a complex and savage tale

IMAGINE YOU WERE RELATED to one of the most notorious Indian killers in American history. Now, imagine you were also related to some of those Indians. You can now begin to understand the traumatic baggage that comes with being an American.

In 1637, in the service of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Captain John Underhill led an attack, together with Mohegan Indians, on the Pequot fortified village near modern Mystic, Connecticut. They set fire to the village, killing any who attempted to flee. About 400 Pequots died in what came to be called the Mystic Massacre. But Captain Underhill’s soldier of fortune Indian killing was only just beginning. In the service of New Netherland, he slaughtered between 500 and 700 individuals thought to be of the Siwanoy and Wechquaesgeek groups of the Wappinger Confederacy. And in 1644, he cleared Fort Massapequa right here on Long Island, killing about 120 Indians. According to historical accounts, after the Natives were dead and stacked up, Underhill and his men sat down and ate their breakfast.

Underhill died in 1672. He has many thousands of descendants. One of them was Amelia Earhart. Another one of them is me. I only became aware of this connection by doing my family tree. And in doing my family tree, I became aware of another connection.

About a year ago, I went to visit my 95-year-old grandmother in the assisted living home. I asked her if we could swab her cheek. We were going to do a DNA test. “Come on, Mom, we can find out at last if you’re part Indian,” my father said to his Virginia-born and reared mother, who still speaks with a Tidewater drawl, even though she’s lived in New York for 70 years. “Well, I wouldn’t doubt that,” she said cackling. “And maybe you’re part African, too,” he added. This made her straighten up and her blue eyes widen. “Well,” she said, in her most Southern Belle kind of way, “I’d be very, very surprised.”

According to the data, Grandma has no African blood, or if she does, it is so small that it does not register a percentage point. But she does have Indian DNA — I’ve run the data through five admixture tools, and they report back results of between 1 and 2 percent. I’ve compared segments, sent it to a specialist. He pronounced the findings legit. This would mean that one of her ancestors, born in about 1750, if you do the mathematics, was a Native American.

“Which tribe?” everybody wants to know. The line of hers that is most likely Native goes back to a swampy area on the east side of the Chowan River in North Carolina. It at times was the home to at least three different displaced Native peoples — the Iroquoian Tuscarora and Meherrin, and the Algonquian-speaking Chowanoke. All of these tribes were shattered by disease and warfare, both with settlers and with each other, which made assimilation into the local European and African communities an avenue for personal survival. And one of these people, probably a woman, was my ancestor.

Before you start romanticizing a serene, peace-loving group of Pocahontases robbed of their land though, read more about the Tuscarora War, which raged from 1711 to 1715, and allowed, once the Tuscaroras were defeated, the further settlement of North Carolina. If you read the accounts, when the Tuscaroras rose up in Carolina, English settler women “were laid on their house floors and great stakes run through their bodies. Others big with child, the infants were ript out and hung upon trees.”

This is American history. It is ours and it is brutal.

Recently, my wife and I attended a film night at the library in Greenport, where we watched a documentary about Long Island’s Native Americans — with a special focus on the Shinnecock Nation. In fact, it was called Shinnecock. The filmmaker, Thomas Hoffman, mixed in some general North American Indian history, too, to put things in perspective — The Trail of Tears, The Battle of the Little Big Horn , Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement. A strong message was that of victimization — “Look at what we have endured, what has been done to us, we have been abused for centuries, and now you tell us to get over it?!”

This message confused me though. Who was I in this struggle? Was I the offspring of the perpetrator or the victim or of both? I think a lot of Americans from time to time ask themselves that same question.

4 thoughts on “a complex and savage tale

  1. Finally, I don’t think that Russians, as a people, are responsible for what the leaders of their predecessor state decided. They may say it was wrong, as a moral judgment, but their guilt is no greater than yours or mine, because we are all related, no matter how distantly. This applies to national greatness too. I may be an American, but I didn’t free the slaves and I didn’t put a man on the moon. I didn’t invent baseball or the personal computer any more than I dropped the bombs on Japan. Why should any of us should bear collective guilt or collective pride for anything we ourselves did not accomplish? I shouldn’t blame a Japanese national for Pearl Harbor any more than I should congratulate him for writing Norwegian Wood or creating Nintendo. Just because he shares some ancestors with the men who did write Norwegian Wood or create Nintendo, does not mean he gets to take credit for their greatness. I didn’t write The Sound and the Fury did I?

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