Americans are the Indians now

The inability of the Indians to band together against the invading Europeans presages the inability of the posterity of the American Revolution to stand together against the multiple waves of immigrants that have invaded, transformed, and even disappeared the very concept of the American nation:

King Philip had one extraordinary advantage as war raged in the autumn of 1675: The settlers did not know how to fight an Indian war. They couldn’t cross a swamp, they couldn’t travel silently in woods, they couldn’t keep warm outdoors. Indians won battle after battle.

But the victories were Pyrrhic. Plymouth and its allies in Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were connected to global trade networks and could import food, while the Indians were an agricultural people a long way from their fields and stores. King Philip’s troops may have been winning. But they were also starving. The English controlled the technological platform of the war. However formidable Indians were at firing guns, they could not manufacture them. The best hope of the Wampanoags and their Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Abenaki allies was to enlist the ferocious Mohawks of the upper Hudson, with their thousands of fighting men. But the Mohawks’ ferocity (and independence) rested on arms obtained from Albany merchants whom they could not afford to alienate. They entered the war against King Philip, suddenly and to devastating effect.

Finally, the English had cohesion, however you choose to name it: solidarity, like-mindedness, uniformity. The Indians had diversity. That meant some fought with Philip and others fought against him. The Christians among them were an important source of intelligence to the English. War split up not just families but, among the tribal leaders, marriages. King Philip was driven eastward, back across Massachusetts, to his homeland and his fate.

“If the Wampanoags are as much our fellow Americans as the descendants of the Pilgrims,” Silverman asks, “and if their history can be as instructional and inspirational as that of the English, then why continue to tell a Thanksgiving myth that focuses exclusively on the colonists’ struggles rather than theirs?” The answer, as noted, is that we no longer do tell that myth, and haven’t for years. Once we have dismissed the Puritans’ religious claims, once we lose interest in the way their democratic intuitions, from the Mayflower Compact onward, anticipate our own democratic institutions, then we are left with a tale of increasing tensions between two ethnic communities that eventually exploded into war. Every prejudice that has been schooled into Americans over the past half-century would prompt them to root against the Pilgrims.

But that is no longer the only reason we don’t look at Plymouth from a Pilgrim perspective. Of the two communities that confronted each other in New England 400 years ago, it may now be the Indians, not the Pilgrims, who most resemble today’s Americans. The Wampanoags were divided between, on one hand, cosmopolitans like Massasoit, who believed that there was room for a mosaic of peoples in southeastern Massachusetts, and, on the other, skeptical provincials like Philip who lost faith in that ideal. They lacked the cohesion to stand up against a resolute rival.

A remark often bandied about today is Adam Smith’s to the effect that “[t]here is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” by which he meant that it takes a much greater set of misfortunes to destroy a nation, and over a much longer period of time, than we commonly realize. It is not actually true. The Wampanoags went from dominance and confidence to a point of no return in about 55 or 60 years. Suddenly they were losing population, and abandoning old values, too. Each problem fed on the other in a dangerous process. Once a people begins debating how much ruin there is in a nation, that process is already well underway.

This is why it is so pointless for conservatives to babble about “they’re trying to divide us” and other nonsensical civnatteries. There is no longer one single “us”, there are only multiple nations negotiating and jockeying for power over everyone else. 

Perhaps Americans will preserve a rump state amongst the ashes of empire. Or perhaps the conquerors of the US empire will permit whites a few reservations out in North Dakota and Idaho.