Among the Intellectualoids

A ‘Genocidal’ Thanksgiving

Once again, the Religious Left found itself in no mood to celebrate our national day of gratitude.

By 11.28.11

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The academic and Religious Left believe that Western Civilization, especially America, is uniquely contaminating to an otherwise pristine world. So celebrations of the European settlement of the Western Hemisphere are always problematic. Thanksgiving is no exception.

Just in time for the holiday was an anti-Thanksgiving column in Jim Wallis' Sojourners. "I've been checking my heart for years why I can't just go with the flow and to see the 'redemptive' aspect of present day Thanksgiving," declared the Rev. Eugene Cho, pastor of a Seattle church.

America's Thanksgiving, of course, traces to the English Separatists known as Pilgrims who quit the Church of England, and England, to create their own promised land in the American wilderness. Only about half of the original 100 settlers had survived their first winter in what became Massachusetts. In the fall of 1621 they reputedly celebrated a harvest festival that included about a hundred members of the local Indian tribe, which had been very helpful to their survival.

"Most are in agreement that the Indians were invited simply because the Pilgrims knew that they would have died had it not been for the help of the local Indians," Rev. Cho unsentimentally recalled. "Those that we would now categorize as 'illegal aliens,'" i.e. the Pilgrims, "not only came without invitation but they came to take over," the clergyman grimly alleged. "In fact, beyond the first joint 'Thanksgiving,' there were no further meals of mutual peace, dependence, and friendship." In Cho's telling, Thanksgiving was just a last sort of last meal for the Indians who would later succumb to an ongoing "genocide" by Europeans of America's native peoples.

Thanksgiving is darkly the "celebration" of the "colonists'" eventual "oppression" of their "heathen captives," Cho charges. "The early arrivals of European invasion resulted in the deaths of 10 to 30 million native Indians." These figures, an unconfirmable estimate of the number of native peoples who died because of European settlement, covers several centuries, from Christopher Columbus' 1492 arrival up through, presumably, the late 19th century. The vast majority were victims of diseases brought by Europeans for which the native peoples had no immunity. In the several years prior to the Pilgrims' arrival at Cape Cod, the local tribe had lost perhaps 90 percent of its people because of possible transmission of bubonic plague by European fishermen.

Cho bemoans the European settlement of America as "one of the worst human injustices" ever that entailed the "suppression, oppression, and near annihilation of the Native Indians," i.e. "genocide." The pastor urges Thanksgiving's "repeal" because "no matter how we want to re-tell or re-write that story, we are marking an event of injustice." In eliminating this day of infamy, Cho wants the "whole country to express sorrow for such a grave injustice to the Native Indians and create events and various forms of curriculum in parallel" that would include "gratitude and celebration of the story and legacy of the native Indian people." He also wants "reparation for every single descendant of Native Indians" that, "just for starters," would "guarantee 100% funding to college for any descendants of Native Indians."

We can only speculate what may come after that "just for starters." But Cho concludes that any celebration of Thanksgiving is the "pinnacle of historical revisionism." It's a little odd that the first Thanksgiving, a moment of multicultural comity, however fleeting, between Pilgrims and native people, should be so defamed. Wouldn't a true multi-culturalist herald this early Thanksgiving as a model rather than a charade?

The English Separatists and others who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 did not arrive with any secret master plan to liquidate the Indians and conquer a continent. They were a tiny band fleeing persecution by their nation's state church. Many of them had initially fled to relatively religiously tolerant Holland, though agents of the English king had tormented them even there. They eventually decided they could only worship and live as they saw fit in a distant, barren wilderness, far from king and state church. Their expedition was funded by exploitative entrepreneurs. And various mishaps meant their arrival in America would be at the near onset of winter, with no initial shelter, and minimal stores, even assuming they survived a two-month journey across the stormy, cold Atlantic. Two died on the journey, half would die before spring.

How to contort such a benign little group into the first wave of a genocidal invasion? Their intent was considerably different from the Spanish conquistadors who, seeking gold and glory, had bloodily subdued native civilizations to the south a century before. Native peoples in what later became the United States would suffer many terrible and tragic injustices across several centuries. But genocide? This modern term describes the deliberate and systematic extermination of a people such as Hitler's mass murder of the Jews, Stalin's starving of the kulaks, or Pol Pot's mass liquidation of all perceived foes.

By Rev. Cho's wide definition, the native tribes of North America, of which there were thousands, had been committing "genocide" against each other for millennia, conquering, exterminating, despoiling and absorbing each other in an unceasing miasma of perpetual conflict. When my Scots-Irish ancestors arrived in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in the early 1700s, it was unpopulated, the original natives having been displaced or exterminated by northern tribes who only visited the valley as their hunting ground. My ancestors were attacked by raiding warriors in Southwest Virginia during the French and Indian War, the wives taken captive to Ohio, one baby smashed to death, another spared because of her smile. These Presbyterian women captives were marched to Ohio, singing the 137th Psalm, which the Hebrews had sung during their Babylonian captivity. They were later rescued by a raiding party from Virginia. Were these Scots-Irish families who had fled mistreatment by the English to settle on wild, empty land already depopulated by distant, "genocidal" native people themselves practicing "genocide" simply by living where they were?

In the previous century, there were two attempts at genocide in Virginia under the modern definition of deliberate and systematic extermination. Pocahontas' father, who had formed the Powhatan Confederacy in the 16th century by his own conquests and perhaps genocide of rival tribes, had initially tolerated the Jamestown colony because it was on worthless swampland. His surviving brother, Opechancanough, was less indulgent and, after years of relative peace, orchestrated mass attacks in 1622 on the English settlements of Virginia, aiming to kill every man, woman and child. Ostensibly friendly tribesmen arrived on a Friday morning at farms and villages only to slaughter their welcoming hosts. A warning the night before from an Indian boy living with an English family outside Jamestown prevented consummation of the genocide. But about 25 percent of the colony was slaughtered in a few hours. Amazingly, Opechancanough attempted another mass slaughter 22 years later, with similar grizzly but unsuccessful results.

The typical lifespan of these early colonists was only a few years, or less, after arrival, more from starvation and sickness than from conflict. Were they victims of a "genocide"? Remarkably, they were replaced by many times their numbers, who knew the grim odds, but still preferred their remote chance in the New World to continued squalor and oppression in the old. Their sins were numerous. But their courage and perseverance founded a great civilization that, unlike the racially homogenous tribal societies that once sparsely dotted the continent, was multicultural and welcoming to millions of immigrants seeking opportunity and freedom.

Rev. Cho identifies himself as a second generation Korean-American who risks being seen as "angry Asian man." Is he the beneficiary of "genocide"? History for all nations and peoples is the chronicle of human depravity. But the Pilgrims, with many Americans still today, believed that God is redeeming the world, with sinful people as His instruments. The first Thanksgiving of Pilgrims and Indians offered a small glimmer of that divine redemption, as did many events that followed, for which we all can be grateful.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.