Thursday, November 25, 2010


That's "Squanto's" real name, in Algonquian. Tisquantum. That Indian who helped out the Pilgrims. The shortening can be forgiven -- Algonquian rivals ancient Elamite for its opaqueness. Nquitpausuckowashawmen. No, not glossolalia. That's how Squanto would have said, "There are a hundred of us." Tashuckqunne cummauchenaumiz? "How long have you been sick?" Yep. Tough language.

Of course Squanto could have numbered his tribe, the Patuxets, in several languages. In English, and in Spanish. Alas, there were not a hundred Patuxets left to count: all had perished, to smallpox. He alone survived, like some servant of Job -- as indeed he was, to the hardpressed pilgrims. As for how long Squanto was sick, sudden fever took him the year after he had settled with his new tribe of pilgrims.

He must have been used to being snatched away. He wasn’t kidnapped just once, you understand. In 1605, one George Weymouth whisked him away to England -- whether kidnapped or volunteered, history does not record. For untold years he labored -- well, eight or nine -- until returning to America in 1613 as translator for none other than John Smith. Set free as reward for his service, Squanto returned to his own tribe, only to be enslaved and taken to Spain -- kidnapped in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant of Captain Smith. He escaped to London where he remained until 1619 (interrupted by one odd intermission in Newfoundland), then he joined an expedition to America. There he found his family and tribe all wiped out.

Providence? To find an English-speaking Indian wandering the coast at just the right time to save the Pilgrims? Well, yes. But how many other Squantos have wandered the earth, who never found their mission? -- Jonahs who made it to Tarshish?

To know one's purpose is something to be thankful about. Father, mother, friend -- and to bring light and love not only to those you care about but to the stranger -- well, this is something in which we might make our own providence. The rest of it -- being kidnapped and orphaned and dying young and such -- we count as beyond our understanding, and trust in God to resolve.

Much fiction will have crept into the story of Squanto and the Pilgrims. Of course. It's not that it wasn't a good enough story on its own. It's just that the reality is complex, and myths have a happy simplicity to them. The tales of childhood are for inspiring us to emulate an example of excellence ... since there are hardly any real examples of excellence ... or is that unworthy? It is a fact that having heroes who actually lived requires a degree of selective blindness on our part. We give importance to what is admirable, and choose not to see the flaws -- or at least to down-grade them. This is as it should be. If we saw the chamber of horrors that is the heart of every human, we'd never stop screaming.

So we have myths.

Is America everything it might be or that we wish it were? The question answers itself. The same holds when we inspect any ideal. There are no “ideals.” If they were real, they’d be “examples.” But part of living in the real world is understanding that it is hopelessly flawed. Well, not hopelessly. Fatally. Even in the face of the inevitable fatality of our biology, though -- in the face of ultimate metabolic failure, we need not be hopeless.

And so we have Thanksgiving. It has its own mythology, as does Christmas. But for all that there is the fiction of Santa, there is the reality of Jesus. And for all that the Hallmark and Rockwell images may very well be nothing but a happy conceit -- of convivial Indians supping in sumptuous abundance with the dour wayfarers from across the gray waves of the churning seas -- yet they have the reality of vivid dreams, that might be true, for all that sunlight says otherwise.

The cherished dreams of our hearts have no guarantee of coming to pass. Every prayer of thanks must, must include a prayer of abject supplication, begging God that evil, or greater evil, should not strike us. Thus as a nation we take a day, a single day, collectively to call to mind the many blessing with which we have been blessed. We recall that it need not be so. We understand that who looks for perfection is a fool. We understand that who accepts the inspiration of a myth honors the daylight the visions of night have promised.



Will C. said...

Happy Thanksgiving Jack...

Jack H said...

And a salubrious Harvest Festival to you. May Kwanzaa-tide increase your harmonious intercourse with the Planet.


Jack H said...

I've bumped this up, last year and this. It would be such a shame for it to be lost in the archives. So many treasures, buried here. Such a waste.

GUYK said...

Thanks Jack.

chuck e. boy said...

"It would be such a shame for it to be lost in the archives. So many treasures, buried here"

You can say that again.

I'm thankful that what is spoken here still resonates in my heart despite the darkness there.

Jack H said...


Would it be redundant to say thank you? It is, sometimes. But only when it's redundant. So, thank you, one, both, and all.