This title is a modified version of an English account of the massacre of Native American children.  The actual quote says children were thrown overboard “and shoteinge owtt their Braynes in the water.”

I just watched Good Will Hunting this weekend.  The main character in the movie, Will Hunting, is an undiscovered genius living a life on the streets of Boston.  In a scene where Hunting is brought to meet with his court ordered psychiatrist, he paces the office, evaluating the shrink’s library, and quips:

A History of the United States, Volume I.  If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That book will knock you on your ass.

Oddly, I had only recently become acquainted with Zinn and his work.  I had the book on my reading shelf.  Naturally, egged on by the character’s remark, I dug in and started reading.  And, after Chapter One, or Round One, I am, knocked on my ass.
I know that many of you are probably familiar with the work.  But I just wanted to share some parts of the opening chapter, that seem to me, to be particularly relevant to the present day United States.

The opening chapter of the book looks at the discovery of the American continents and the early European forays into the “New World” from the perspective of the native people.

The first thing that I felt compelled to share was a letter from Powhatan to John Smith in Virginia in 1607.  Zinn admits that the authenticity of the letter may be in doubt, but notes that it carries the exact spirit of many statements of Native Americans of that time.  Powhatan writes to Smith:

I have seen two generations of my people die….  I know the difference between peace and war better that any man in my country.  I am now grown old, and must die soon; my authority must descend to my brothers, Opitchapan, Opechancanough and Catatough–then to my two sisters, and then to my two daughters.  I wish them to know as much as I do, and that your love to them may be like mine to you.  Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love?  Why will you destroy us who supply you with food?  What can you get by war?  We can hide our provisions and run into the woods; then you will starve for wronging your friends.  Why are you jealous of us?  We are unarmed, and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner, and not so simple as not to know that it is much better to eat good meat, sleep comfortably, live quietly with my wives and children, laugh and be merry with the English, and trade for their copper and hatchets, than to run away from them, and to lie cold in the woods, feed on acorns, roots and such trash, and be so hunted that I can neither eat nor sleep.  In these wars, my men must sit up watching, and if a twig break, they all cry out “Here comes Captain Smith!”  So I must end my miserable life.  Take away your guns and swords, the cause of all our jealousy, or you may all die in the same manner.

This quote brought two things fresh to my mind.  First, it reminded me of my own days training for war.  Straining to stay awake in the night.  Searching for a pretend enemy, in preparation for war.  Hearing noises in the dark.  Running blind.  Striking a neck wire full speed and being whipped horizontal, to my back.  To death, if it were a real war.  Second, it reminded me of the militant thing that this country is.  We are in Iraq now, tormenting a new people with the threat of death – and with death itself for many.  We have learned nothing in four-hundred years.  There is no mystery why many in the world would seek to harm the U.S.  It is called preservation.  War.  We are a warlike people.  And until we turn from that path, we cannot hope to slumber peacefully.

I guess I would call the first passage a solid jab which rattled my brain.

The second passage that struck me:

Behind the English invasion of North America, behind their massacre of Indians, their deception, their brutality, was that special powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property.  It was a morally ambiguous drive; the need for space, for land, was a real human need.  But in conditions of scarcity, in a barbarous epoch of history ruled by competition, this human need was transformed into the murder of whole peoples.  Roger Williams said it was

a depraved appetite after the great vanities, dreams and shadows of this vanishing life, great portions of land, land in this wilderness, as if men were in as great necessity and danger for want of great portions of land, as poor, hungry, thirsty seamen have, after a sick and stormy, a long and starving passage.  This is one of the gods of New England, which the living and most high Eternal will destroy and famish

Why have we sacrificed two thousand U.S. soldiers in Iraq?  Why 25,000 innocent Iraqis?  To secure an oil supply.  To enrich bloody corporations.  To ensure our own unsustainable life of Hummers, HDTVs, and Halliburtons.  Again, we have learned absolutely nothing in four-hundred years.

It must have been a cross to follow the jab, but I have a chin of stone.  I read on.

The third passage is lengthy.  But I cannot bring myself to cut it up.  The words tell us what we destroyed.  After all, all patriotic Americans know that our settlement was a march of progress.  Let me give you just a taste of what it is that we destroyed:

In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in common.  Hunting was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village.  Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families.  The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois.  A French Jesuit priest who encountered them in the 1650s wrote: “No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers….  Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common.”

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society.  Families were matrilineal.  That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives’ families.  Each extended family lived in a “long house.”  When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door.

Families were grouped in clans, and a dozen or more clans might make up a village.  The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils.  They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois.  The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women.

The women tended the crops and took general charge of village affairs while the men were always hunting and fishing.  And since they supplied the moccasins and food for warring expeditions, they had some control over military matters.  As Gary B. Nash notes in his fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: “Thus power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.”

Children in Iroquois society, while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority.  They were taught equality in status and the sharing of possessions.  The Iroquois did not use harsh punishment on children; they did not insist on early weaning or early toilet training, but gradually allowed the child to learn self-care.

All of this was in sharp contrast to European values brought over by the first colonists, a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families.  For example, the pastor of the Pilgrim colony, John Robinson, thus advised his parishioners how to deal with their children: “And surely there is in all children… a stubbornness, and stoutness, of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; that so the foundation of their education being laid in humility and tractableness, other virtues may, in their time, be built thereon.”

Gary Nash describes Iroquois culture:

No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails–the apparatus of authority in European societies–were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival.  Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set.  Through priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong….  He who stole another’s food or acted invalourously in war was “shamed” by his people and ostracized from their company until he had atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he had morally purified himself.

Wow.  Makes you feel pretty good about exterminating the savages, huh?  Wonder if there are any wonderful things about the civilization we are presently bombing?

This last.  These pages and pages of description of a gentle and intelligent people that we dispossessed.  Herded.  Maimed.  These pages were an uppercut to the chin.  I was down in the first chapter.

Of course.  I plan on beating the count.  I’ll be back for round two.  If anyone else out there gives a flying-crap, anyway.

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