Saga of native Americans provides modern lessons on terms of peace

April 06, 2004 12:00 AM


Off Boston Harbor there is a small island to which one can cross a bridge on foot. The island hosts the state courthouse, a number of fine restaurants and a small green park. It offers a magnificent view of downtown Boston, especially in the morning, when the eastern sun shines on the grand hotels, banks, luxury apartments and sky scrapers of the city. But of course, I am not writing about tourism.

If you pay attention, just as you cross the pedestrian bridge to the island, you will notice a big disc of metal attached to the ground, with illustrated descriptions of some important events from the city's past. One of the illustrations is of a native American chief holding a rifle. According to the paragraph next to it, this was Metacomet son of Massasoit, known to the English as King Philip, head of the Wampanoag Indians who lived in what are now called the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

That portion of the metallic disc told the story of Metacomet's war against the English settlers in 1675-1676. The paragraph notes that the Christianized Indians did not fare better at war than their brethren who stuck to their traditions. The war was the most devastating in the history of northeastern Indians. Almost all of the Wampanoag population perished, the survivors were taken to four small islands off Boston Harbor, where they were left to face the winter with no food, fuel, shelter or medicine. All those who were taken to the islands perished as well. Those who had surrendered during the course of the war were sold to slavery.

The story of the war of Metacomet or "King Philip" is typical. At first the relation between the British settlers and the native Americans were friendly. The Indians did not think that the few newcomers would be any threat to them. The concept of land ownership was not clear to them, neither were the concepts of appropriation and conquest. They thought the newcomers were there to share rather than take the land, and that was very welcome.

Metacomet's father, Massasoit, was one of those invited to the famous Thanksgiving dinner, when the new settlers and the Indians celebrated the first harvest in the new land. The king of the Wampanoag, who was "invited" to the dinner, brought five deer with him that ended up feeding everybody else. Little did the generous Massasoit know that his son would be beheaded by his friends on the other side of the banquet table. He didn't know that his son's head would be publicly displayed on a spear in Plymouth for 25 years and that his body would be cut into four quarters and then burned to ashes.

The good relations between the settlers and the Indians had resulted in the acceptance of Christianity by some Indian tribes. As the settlers increased in numbers and military power, many of the Indians thought that such conversion to Christianity would offer them some security. Yet the settlers' need to expand did not allow them to differentiate between the "praying" Indian villages and pagan ones. The settlers started encroaching on the land of Wampanoag, and some attacks by puritan's who did not seem to favor Indians, whether Christian or not, were met by Indian retaliation, and thus the war began.

During the time when the Wampanoags still maintained good relations with the settlers, their Indian neighbors, the Narragansett, were worried. They saw such an improvement of relations as an alliance against them. They had suffered enough at the hands of both the Wampanoag and the settlers, and skirmishes between the Wampanoag and the Narragansett were frequent. Thus, when the situation deteriorated between Metacomet and the settlers, the Narragansett were reluctant to lend their support to the Wampanoag. It did not seem rational to the Narragansett to support their past and potential enemies, so they decided to refrain from joining Metacomet's war of liberation.

Nevertheless, the settlers decided that despite the neutrality of the Narragansett, their inclination to help their own race would result in them joining Metacomet. Accordingly, the settlers decided to launch a "pre-emptive" attack to wipe out the Narragansett, and so they did.

After reading that metal disc at Boston Harbor, where only a very short account of the war exists, I walked to the state courthouse. The outside of the building is full of quotations, by supposedly eloquent American government employees, about the magnificence of democracy, and the governments' responsibilities vis-a-vis their people. The contrast between the courthouse with its quotations and the beautiful city view on the one hand, and the history of massacring the Wampanoag mentioned on that disc on the other effectively summarized some of America's meaning in the world.

But instead of thinking about the meaning of America, I was thinking about the Arab world. A couple of years ago an Egyptian cartoonist drew all Arab leaders in Native American costumes with Indian feather headdresses. His point was well felt in the Middle East. We are facing an existential threat to our very being as Arabs and Muslims at the hands of the United States and Israel, just like the existential threat faced by the Indians. The Israeli historian, Benni Morris, argued in the first years of the third millennium that the only way Israel can survive is by doing to the Palestinians what the settlers did to the native Americans, namely, wiping them out.

Just like the Narragansett and the Wampanoag, the Arabs are preoccupied with their own internal feuds while the enemy is increasing in their midst. And just like the English settlers of the 17th century, Bush's pre-emptive war doctrine does not differentiate between those who actually fight America and those, who don't. Those who make peace with the enemy, those who convert to the enemy's religion, those who wear the enemy's clothes, are not by any means safer than those who resist the enemy, only less honorable. These are the terms of peace.

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