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Thanksgiving harmony shows Indians' savvy at negotiating English power structure, says new book

Subjects unto the Same King gives exhaustive history of relations among various Indians, colonists in 17th-century New England

As Americans preparing for Thanksgiving remember the familiar tale of Indians' kindness toward the Pilgrims of Plymouth, a new book by a Brigham Young University history professor points out that friendship, though real, was not the only factor that brought them together -- a combination of political and security factors led the parties to sign a pact of mutual protection.

Such examples of the Indians' savvy manipulation of 17th-century English power structures to combat English authority over them, long overlooked by the public and historians alike, are now detailed in "Subjects unto the Same King" by Jenny Hale Pulsipher, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The book has been nominated for six national awards, including the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American history and the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for the best history book by a first-time author.

"This book is an attempt to get past the simplification of early New England history – the Indians versus the English – and show that it was a much more complex interaction," said Pulsipher. "Both the Indians and the English were divided among themselves, and various tribes, colonies and groups were using their structures of authority to try to gain power over the others."

The Pilgrims landed in an area occupied by the Wampanoag tribe. Decimated by epidemics carried by earlier European visitors and fearing their powerful neighbors to the south, the Narragansett tribe, the Wampanoags were happy to find a new ally, especially one with guns. The starving and freezing Pilgrims were likewise concerned about the Narragansetts and willing to temporarily overlook their feelings of divine entitlement to the land and enter into the treaty, known as the "League of Peace."

"The Indians didn't have the kind of racial solidarity that we tend to project onto the past," Pulsipher said. "The Pilgrims were another group, and the Wampanoags were happy to make an alliance with them, and it served both groups' interests."

It's a storyline repeated often through the book – Indians, their numbers dwindling and facing technological superiority, quickly figure out English power structure and work within it to, at best, preserve their sovereignty or, at worst, stave off English dominance. Some even went so far as to travel to England and make direct appeals to the king.

The author's research led her to eight archives and dozens of libraries in New England, where she read more than 2,500 manuscript documents, some of them previously unknown, and examined several thousand published letters, sermons, court records, narrative accounts and journals.

"In our contemporary society there are many movements of Indian groups to assert their sovereignty, trying to achieve federal recognition of their independent nation status as a way of recouping some of the losses they've suffered," said Pulsipher. "These findings are a way of seeing that this is a long standing pattern. Indians did assert their sovereignty from the very beginning."

Indian expectations of equal treatment and defense of their own rights were widespread. Other examples include:

-- The Wampanoag leader Massasoit believed the Plymouth governor William Bradford was violating the terms of the League of Peace by harboring Squanto, the famed liaison between the two groups, whom Massasoit believed had wronged him. "He writes to Bradford, outraged and says, 'According to the terms of our first agreement, you have to deliver him to me for punishment. He is my subject,'" Pulsipher said. "He clearly sees every single clause of the agreement as reciprocal and is offended when that is not observed. The Indians clearly believe that they're equals and in succeeding agreements throughout the century, when the English violate that expectation, the Indians protest. It sets the foundation for an initial kind of equality."

-- An Indian named John Wompas, whom Pulsipher called "something of a scoundrel," claimed ownership of lands that other Indians disputed and colonial courts denied. He traveled to England, got an audience with the king and persuaded him to write a letter in his behalf. "People hearing about this audacious person, who goes all the way to the king and gets his letter, are just amazed that the Indians would go to that extent, that they understood the lines of authority perfectly well, and that they knew how to challenge local authority," Pulsipher said.

-- A Narragansett leader, Pomham, found himself in a power struggle with his chief leader, Miantonomi, and decided the only way he could win is to appeal over his head. So he appealed to the Massachusetts Bay Company, which arrived ten years after the Pilgrims and was a more powerful colony, and offered to become its subject in exchange for protection. The colonists agreed. "So he'd leapfrogged his Indian superior and gone to an English authority," Pulsipher said. "This makes it really clear to Miantonomi that he's got a power to contend with in the English, and this contest of authority is going to play a significant role in his people's lives."

Pulsipher was drawn to both the discipline of history and the subject of Native American affairs while growing up hearing stories about her Shoshone fourth-great-grandmother. She hopes a better understanding of what really happened between Indians and English settlers in the 17th Century can contribute to better relations among all cultures.

"One of the big concerns we have today is we live in a very diverse multi-racial, multi-ethnic world that is getting flatter every year. How do we get along with people who are different from us?" she asked. "That's one of the lessons that Thanksgiving tries to teach—different people can get along. They can be friends. This is an opportunity to reaffirm the equality of all human beings and recognize the wrongs that have taken place but try to seek a new middle ground of harmony."

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