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"The Sum of Us"
TEASPOON #1. THE QUESTION OF OUR QUEST.
The Rev. John Eliot (1604-1690), acclaimed as the “Apostle to the Indians” in his own lifetime, was chosen as our namesake by the founders of Eliot Church in 1845. The site of Eliot’s inaugural sermon to the native people on October 28, 1646 is a half-mile away from the church building, on an unprepossessing slope facing what is now a municipal golf course, but otherwise on a rather high set of hills overlooking the Quinobequin (meaning “meandering”) River, now the Charles River. His audience that day consisted of Waban, a sub-chief of this band of the Wampanoag tribe, and kindred families of his.
A stained glass pane in one of our church windows portrays Eliot in a prayerful gesture, surrounded by a half-dozen attentive, seated Indians, one of whom in chieftain garb also sits close by with bow in hand. The iconography memorializes the spiritual nature of Eliot’s relationship to the native peoples that persisted through the years of King Philip’s War (1675-78) and continued to the end of his life. For their own part, the Wampanoags had been curious, cautious, and careful to calculate their self-interest before these unpredictable English. Many observers then and scholars now doubt how deeply their spiritual interests or Eliot’s influence really ran. John Eliot himself was aware of this ambiguity. When it came to war finally, the ambiguities held tragic costs for the “praying Indians.”
This region of alternating forest, fertile fields and rugged coastline was occupied by numerous interrelated tribes continuously for 10,000 years, whose populations in 1646 had been severely reduced by illness brought by Europeans over the prior 50 years. When the English settlers arrived and John Eliot set out to convert the indigenous peoples, the subsequent destruction of the entire native population was set in motion. But what precise role did Eliot have in that destruction? What shall Eliot’s legacy be, and who is John Eliot to us at Eliot Church, today?
Our quest for the historical John Eliot will hopefully answer this question.
Rev. Richard Chrisman 6/21/2021
TEASPOON #2. LAND EQUALS FOOD
Taking this land from its peoples must have been like taking candy from a baby--as long as you crush the baby--such was the English juggernaut! Except, the peoples fought back, fought for it, fought for themselves--although, ultimately and catastrophically, losing everything.
The people called this land Dawnland, because it lies the farthest east, where the sun dawns, and where the unfortified, easternmost shores fatefully received the English representatives of the Bronze Age. After a period of about 40 years, jockeying warily around each other’s motivations, sword fatally met tomahawk, gunfire met torchfire, possess met defend.
The collision was absolute. The English were not going to be denied, having tasted the elixir called free land, land “granted” unilaterally by the crowns of Europe to any who would occupy and settle it. That was called “owning” land, owning property with exclusive rights to use or re-sell it. In feudal Europe, land was divided up solely among the landed, except for the “common” where the peasantry grazed their livestock until the commons were taken away in the 18th century. But in New England, any white adult male Christian could rule over a private fief for the taking. Such possession was unknown among the native peoples who only “owned” land by usage (called “usufruct rights”). The English overwhelmed the indigenous peoples because the English were intoxicated, they were land-intoxicated.
Land means survival because land means food--but not automatically. There is no food ready at hand as you look out upon an expanse of forest. The colonists thought it was an empty wilderness, but the Indians successfully practiced a wide range of subsistence methods over a continent-wide expanse for millennia. The colonists eventually caught on, and survived, but fatefully adding to hunt and agriculture the profits of mercantilism--natural resources were converted into cash and profit. Land treated as capital became the engine of wealth, exactly what was denied to native Americans, at the same time that it led to the degradation of the environment we know today (Cronon, 169-70).
A fatal incompatibility was at work--something, someone, had to give. The indigenous peoples were forced to give it all up--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
*Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: 1993, 2003).
Teaspoon #3. The smell of land.
“For the entirety of the 16th century, maps of New England consisted of a single line separating ocean from land. . . the interior remained blank.” (*)
As far as the newest arrivals were concerned, the unpopulated continent was theirs for the taking. That assumption governed every decision they made as settlers, as church people, as a people essentially self-governed through their General Court, and it governed their reactions to the indigenous peoples whom they immediately encountered. The quaint assumption of the crowns of Europe that they only need plant a flag in the ground to claim entire regions and then parcel portions out to deserving minions was birthed by the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal edict of 1493 (the year after Columbus “discovered” America) asserting non-Christian lands could be seized from their occupants by fiat.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s,” wrote our great national poet, Robert Frost. This beautiful, but unhistorical line, gave the lie to those who knew the land first--the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, and Nipmuc tribes. They would rewrite Frost this way: “We are owned by the land even if you don’t own the land.” Because, a whole people, entire cultures, a civilization existed where our maps had shown none.
Uniquely adapted to the “wilderness” which met the colonists, native Americans had developed an existence that could be described as homeostatic--balanced. All their senses were tuned to their aesthetic and spiritual existence, and survival. Think of what the smell of your natal ground means to you when you visit again--an intangible savoring of the life force itself. But unless you grew up on a farm, you lived at several--many!--removes from the soil, the seasonal cycles, the intimate messages of the distant lights of the sky. Native Americans were owned by the land under the sky.
For the English colonists, what they smelled as they forced their way into the land from the coastal lowlands was the smell of money. The native Americans could not possibly have gauged the ferocity with which the settlers would vie not just for a foothold but for the primacy needed to guarantee their economic independence from the mother country. The settlers did not hate the Indians--they just wanted them out of the way. (**) When they fought back, a violence was released from the settlers that pushed the weakened natives back to the Connecticut River and beyond. The settlers’ own violence, once open warfare broke out, so alarmed the pious colonists that the clergy declared a day of fasting and mourning--although it failed to abate the violence. The smell of land overruled their humanity.
(*) Cronon, Changes in the Land (1983, 2003).
(**) MacDougall, Freedom Is Just around the Corner (2004).
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