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Andrew Jackson’s illegal and heavily censured actions during the First Seminole War in 1817 were cited recently during the military trial of a Guantanamo prisoner and was used as a precedent for the $690 billion defense authorization bill recently passed by Congress that would give the president unilateral authority to wage war at home or abroad and detain anyone suspected of terrorism or “providing material aid to terrorism”
Prosecutors also made a reach when they grasped for a historic precedent to support their claim that providing aid is a war crime under the jurisdiction of the military commission. The case they cited occurred in 1818 when then Major General Andrew Jackson illegally invaded Spanish Florida in search of runaway slaves with the intent of returning them to their “owners” and the Seminoles resisted this invasion of their land. Jackson’s incursion kicked off the First Seminole War and during that conflict, Jackson captured two British men, Alexander George Arbuthnot and Robert C. Ambrister, who were living among the Seminoles. One of the men had written letters about their support for the Seminoles’ land and treaty rights and Jackson used this “evidence” to accuse the men of “inciting” the Seminoles to “savage warfare” against the U.S. He convened a “special court martial” tribunal—what would today be called a “kangaroo court”—then had the men executed.
In the course of making their case that providing aid is a war crime under military jurisdiction, the prosecutors compared the Seminoles to Al Qaeda and the Yemeni prisoner to the two British men. They said the conduct of the two British men was viewed as “wrongful, in that they were assisting unlawful hostilities” by the Seminoles and their allies. “Further, not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violated the customs and usages of war.” That slur against the Seminoles was not the only mistake the prosecutors made in using the execution of the two British men to build their argument, said Samuel T. Morison, Appellate Defense Counsel in the Department of Defense and an expert in 19th century legal history. The Jackson incident “is problematic,” Morison wrote in a forthcoming essay in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Vol. 33, 2011 called History and Tradition in American Military Justice “because it is also one of the most notorious episodes in the history of American military justice.”
The prosecutors’ comparison of the Seminoles to Al Qaeda provoked strong objections from both the Seminole Nation and the National Congress of American Indians. Seminole Tribe Chairman Mitchell Cypress wrote an angry letter to Obama on March 24, saying the tribe is “concerned and dismayed by the military prosecutors’ backward dive into racist, revisionist history.” The NCAI filed an amicus curiae letter objecting to the “distorted offensive historical analogy” comparing the First Seminole War to the terrorism of al Qaeda. “This is an astonishing statement of revisionist history,” NCAI wrote. “The Seminole effort to defend themselves from an invading genocidal army could be termed an ‘unlawful belligerency’ only by the most jingoistic military historian” and “calls into question the reasoning and judgment of those who are representing the government in [Al Bahlul’s] case.”
Throughout the winter of 1675–1676, Native Americans attacked and destroyed more frontier settlements in their effort to expel the English colonists. Attacks were made at Andover, Bridgewater, Chelmsford, Groton, Lancaster, Marlborough, Medfield, Millis, Medford, Portland, Providence, Rehoboth, Scituate, Seekonk, Simsbury, Sudbury, Suffield, Warwick, Weymouth, and Wrentham, including what is modern-day Plainville. The famous account written and published by Mary Rowlandson after the war, gives a colonial captive's perspective on the war. It was part of a genre known as captivity narratives.
The spring of 1676 marked the high point for the combined tribes when, on March 12, they attacked Plymouth Plantation. Though the town withstood the assault, the natives had demonstrated their ability to penetrate deep into colonial territory. They attacked three more settlements: Longmeadow (near Springfield), Marlborough, and Simsbury, were attacked two weeks later. They killed Captain Pierce and a company of Massachusetts soldiers between Pawtucket and the Blackstone's settlement. Several colonial men were allegedly tortured and buried at Nine Men's Misery in Cumberland, as part of the Native Americans' ritual treatment of enemies. The natives burned the abandoned capital of Providence to the ground on March 29. At the same time, a small band of Native Americans infiltrated and burned part of Springfield while the militia was away.
These are the Puritans that the Indians "saved", and whom we celebrate in the holiday, Thanksgiving. Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, a member of the Patuxet Indian nation. Samoset, of the Wabonake Indian nation, which lived in Maine. They went to Puritan villages and, having learned to speak English, brought deer meat and beaver skins for the hungry, cold Pilgrims. Tisquantum stayed with them and helped them survive their first years in their New World. He taught them how to navigate the waters, fish and cultivate corn and other vegetables. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as medicines. He also negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, head chief of the Wampanoags, a treaty that gave the Pilgrims everything and the Indians nothing. And even that treaty was soon broken. All this is celebrated as the First Thanksgiving.
I am afraid of Thanksgiving. More accurately, I am afraid of what Thanksgiving tells us about both the dominant culture and much of the alleged counterculture.
Here’s what I think it tells us: As a society, the United States is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt. This is a society in which even progressive people routinely allow national and family traditions to trump fundamental human decency. It’s a society in which, in the privileged sectors, getting along and not causing trouble are often valued above honesty and accountability. Though it’s painful to consider, it’s possible that such a society is beyond redemption. Such a consideration becomes frightening when we recognize that all this goes on in the most affluent and militarily powerful country in the history of the world, but a country that is falling apart -- an empire in decline.
Thanksgiving should teach us all to be afraid.
Although it’s well known to anyone who wants to know, let me summarize the argument against Thanksgiving: European invaders exterminated nearly the entire indigenous population to create the United States. Without that holocaust, the United States as we know it would not exist. The United States celebrates a Thanksgiving Day holiday dominated not by atonement for that horrendous crime against humanity but by a falsified account of the “encounter” between Europeans and American Indians. When confronted with this, most people in the United States (outside of indigenous communities) ignore the history or attack those who make the argument. This is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.
UAINE and the history of National Day of Mourning: In 1970, United American Indians of New England declared US Thanksgiving Day a National Day of Mourning. This came about as a result of the suppression of the truth. Wamsutta, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man, had been asked to speak at a fancy Commonwealth of Massachusetts banquet celebrating the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. He agreed. The organizers of the dinner, using as a pretext the need to prepare a press release, asked for a copy of the speech he planned to deliver. He agreed. Within days Wamsutta was told by a representative of the Department of Commerce and Development that he would not be allowed to give the speech. The reason given was due to the fact that, "...the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place." What they were really saying was that in this society, the truth is out of place.
What was it about the speech that got those officials so upset? Wamsutta used as a basis for his remarks one of their own history books - a Pilgrim's account of their first year on Indian land. The book tells of the opening of my ancestor's graves, taking our wheat and bean supplies, and of the selling of my ancestors as slaves for 220 shillings each. Wamsutta was going to tell the truth, but the truth was out of place.
Here is the truth: The reason they talk about the pilgrims and not an earlier English-speaking colony, Jamestown, is that in Jamestown the circumstances were way too ugly to hold up as an effective national myth. For example, the white settlers in Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive. Not a very nice story to tell the kids in school. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus "discovered" anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod -- before they even made it to Plymouth -- was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine down the hill called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.
The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from Massachusetts who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.
About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in "New England" were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression.
But back in 1970, the organizers of the fancy state dinner told Wamsutta he could not speak that truth. They would let him speak only if he agreed to deliver a speech that they would provide. Wamsutta refused to have words put into his mouth. Instead of speaking at the dinner, he and many hundreds of other Native people and our supporters from throughout the Americas gathered in Plymouth and observed the first National Day of Mourning. United American Indians of New England have returned to Plymouth every year since to demonstrate against the Pilgrim mythology.