[March 22nd marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty, signed by Plymouth Governor John Carver and Wampanoag Confederacy sachem Massasoit. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Indigenous New England histories, leading up to this weekend post on the vital need to reframe the Pilgrims through this lens.]
On a starting point for reframing our collective histories, and how we (and I) need to go beyond it.
Although it’s been significantly overshadowed by [gestures at everything in 2020-2021], the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower and the founding of the Plymouth colony remains a striking moment for American collective memory. For at least the last couple hundred years, the Pilgrims have functioned for many voices and conversations as a consistent shorthand for a national origin point, a narrative that we see everywhere from anthemic songs like Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” to counter-cultural poets like Sylvia Plath among many, many other places. Even those voices advancing an explicitly alternative or oppositional vision of American identity often use the Pilgrims in this foundational way, as illustrated by Malcolm X’s famous 1964 phrase for the origin point of African American history, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us!” The fact that Plymouth Rock is a mythological (and relatively recent) invention is, I would argue, precisely the point: this is about the creation and perpetuation of a national mythos, and the cultural work that such myths can do across the centuries.
If we’re going to start revising that collective national myth, the vital first step is to reframe Plymouth in the ways that the historic site formerly known as Plimoth Plantation has modeled: first by creating the new introductory film “Two Peoples: One Story,” and then by changing the site’s name to Plimoth Patuxet. Of course the Pilgrims and Plimoth Plantation are part of that foundational moment in American history, but so too are the Wampanoag and all the Indigenous peoples who were part of 17th century Patuxet—and more exactly and crucially, if we are to see that moment as one of the origin points for America, it has to be through the combination of those different cultures and communities, the origins of one story and place out of those multiple peoples. The phrase “E pluribus unum” (Latin for “out of many, one”) has appeared on the Great Seal of the United States since 1782, but I really don’t think we’ve even begun to collectively engage with the most accurate and productive meanings of either of the phrase’s key terms: not the diverse collection of cultures and communities that should comprise the “many”; and not the inclusive vision of the nation constituted out of all those cultures that should define the “one.”
Those national reframings and redefinitions have been central goals of mine since at least my second book, Redefining American Identity. But of course I try, while working to share those ideas and perspectives with audiences of all kinds, to keep learning and evolving myself as well, and over the last year in particular I’ve come to believe that my critical optimism and critical patriotism have to be more fully complemented by an even deeper engagement with the darkest and most destructive American histories (an engagement I’ve certainly tried for, to be clear, but that requires further work). The Wampanoag and all their fellow Patuxet Indigenous cultures and communities have endured and continued to contribute significantly to American identity on countless levels—but they did so and have done so despite the best efforts of the English to at best exclude and far too often destroy these native peoples (efforts that the federal government has continued in recent years). Remembering those most horrific histories doesn’t mean dismissing the Pilgrims or Plymouth entirely—but it does mean foregrounding, just as the 1619 Project has done with slavery and African American history, that the most inspiring American communities have been those which have borne the brunt of these horrors and yet continued to exemplify the best of our collective identity.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other Indigenous or early American histories you’d highlight?