This week’s blog is a series of excerpts from an interview I did with Ben Tanzer, which he published as “An Imperfect World” in Coil Literary Magazine.
An Imperfect World: Ben Tanzer talks with Kathryn Brewster Haueisen about the Mayflower, pandemics, & giving voice to Native Americans in her new book.
To speak with Kathy Haueisen is an education about the story of the Mayflower and the (not at all) New World. We live in a time where human beings are challenging the known historical narratives, told primarily through the lens of the white patriarchy and those allowed to tell these stories. If you grew up as I did, receiving a public-school education in the 1970s, what you know about the Mayflower is begging for a richer version of the story. Hence my excitement in sharing this conversation with Haueisen about the Mayflower story. I’ve been working with Haueisen on the release of her new book, Mayflower Chronicles: A Tale of Two Cultures. Further disclosure, Haueisen is a white woman telling this story. Don’t worry though, we were sure to address that.
TANZER: Please tell us who you are, your background, and what we need to know about your book?
HAUEISEN: I am the daughter of a reference librarian. My mother documented our family’s connection to William and Mary Brewster. I am a wife and mother. My experience in those roles informed my curiosity about the women of the Mayflower, especially Mary. I was stunned to learn she left three of her five children behind when they sailed on the Mayflower.
I am a Lutheran pastor and half my DNA is German. I’ve been immersed in the history of the Protestant Reformation, which started in Germany in 1517. That formed a foundation for my research into the religious turmoil that is part of the Mayflower story.
Finally, I am an author and an avid reader. I know the power of the printed word and was convinced I needed to tell the Mayflower story again — this time to give voice to the women and Natives. Since their versions of the story have not been recorded, that required me to tell it as historical fiction. The people are real. The events are real. Most of the dialogue and some of the details are my imagination.
TANZER: I was struck by your desire to “give voice to the women and Natives,” and I’m wondering what kind of research you did to ensure this happened.
HAUEISEN: Giving voice to the women was fairly easy. All I needed to do for that part of the research was read up on life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in terms of housing, food, clothing, daily life, etc.
Telling the Native version proved problematic. I read books, articles, and online material; I hired a research assistant to find people for me to interview. I talked to university history professors. I read books by Native authors. The other challenging fact was that prior to COVID-19 shutting down all the plans for the 400th Mayflower anniversary events, the few Natives available for interviews were swamped with requests for their time. Through a combination of determination and persistence, I eventually managed to connect and interview five Native people:
I do hesitate to presume what the Native perspective would have been. However, I have access to an audience most Native people probably do not. I hope in risking telling portions of the story from the Native perspective I am adding a few more bricks in a road that connects our two cultures.
TANZER: I’d like us to take one more look on your being a white author telling this story. What do you say to someone who says: why should a white person even write a book like this?
HAUEISEN: I once had a male colleague who sat as the lone male in a course in women’s studies. He wanted to be a counselor and knew he couldn’t experience life as a female. So he immersed himself in a course about women’s issues, surrounded by women. I’m sure he heard many things that must have made him uncomfortable. We can only know life through the filters we have — gender, family heritage, ethnicity, etc.
It is with some fear and trepidation that I presume to speak for the Native community. I see myself as a bridge between the all-white community in which I’ve been raised and the not-a-bit white family I’ve been linked to through my daughter’s marriage and the resulting three children. Though this Native family is far removed from the Natives who are part of the Mayflower story, it is still a tale of two cultures within my own family. The effort and struggle to connect with people of a culture different than our own requires some of the same basic approaches. Listen. Be willing to learn. Observe. Refrain (as much as is humanly possible) from judging. Look for things we have in common. We will offend and not know how or why we did. We will misunderstand and be misunderstood. But if we aren’t willing to risk making cultural mistakes, we’ll never be able to live and work together in peace. I thought the potential benefits outweighed the risks.
HAUEISEN: I believe the idea one group has been chosen by God to rule over other groups of people is built into the very basic DNA of homo sapiens. If we understand chosen as the role of older siblings to watch out for younger siblings, society would work fairly well. However, we tend to assume being in charge means to boss, dominate and subjugate others for personal gain. Then all sorts of problems erupt.
We end up with slavery and justify it by proclaiming one ethnic group is superior to other groups. We presume one gender is superior to another gender. We insist one interpretation about a divine presence in the universe is the only correct understanding of divinity. From there it is one small step to do whatever it takes to make the other person/culture/society do what we want, because after all, “we’re doing it for their own good,” and “God told me/us that this is what we should be doing.”
The Mayflower: a Microcosm of the Nation
The Mayflower passenger list — and crew that brought them — are a microcosm of today’s United States. Many of them came as indentured servants, doing backbreaking labor to pay off the cost of their passage. Today we have hourly workers with little chance of truly advancing in our society. We may pay them, but not enough and with no financial security should they get sick or injured or age out of being able to do the hard work.
We still have the Natives, of course — who continue to suffer greatly from the promises made and broken by people who continue to believe in the policy of Divine Destiny.
We have people who believe rules are for losers and refuse to inconvenience themselves by following them. We still have ordained preachers proclaiming men are superior to women, even though the landscape is full of women who have led courageously and competently in any area of society you can name.
We still have people who believe they have the right to own other people — selling adults and children, enslaving people in deplorable living and working conditions, making themselves rich by withholding the basic necessities for a life worth living.
The Mayflower event did not create this situation. There were conflicts and carnage among the Natives before any European ever saw this continent. However, the Mayflower did import the notion that God is on the side of those doing the conquering. Or that God has no interest in human affairs and it’s all about the survival of the fittest — which is often translated as the strongest, wealthiest, best-armed, cruelest, or most devious.
The Mayflower event shows us a better way. Desperation brought two cultures together to negotiate shared space and resources. It’s an idea worth reintroducing.
HAUEISEN: There is a line in Animal Farm that I believe reads, “All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.” We see the world through the filters we inherit and absorb in whatever communities raised us. The religious group of the Mayflower passengers saw the world through the filter that Christianity was God’s plan for the world, and their moral obligation to spread that message wherever they went. Some used gentle persuasion — I would claim all the members of the Holland Separatist group did. Others used more violent means of “conversion.” They considered the Indigenous people “savages,” believing they were ignorant of the Christian message, and therefore unenlightened.
However, and this is very significant, once they got to know one another, they realized that their Native neighbors were fully developed humans who saw the world differently. They forged authentic friendships. The English settlers came out of a highly structured social system that they also believed to be ordained by God. A few — the monarchy and the religious hierarchy (bishops and archbishops) — were destined to govern. Others were obligated to serve them directly through a complex system of knights, dukes, earls, etc. The vast majority did all the work — growing the food, making the clothing, making all the household items, etc. etc. Not unlike today, about 5% lived very well. Another few percent did okay because of their close affiliation with that 5%. The rest — perhaps 4/5 of the people struggled for the basics. This seemed normal to the people who sailed on the Mayflower. They imported with them the understanding God chose some to lead and the majority to serve them. We see this assumption playing out yet today as policies are passed that enrich the already wealthy and leave out the majority of the people.
It’s a closed system. Only those who already are in charge have access to the decision-making process. The roots of injustice in this country reach back centuries. We won’t make much progress trying to pull them out. That is about as futile as trying to get the whole root when we weed a garden. We’d be better off planting new plants that will crowd out the old plants. That is what the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets did when they sat to work out their treaty. It worked once. It’s time we tried it again.
HAUEISEN: One of the astonishing things I’m watching unfold is how resistant today’s population is to learning from the suffering and sorrows of the past. Whatever highly contagious disease(s) swept through New England took the lives of around 70% of the Indigenous population. Whole villages were abandoned. I imagine that if anyone had told them, “wear masks, keep your distance from one another,” they’d have jumped at the chance to have some way to contain the disease. I believe we will see a very large shift in our basic structures, just as the massive death rate led to a total restructuring of human societies in the New England area.
HAUEISEN: I think of this in terms of lessons learned. We need human companionship. Zoom is better than nothing, but it is a poor substitute for being with people in person, being able to hug, hold a hand, put a hand on another’s shoulder, or bounce a baby on a lap.
We really are all in this global village together. When we cooperate, we get good results, like New Zealand . When we insist on our rights over our social responsibilities, we get results like we’re seeing in the U.S. now. I think we will become more aware of our interdependence. The Natives knew they were totally dependent on the land, and thus developed sustainable ways to care for the land.
Benefits to the Natural World
We can do much more with computers than previously believed, making it possible for large segments of society to telecommute, which would be a huge benefit for the environment. The people in the Mayflower story obviously did not have computers; but they did work and live in the same places. They walked much more softly on the earth than we do today. We can’t go back (or wouldn’t be willing to go back) to life the way it was in the 17th century. But we can do a lot more to find ways to sustain life and ease up on the wear and tear on terra firma.
We will be more aware of how much we need community; we will learn how much we can accomplish without paving over more land to make freeways and add more carbon dioxide to the air; we will rethink who really holds down the essential jobs and how we compensate them.
HAUEISEN: Those of us who have been born and raised in a culture of white privilege need to develop thicker skin. Our ancestors accomplished magnificent things and developed a nation that has been the destination for desperate and hopeful people for centuries. But some of this was accomplished by excluding those of different ethnic heritage. We did not do the excluding, but we have benefited from it. We need not feel guilty about what others did before us, but we do have a moral obligation to acknowledge the injustices and work to correct them.
We are faced with a moral decision. Do we try to justify the injustices of the past? Do we try to deny those things happened? Or perhaps admit they did, but deny the long-term repercussions? Or do we accept that we all, all of us — white, black, brown, and any other skin color of people — are born from imperfect parents into an imperfect world but choose to strive to make this union of fifty United States plus many more soverign Native nations within our borders, a more perfect place? Are we willing to listen without judgment; learn from what we hear; and choose justice and compassion over justification and compliance with the status quo?
I’m pleased to announce Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures is now available in electronic and print form at these places:
Bookshop.org (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
Audio book coming soon!