Joe Barrera: First Thanksgivings

We should always give credit where credit is due. I’m thinking of the Native Americans in this season of Plymouth Rock, Captain Miles Standish and John Alden, who both wanted to marry Priscilla Mullins, the only marriageable woman left after all the others died of disease and sheer heartbreak on the pestilential tub called the Mayflower. Priscilla must have been pretty tough. Tisquantum was there, the kidnapped and returned Patuxet Indian better known as Squanto. He had learned English during his sojourn in Europe and was able to translate for the Pilgrims and negotiate with hostile tribes, which saved the Plymouth colony from annihilation. Indians helped Europeans in the New World. This relationship is part of Thanksgiving lore, a gift from American mythology. We think of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown, Leatherstocking and the Mohican, Chingachgook, Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, and the cowboy version–the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Native Americans helped white people in this land, which for Europeans was often strange and savage. Of course, it never seemed to work the other way. We give thanks for Indians like Squanto, who introduced us to the turkey which the Pilgrims ate at the banquet in 1621, when they celebrated the anniversary of their arrival. Except they ate venison, notĀ  turkey, but turkeys are part of the myth. Besides, they are so much more fun for kids to draw, along with men carrying blunderbusses and wearing hats with buckles.

Frozen Berries Color
     photo by: Marian Lanham

We honor the New England Thanksgiving, but there was an earlier one, on the banks of the Big River, el Rio Grande, when the Spanish mining magnate, Juan de Onate, brought 500 settlers north from Santa Barbara in the the present state of Chihuahua, in 1598. This is important to know because American history is incomplete without the Spanish contribution. Knowledge of Spaniards, Indians and Mexicans is crucial if we are to understand our present situation. Onate’s aim was to colonize northern New Mexico, which meant that the Pueblo Indians had to bear the brunt of European exploitation. This was true whenever Europeans encountered native peoples. But the Spanish were different from the English. Spain did not drive out the Indians to make room for white settlement, unlike the English. Spain sent mainly soldiers and priests to the New World, unlike the English who sent entire families. This meant that Spanish men often married Indian women. Onate was married to the granddaughter of the Aztec emperor, Moctecohzuma, and the settlers he led had already begun el mestizaje, the mixture of Spanish and Indian blood and culture, which characterizes Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.

The settlers crossed 600 miles of waterless desert, a journey every bit as hazardous as the Atlantic crossing. They finally reached el Rio Grande in what is now El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. So grateful were the people to find water that they had a real thanksgiving, the same as the Pilgrims more than twenty-years later. They prepared a feast of fish from the river, and staged pageants, among them the reenactment of los moros y cristianos, the battles between Moors and Christians, celebrated to mark the reconquest of Spain and the expulsion of the Moorish king Boabdil in 1492. The Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabela, drove out the best part of their industrious population, the Muslims, and also many Jews.

The Spaniards, in spite of extensive intermarriage with Native Americans, transferred their rage against Muslims to the IndiansĀ  The following year, 1599, Onate sent his nephew, Juan de Zaldivar, to Acoma Pueblo, to demand provisions from the people there. The Indians attacked the soldiers, which prompted Onate to retaliate. He punished the Acoma people by cutting off the right feet of the men and selling many of the children into slavery. The Acomas have never forgotten this but Spanish justice caught up with Onate. He was tried for his crimes and banished from New Spain. I cannot think of similar punishment for English crimes. Regardless, we can learn from this and truly give thanks for the Indians who made European settlement possible.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Reflecting on Leadership through the book, “The Character of Meriwether Lewis”

Clay Jenkinson Book

A wonderful book! Clay Jenkinson explores Meriwether’s character and leadership like a geologist in the field, not a benchtop analyst in the lab. This is an intimate journey; he does not simply put the specimen under a magnifying glass and jot down a detailed list. He picks the matter up, rotates it, puts it under various lights, illuminates the textures, and manages to pluck a real person out of the shady bin of historical mythology. Lewis becomes someone we start to know.

What works well in this narrative is the use of various angles to explain the subject. One encounters John Donne, Dickens, L. Ron Hubbard, Eric Sevareid, etc., as vehicles to clarify the complexities of Meriwether’s difficult, sometimes overwrought nature. Clay’s application of Donne’s poetic conceit, likening Lewis and Clark to a fusion core, is an example of successfully using this approach. The polarity of prose is also effective. One goes from literary metaphors, Jefferson’s “theater” of grief in Virginia after his wife dies, Lewis’s “attic” of isolation and anxiety as governor, to the vernacular of being, “shot in the ass.” Whether this works for all is difficult to say, but it contributed to the book’s wonderful readability. In a page, one might laugh out loud, then delight in the discovery of a new word (“hendiadys”), next to feeling sadness over the tragic and rapid decline of Lewis.

One also appreciates Clay’s integrity to truth. It’s quite a feat, to bring to life and humanize someone as mythologized as his subject, yet maintain a constant fidelity to fact. The narrative never veers off into wild speculation, nor does it favor sensationalist assertions over strongly argued conclusions. The reader is led down a rational, sober, extremely interesting path, and Clay offers compelling insight as to how events affected Lewis and helped to lead him to his end.

A supremely interesting narrative about the complex character of one of America’s greatest leaders.