt also left the bay.  Hunt kidnapped Squanto and twenty other Wampanoags and took them on board the ship as he sailed away.  In Spain, Hunt began selling the captives as slaves but a kind priest intervened and Squanto was spared slavery.  However, although the exact story is unclear, Squanto eventually ended up in England and it took him five years to find his way back to his village.  During this time he learned English and something of the white man’s ways.  He returned home only to discover that over eighty percent of his village and most of the coastal tribes had died of disease and a true fight for survival was underway among the remaining tribal people.  However, because he was one of the few English speaking natives, he did assist the Mayflower settlers but at great cost to himself—his own people no longer accepted him.  I closed the book and my stomach felt queasy and that sense of betrayal was back.  How did this story get so distorted?

Initially, I thought to write a nice little “travel journal” of our adventures and cool stories about the nice Indian people we had met.   I realized, however, that the Oyate series itself gives that story and what I really wanted, and needed, to do was to somehow distill out what I have learned from the Oyate family and to enter the deeper levels of my own experience.   Top on this list was my consideration of what it means to be excluded.

Our American history is based on an incomplete picture of “who came first”.   We think that Columbus “discovered” America and that Lewis and Clark were “first” to cross the wilderness and that the great American heroes were somehow “first” to conquer an unsettled continent.  In truth, Columbus arrived on a continent already populated with what is estimated to be about 50 million people. When Lewis and Clark hit the Columbia River, the shores were dotted with villages the way an interstate today is dotted with towns.  Those “brave frontiersman” only survived by gaining the skills, understanding and the good graces of the native people they met along the way.  However, we continually celebrate the brave frontiersman–and exclude the original inhabitants of the..

Perhaps my reluctance to begin writing out my experiences in Indian country was an unconscious desire not to perpetuate the exclusion and disorder of our system.  I could not simply tell my stories without sounding like the nice white girl who paid a visit to Indian Country and lived to tell the tale.  There was something else, something much deeper that I wanted to bring to this work.

In early tribal cultures, the worst thing that could happen to an individual was to be excluded from his tribe.  Punished by being pushed out.  I thought a long time about this and realized that our entire culture is based on the exclusion of the people that were here first.   And equally odd, the “immigrants” were also excluded.   Many left their homelands because they, for one reason or another, had been excluded economically, religiously, or socially.  However, rather than landing on these unfamiliar shores and accepting the long established systems of native people on this continent as first, they began to take what they wanted from the Indians without taking the life ways.

Today, when we view our own culture, we see a basic violation in the age-old pattern of the young respecting the elder.  Families are breaking down, authority in the schools is endangered, and the masses have little or no respect for government “leaders” that we entrust to make decisions for us.

What if we were to accept the Indian as first?  Not beg forgiveness or carry burdens of guilt and patterns of atonement but to simply accept them as first?   It is perhaps the source of the native’s anger and the white man’s shame, perhaps the seed of racism and the tiny bud of an answer.

I began to wonder what this country would be like if our ancestors had met the Indians as if they were elder aunts and uncles and learned “from” them instead of simply superimposing our own broken societies on them.  And if we had “learned from” the Indians, what would we have learned?

I asked myself that question as I scanned the many experiences we have had with people like Grant and Aggie.  What have I learned from them?  Not “about” them, but “from” the living and breathing Indian people we have met?

It was a simple question imposed upon a blank page in one of my scribbling sessions.

I realized the lessons are still there for us to draw on and so I scribbled in an unruly stream of consciousness way.  The greatest punishment you can give to another is to exclude them from the tribe.  Everyone must do his or her part.  Ownership of goods and property only counts when it is shared or given away.  We must be able to recognize an enemy and deal harshly with him if possible.  Food sources must be carefully watched over and cared for.  We are in an intimate and fragile relationship with the earth.  The younger generations must take their learning from the older generations.  Elders are wiser than young people.  Life is uncertain–death is not.  Ritual and ceremony connect us to a wider creative presence in the universe.  We must always remember and honor our ancestors.  We owe our very existence to them.

I finally met Squanto when I wrote those words.  It was surprised and excited to begin considering that these life-ways are not stuck in a frozen past with the deceased.  Nearly every tribe we visited either live with these laws or are rapidly finding a way back to them.  Over and over again we had to wait while a young person consulted an elder before we could record.  In my mind I hear voices in Cherokee, Seminole, Makah and dozens of other tribes stressing the urgent need we have to reconnect with Mother Earth.  We have attended beautiful and heart-opening ceremonies for the renewal of the earth, people, youth and health.  We have sat on a desert floor and listened to songs written to the deer, the Oriole, the rain, the sky, the mountain and the sun.   It is still there, all there, if we can but pay attention.  We don’t need the textbook story of Squanto, or Hollywood’s version of the American Indian.   It devalues and debases one of our greatest modern resources.

Now, considering Squanto, we could make a few adjustments.  Put a little Indian in Microsoft Word’s dictionary.  Cleanse a few textbooks.   Call Triple AAA to the carpet a bit and force them to get it right.  Maybe it isn’t too late to learn “from” the Indians but we need to do so with respect, with honor and sincerity, and not from a colonial attitude of grab and go.  Who knows, maybe if we got things back in the right order, the Indians would step back into place and become the strong nations they once were.  Before the white man came.


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Considering Squanto or The Lost American History — 2 Comments

  1. I’m in complete agreement that things could have been handled in a much better way as concerns the American Indians, not to mention Afro-Americans. We’re talking about human nature though, and that never changes. As difficult as it was for the colonials to see their misdeeds, so it is now for most people to see the increasing injustices suffered by American white males – race, gender specific. As said, human nature never changes, humans don’t learn from the past (or present) so there’s no backing up to fix what nobody sees as a wrong until it’s obscure history in a dusty testimonial and too late. Providential existence in this play is mere chance. If your deal is poor, all that is left to do is suck it up and hope for a better hand next time around, if such is the case.

  2. Hi Dana,
    You must be in a very pessimistic (fatalistic) mood. Unfortunately, I agree but still think it is worth pushing back on the black cloud that hovers above. Pessimist meets idealist? It is possible that as a race we are just plain screwed. I’m hoping to come back as a frog next time and can just hop in and out of the water whenever I want and feast on bugs.

    Miss you guys!

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