First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Bay (1621) by Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914)
Justin Petrone, like me, is a mixed race person with Native American ancestry, although unlike me, initially, he never thought of himself in those terms. I’ve always known and since I was a child, self-identified myself in that way. Like me, Justin has spent years searching for his elusive ancestors, more often than not, hidden in the mists of time with only suggestions of who their ancestors are by words on tax lists and census records like “free person of color.”
Most of the time, Native people were transparent, until they became at least “civilized” enough to be counted on the census, or taxed or they did something else to bring them into the white man’s realm. More recently, Justin and others like us have been able to confirm, or deny, that heritage via DNA testing. So even if we don’t know exactly who our ancestor is, we are positive THAT our Native heritage is real. In some cases, through DNA testing we can learn which of our ancestral lines is Native.
Most of us who grew up knowing we were mixed blood Native learned years ago that if our ancestors’ tribe survived at all, meaning it was not annihilated by warfare or disease, they don’t accept us. We are not one of “them” and there is no welcome home party. We don’t have the blood quantum necessary to be a tribal member, and therefore, to them, we don’t exist either. Not at all, we’re persona non grata. Yep, you’re “Indian” right up until your admixture level crosses over that magic political line, whatever that is in whichever tribe, and then you’re not Indian at all – don’t exist. All of your Indianness just evaporates that day I guess. Apparently, it’s only in our blood, in our genes and in our hearts that we remain Native after that, because the European culture originally tried to kill off the Native people and the “official” Native people today don’t want any more “members” than they already have clamoring to divide a limited size pie. So we don’t exist.
For many, being denied and relegated to “wannabe” status by “our own people” is devastating, especially for those who really don’t want any part of the financial pie. Many simply want to belong, to understand the culture and their heritage – to have an educational avenue to recover in some small way that which was stripped and taken from their ancestors so violently. To have this cultural travesty being perpetrated a second time by the very people who mixed blood descendants feel are their cousins, “their own people,” by being rejected, mocked, and turned away as “not good enough, not Indian enough” is an unexpected emotional blow, a very cold slap in the face and the faces of our Native ancestors.
After all, the tribal members today are the ones who survived comparatively intact, while the descendants of non-tribal member Indians were the ones often most tragically victimized….the ones where the systematic de-Indianization worked. Logic would suggest that those who survived “as Indians” would welcome the descendants of those who did not and in vindication for what was done to their Indian brethren, would want to share the lost culture with their descendants, to resurrect the Indian in the descendant, and to insure that the cultural heritage continues into posterity. But that’s not how it works, in the real political world.
I think of this as we approach Thanksgiving every year. I think of what was taken from our people, my ancestors, and ultimately from me and my children. I think of the sanitized, feel-good stories we were told as we cut and pasted Indians and Pilgrims in grade school as children. I think of the heritage we don’t have, what we don’t know, what is lost forever.
I think of how the culture of denial today has played into exactly what those original Europeans wanted – to strip the Indians of their life, often in order to obtain their land, and if they couldn’t kill all of them, then to strip them of their religion, their language and their culture. There is more than one way to kill an Indian. The government had an official plan for how to do just that….and now the official Tribes are helping them complete the act by denying that heritage to their descendants. Soon, in another generation or two, there will be fewer and fewer, and then no official Indians, as they continue to marry outside of the tribes and the blood quantum drops. Ultimately, the government will have won….by the very hands and rules of the Tribes themselves based on their own blood quantum level required for tribal membership, unless, of course, the tribes change their rules. In that lies the ultimate irony.
It’s terribly unfortunate that a middle ground can’t be found, where descendants can be “affiliated” with ancestral tribes, not full benefit-receiving members. In that way, they could be educated in the traditional way, regain and celebrate their culture and heritage. I would think it would be politically beneficial to the tribes too, because in sheer terms of numbers, there are a whole lot more of “us” non-tribal member descendants than official tribal members. I would think the tribes would see the benefit in having the large contingent of “us” firmly on their “side” of any political argument, not having been flatly rejected and turned away. There is tremendous power in numbers. Just saying….
I try not to feel righteously indignant, but as Thanksgiving approaches and I see the storybook pictures of the Pilgrims and the Indians, and knowing what happened, and continues to happen, I can’t help but feel some level of sadness, anger and sometimes, outrage, at the way the systematic annihilation of the Indian people has been whitewashed and the way their descendants are treated today. This was what motivated me to begin the Native Heritage Project and the Native Names Project to document the names of the Indian people buried in reams and reams of records. This is in addition to various DNA projects to find and document those elusive Native ancestors.
And then, there’s Justin. Poor Justin. Justin has known for some time that he was a Native descendant. He has been searching for that connection, exactly which one of his ancestors was the Native person – not easy to discern in colonial America. So often, Indian heritage was very well hidden due to the various insidious forms of discrimination that were inflicted upon these people and their families well into the 1900s. Justin and I have exchanged e-mails, back and forth, as he has shared finds and I’ve shared information from the Native Names Project.
But then, Justin found it…and “it” wasn’t at all what he expected. In addition to being descended from Native people, Justin is also descended from one of the most notorious Indian killers in American history.
“In 1637, in the service of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Captain John Underhill led an attack, together with Mohegan Indians, on the Pequot fortified village near modern Mystic, Connecticut. They set fire to the village, killing any who attempted to flee. About 400 Pequots died in what came to be called the Mystic Massacre. But Captain Underhill’s soldier of fortune Indian killing was only just beginning. In the service of New Netherland, he slaughtered between 500 and 700 individuals thought to be of the Siwanoy and Wechquaesgeek groups of the Wappinger Confederacy. And in 1644, he cleared Fort Massapequa right here on Long Island, killing about 120 Indians. According to historical accounts, after the Natives were dead and stacked up, Underhill and his men sat down and ate their breakfast.”
So what does Justin do with this horrible event that occurred just 16 years after that first celebration of Thanksgiving? I mean, most of us have developed this life-long love affair with our Native ancestors, even if we don’t know who they were, exactly. They were victims, betrayed by European promises, and we have spent untold hundreds, probably thousands or tens of thousands of hours and dollars trying to resurrect them in some small way from the nameless oblivion of history. Part of who we are is defined by who they were. We love our ancestors, all of them. Many of us feel an obligation to do what we can to right the wrongs done to our ancestors in any way possible, even if the only thing we can do is identify them, maybe recover their name or something about them to give them a voice, a definition, a tangible memory to record for posterity. It’s something, better than nothing, and it defines them as more than an almost anonymous disappearing footnote in history where the European’s put them and the Native tribes of today condemn them to stay.
But never, never do we expect to find an Indian killer, and not only that, a no-excuses, non-penitent repeat offender….so desensitized to human death that he and his cronies sat by the bodies of those families, including women and children, systematically, genocidally murdered and ate breakfast, probably covered in their blood.
In my family story, I know who the good guys are, and the bad guys. I know who to love and who to hate, who to root for and who were the oppressors. And I’m not descended from really “bad guys,” at least not Indian Killer type bad guys. I’ve got a few other colorful people, some slave owners, a couple bigamists, a wife-murderer and a moonshiner…but not people who systematically, unemotionally, slaughtered entire tribes of people. And in those tribes of people were Justin’s ancestors too. So now, what does Justin do with this? Who does he love and who does he hate? How does he come to terms with this, that he carries the genes and ancestry of both? Do they fight within him from time to time? Who is Justin?