History Doesn’t Change, But Interpretations Do
We are currently having heated public debates about how we interpret historical events. Conversations and decisions around Columbus or Indigenous Peoples’ Day are a prime example. In recent years we’ve been more open about about telling a more rounded version of that famous explorer who sailed the oceans blue in 1492. He’s long been honored as a gallant and brave explorer. Today his less admirable biography as an evil opportunist and oppressor has also been highlighted. What do we do with our heros who turn out to also be part-villian? That depends on who’s telling the story. To know the full story we need a variety of voices telling it.
History is generally recorded by the victors and told through the perspectige of the conquerers. In recent years the conquered have gained new access to getting their side of history told more broadly and fully. Indigenous people want us to acknowledge that Columbus’ adventures included explotation, murder, rape, pillage, and other nefarious deeds. Today society hauls people who do such things before judges at the Hague International Court of Justice, charging them with crimes against humanity.
Chosing a Part to Play
We cannot redo history. We can, individually and as communities, decide what to do with the less famliar, and often uglier chapters of history. I want to be on the side of expanding what we know of our past rather than participating in deniel and coverups. An individual, family, or community is only as healthy as the secrets it brings to light. That was a lot of my motivation in writing Mayflower Chronicles. I wanted people to know the story from the perspective of those who walked the land for centuries before the Mayflower dropped anchor in 1620.
Thanks to DNA testing, I know that I have not one drop of Native American blood coursing through my veins. I do however have three grandchildren who have Indigenous heritage, thanks to their father’s side of the family. When I set out to learn more about that part of their heritage I met a Native American family in Rhode Island.
A Delayed Meeting
Tracey Brown, aka Dancing Star or Po Pummukaonk Anogqs, and her father and son, were among the Indigenous people I interviwed. We made plans to meet in person in June 2020. COVID-19 squashed those plans. I finally got to meet Tracey in the summer of 2021. She and her family descend from Massasoit Ousamequin. He was the leader of leaders among the Indigenous peoples in the New England area when the English Pilgrims arrived in 1620.
I do not know if their ancestor knew about Columbus’s explorations. We do know the Massasoit had previous, and not always pleasant, contact with earlier Europeans. History also records that he had a decision to make. He could have simply let these latest Europeans starve to death and fade into history as another failed attempt to establish new colonies. Instead, he decided to approach them in the spring of 1621 to work out the first treaty between the Indigenous people and the English-speaking Europeans.
Today we have numerous methods to verify details about what happened where and when in history. What remains subjective is how we interpret those events. We all tell history through the filters we get from our parents, teachers, and peers. Not one of us holds the patent to the whole truth about what historical events mean. We are all biased by where we’ve come from and who has influenced us along the way.
The only way to achieve mutual respect and peaceful relationships among people with different perspectives is to set aside our assumptions and deeply listen to one another’s different understandings of historical events. That is what I have tried to do with Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures and why I endorse renaming the second Monday in October Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But, for what it’s worth, I think statues of Columbus should remain in place. Whatever else he may have been, he was certainly courageous. I’ve seen the replicas of ships of that era. I wouldn’t sail across Lake Erie on one of them, let alone the Atlantic Ocean.
We can’t change history, We can reconsider whose stories we deem worthy of preserving and telling.
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Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold. Bookshop.org/Mayflower; Mary Brewster
Amazon.com/Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.