November 22, 2010

Squanto the con man?

Pilgrim guide Squanto has mixed reputation

By Eric WilliamsTo William Bradford, Squanto was "a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation," who helped settlers plant corn, find fish and gain a foothold in New England.

He also was a survivor of major trauma and, in essence, a man without a country—kidnapped and shipped out to Spain, bouncing to England, finally returning home to the Plymouth area only to find most of his village wiped out by disease, all before the Pilgrims arrived on the scene.

But "one man's hero is another man's villain," said Charlebois, of Plimoth Plantation. "He was not looked upon highly by the Wampanoag people."

Charlebois, a member of the Abenaki tribe of Quebec, says the problem wasn't that Squanto was interacting with the English. It was that he was "a super con man" who ignored and stepped over the Native American hierarchy for his own advancement.

Even Bradford described Squanto as a hustler, writing that he "sought his own ends and played his own game, by frightening the Indians and getting gifts from them for himself, making them believe he could stir up war against them."

Charlebois said Squanto used the threat of disease as a weapon against Native Americans. "You better play ball with me or I'll unleash the plague," summed up Charlebois.

Such behavior didn't sit well with the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, who wanted Squanto beheaded. "This caused Squanto to stick close to the English, and he never dared leave them till he died," wrote Bradford.
Comment:  What Squanto did or didn't do doesn't necessarily matter. The interesting point here is how we've taken a complex situation and turned it into a Hallmark greeting card. According to the prevailing myth, Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive and arranged the big feast. In reality, he may have sided with the Pilgrims against his own people.

So our Thanksgiving myth is largely a fairy tale concocted to make white Americans feel good about conquering and killing another race. Indians and Europeans living together in harmony...yay! No mention of the tribes' doubts about the invaders...their jockeying for position...and sellouts like Squanto making deals behind their backs.

For more on the subject, see Losing Ground in After the Mayflower and Thanksgiving in After the Mayflower.

The disease factor

Also interesting is the mention of using disease against the Indians. This bolsters what I said in European Invasion = Biological Warfare and Disease = Invisible Bullets? Although they didn't understand the mechanism, both sides knew the Europeans were using disease as a weapon. They were engaging in biological warfare.

Once again, the claim that disease just happened to kill the Indians is false. Disease killed the Indians because the Europeans saw Indians dying and thought, "This is good news. For some reason these Indians aren't immune to our illnesses. They're dropping like flies. If we keep advancing into hostile territory, they'll keep dying. So let's do it."

This is a genocidal intent and a genocidal act. The Europeans didn't avoid transmitting their diseases when they could've--if nothing else, by going home. Instead, they transmitted their diseases intentionally. They wanted weak and dying Indians because that served their purpose. It made colonization and conquest possible.

For more on our Thanksgiving myth-making, see Thanksgiving Set the Tone and Hitler = Greatest Threat Since Indians?

Below:  "The wooden head likeness of Squanto, who served as guide and interpreter to the Pilgrims, is the only surviving piece of the wooden pediment installed on the Pilgrim Hall Museum building in 1880." (Cape Cod Times/Christine Hochkeppel)

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