In the 1970s, when I attended high school, a popular history text was America: Its People and Values, by Leonard C. Wood, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Edward L. Biller. Nestled among colorful illustrations of colonial life was succinct explanation of Tisquantum’s role:A friendly Indian named Squanto helped the colonists. He showed them how to plant corn and how to live on the edge of the wilderness. A soldier, Captain Miles Standish, taught the Pilgrims how to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians.My teacher explained that maize was unfamiliar to the Pilgrims and that Tisquantum had demonstrated the proper maize-planting technique—sticking the seed in little heaps of dirt, accompanied by beans and squash that would later twine themselves up the tall stalks. And he told the Pilgirms to fertilize the soil by burying fish alongside the maize seeds, a traditional native technique for producing a bountiful harvest. Following this advice, my teacher said, the colonists grew so much maize that it became the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving.
. . . .
The story in America: Its People and Values isn’t wrong, so far as it goes. But the impression it gives is entirely misleading.
Tisquantum was critical to the colony’s survival, contemporary scholars agree. . . . Just as my teacher said, Tisquantum told the colonists to bury several small fish in each maize hill, a procedure followed by European colonists for two centuries. Squanto’s teachings, [colonist Edward] Winslow concluded, led to “a good increase of Indian corn”—the difference between success and starvation.
Winslow didn’t know that fish fetilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention—if it was an Indian practice at all. So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers. The notion is not as ridiculous as it may seem. Tisquantum had learned English because British sailors had kidnapped him seven years before. To return to the Americas, he in effect had to escape twice—once from Spain, where his captors initially sold him into slavery, and once from England, to which he was smuggled from Spain, and where he served as a kind of living conversation piece at a rich man’s house. In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.
Skipping over the complex course of Tisquantum’s life is understandable in a textbook with limited space. But the omission is symptomatic of the complete failure to understand Indian motives, or even that Indians might have motives. The alliance Massasoit negotiated with Plymouth was successful from the Wampanoag perspective, for it helped to hold off [their enemies] the Narragansett. But it was a disaster from the point of view of New England Indian society as a whole, for the alliance ensured the survival of Plymouth colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. All of this was absent not only from my high school textbooks, but from the academic accounts they were based on.
From Penelope Lively’s Making It Up (2005)
Most Americans know who they are, to a greater or lesser degree. Moreover, they signal myriad identities; they define the nation. They are Greek-American or Italian-American or Latino or black, they propose China, Japan, the Philippines—they echo the globe. They are a walking, talking mnemonic system, remembering arrivals and survivals, the Atlantic passage, the trek west, settlement and dispersal, calamity and prosperity, whispering still of the other place that is hidden in each person—the shtetls of Russia, Poland, Lithuania, the fishing villages and the farms, the fetid slums of cities, the plantations and the slave quarters. She and Ben had a friend called Mary Dixon, as Anglo-Saxon a name as you could find, but Mary herself was a figure from Greek tragedy, she was Electra, she was Clytemnestra, she was dark, dark, with great Byzantine eyes and rich black hair. And yes, indeed, Mary’s great-grandfather arrived at Staten Island from Piraeus, with extended family and not a word of English, so that the recording clerk, defeated by the accent and the names, put down Mary’s father simply as Dick’s son, to have done with it. And Dixon the family became and remained, but Mary’s face said otherwise.
From Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998)
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.
When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
And, as we enter this Thanksgiving holiday, which I hope you all will enjoy with friends, family, and wonderful home-cooked food, one last note. It’s a bit of dialogue from Penelope Lively’s Making It Up; you’ll know immediately if you’re one of those who might be well-served by recalling it this weekend:
People are not responsible for their relatives.
Have a great Thanksgiving.