A familiar type of reporting: There they were in the New York Times again! We were alerted to the report in the list of NOTEWORTHY FACTS found on this morning's page A3 (print editions only).
Somewhat oddly, Farah Nayeri's news report carried a London dateline. Hard copy headline included, it started off like this:
NAYERI (1/23/20): A New Thread on the Mayflower NarrativeThis "new thread" wasn't necessarily new to regular New York Times readers. During Thanksgiving week, the Times ran two separate opinion columns on this very same topic.
In 1970, the Native American leader Wamsutta Frank B. James was asked to give a speech at a state dinner in Plymouth, Mass. It was 350 years since the arrival of the Mayflower, and Mr. James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe that has inhabited what is now Massachusetts for 12,000 years, was invited to participate in the commemorations.
“This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America,” his speech began. “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.”
But that speech was never delivered. The event’s organizers had asked to see an advance copy, and proposed an alternative text. Mr. James chose not to participate. He led a protest near Plymouth Rock instead.
Fifty years have passed, and commemorations for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing are now approaching. This time, Native Americans—particularly the Wampanoag Nation—are actively shaping the programming of events in the United States and Britain.
Today, the topic was back again, this time reported from London.
For whatever reason, some British groups will be staging a 400th anniversary commemoration of the Mayflower's passage this fall. The Mayflower story has never been an especially big event in England, but this year, things will be different.
This time, the perspective of the Wampanoags will be included, Nayeri stresses in her report. With that in mind, maybe someone should tell Nayeri what that perspective is.
Nayeri began her report as shown above, quoting the 1970 speech which was never delivered, the speech about the way the Wampanoags welcomed the Pilgrims in 1620, only to lose their freedom.
It's an important part of American and world history. But just a couple of paragraphs later, Nayeri was offering this:
NAYERI: [T]he Mayflower is a more politically charged subject on one side of the Atlantic than it is on the other. In the United States, generations of schoolchildren have learned that the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower signed treaties with Native Americans and celebrated the first Thanksgiving with them—a sugarcoated version of events that many historians consider a misrepresentation. In Britain, the Mayflower is barely mentioned in the school curriculum.In paragraph 2, Nayeri encouraged readers to empathize with the story in which the Wampanoags welcomed the settlers. By paragraph 7, she was quoting a contemporary Wampanoag who seemed to call the welcoming story a myth.
“In the United States, I’m having to unravel the misconceptions that are put out there in history,” said Paula Peters, a member of the Wampanoag tribe who is on the advisory committee for the American and British events and working on an exhibition of Native American belts as part of the British commemorations. “There is the myth of the Thanksgiving holiday that brings to mind for just about everybody the idea that Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims.”
Nayeri didn't seem to notice the apparent contradiction. Especially at orgs like the New York Times, reports of this type tend to go like this.
The Wampanoag population is very small today. It would be interesting to learn more about the contemporary lives and experiences of these people.
Do Wampanoags tend to feel like part of the American fabric? Do they tend to feel like a people set apart? We grew up in Massachusetts ourselves. We'd like to know more about this.
As she continues, Nayeri quotes an official at the British Museum saying, “It is important that groups like the Wampanoag are getting more involved in bringing their side of the story to this.”
Presumably, that is true. Nayeri then describes some of the program which is being planned in Britain, quoting an artist who's playing a central role:
NAYERI: The British arm of the commemorations, known as Mayflower 400, is a rich cultural program featuring public artworks, performances and exhibitions around England, and has been put together in collaboration with members of the Wampanoag Nation.Luger is finally getting to learn about the Mayflower. Much later in the report, we learn that he grew up on a reservation in North Dakota—that he himself doesn't hail from the Wampanoag tribes.
The program will have a strong visual component. “Settlement,” a monthlong series of displays and performances by Native American artists, will be held in a park in Plymouth, England, where the Mayflower set sail.
“The narrative of the romantic Indian on the plain with buckskin and feathers is not what we’re trying to present—and it’s what I’ve experienced every time I’ve come to Europe,” said the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who is leading the “Settlement” project. “There’s a prevailing notion of us trapped in an 18th-century or 19th-century experience, and then also limited to just a single vision of what that would be.”
Mr. Luger said he had learned more about the Mayflower from his research for the British project than he had growing up in the United States, where the version of history taught in school was “super abrasive, and there is a silencing.”
Then again, do modern Wampanoag members know the history of those unfortunate distant years any better than anyone else? We found ourselves wondering about that last fall. Nayeri lets the question slide past.
It's possible that this all makes sense, though it's also possible that it doesn't. In theory, it's a good idea to teach America's tragic, frequently brutal history with more accuracy and more clarity.
It's also true that revisionist history may sometimes tend to misstate, as we saw the Times' Charles Blow clownishly do back at Thanksgiving. Heartfelt enthusiasm will sometimes undermine accuracy although, on the brighter side, it may also tend to excite.
Meanwhile, in this morning's New York Times, the Wampanoags welcomed the Pilgrims, except that story's a myth. This is the way these stories tend to get told in the Times, one of the most caring and thoughtful upper-class newspapers found anywhere on the earth.