Image by Mike Mccleary from the Standing Rock Reservation (2016)
My name – Bradford, was scavenged from my family’s ancestral line which descends from William Bradford. Bradford came to America in 1620 on the Mayflower, after which he served as Governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1621 until his death in 1657. His election to that office, was among the earliest realizations of democratic processes to occur in the colonies. Though Bradford seems to have embraced a reasonable amount of tolerance for the people (the Pokanoket Tribe) who occupied that the lands which became Plymouth – the fact of which lays the groundwork for a great deal of historic propaganda, it is likely that the Governor’s position was emotionally insincere – a necessary compromise for survival. Bradford, as most know, was a Pilgrim. The standard narrative surrounding the Pilgrims, emphasizes the fact that they came to America in search of religious freedom. What is rarely mentioned, is that they were a radical conservative sect of Calvinists, noted for extreme intolerance for other people and religious ideologies.
Calvinism is a form of Protestantism – the totality of which, at its root, springs from the ideas of Martin Luther. To grossly simplify, Luther (largely through his disagreement with the Catholic Church’s idea of penance, and selling of indulgences) proposed that the gift of admittance to Heaven was so great, that no action in life (or sum total of them) could ever make one worthy of it. Reconciling this, he ventured that God had predetermined who would gained entry. This presented a problem – how does one know if they have been chosen? Luther proposed that those graced by God favor, would be known through their behavior and the character of their lives. They would be “good,” while their earthy existence reflected God’s favor. Those whom God had forsaken, would conversely behave badly, and met with suffering. John Calvin, a disciple of Luther’s, expanded on this. Among other things, he proposed that it was the responsibility of God’s chosen people, to seek out and destroy those who had not graced by his favor. It was this principle belief, which gave us the Salem Witch Trials, and defines much America’s ideological core.
At the heart of the Pilgrims, is a belief in their superiority – that they were among God’s chosen. This idea still lingers in all corners of American life. It is the basis of its historic treatment of its indigenous peoples – helping to rationalize their persecution (which amounted to genocide) and the theft of their lands. It defines its intolerance for citizens who do fit into the standard mold of American life – who do be not resemble those who define the architectures of power (who are successful) – be that in race, culture, religion, economy, or political belief, as well those who were born beyond its borders. Difference from the perceived norm (through a Calvinist lens), implies that something is wrong – that there is evil in the midst, which must be feared and persecuted.
Though rarely acknowledged, power and success in our country (particularity when possessed by white males) is underscored by a (disassociated) belief in divine right. The culture of Calvinism infiltrated the secular world. Particularity when addressing race, entitlement, and economy, it silently lead us to believe that the character of one’s life, is the result of predetermination – that those who possess wealth and power, are entitled to it. Conversely, failure, struggle, and the lack of access, is the fault of who we are – that we get what we deserve. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber highlighted how these ideas defined the very core of our economic system (which in turn sculpted our the character of our democracy), how we participate with it, and how we see those who benefit from it – how we intuitively perceive them as superior (regardless of the ethics of their actions), and aspire to enter their heaven.
On this Thanksgiving Day, as we reflect on the past – on the foundations of our country and its early days, we should also draw the sins of our forefathers (my ancestors) into the light. The legacies of their beliefs (in their superiority and entitlement), are still with us today. They are at the core of how we perceive democracy, and the rights of those within it. They are at the heart of the recent presidential election, with all its insensitivity and projection that one people is more entitled than the rest. Most pertinently on this day, they continues to assert themselves at Standing Rock – one of the few slivers of land reserved for America’s indigenous peoples. In those fields and valleys, among that grass, wages a struggle – people defending what it rightfully theirs, against the same forces of entitlement and perceived superiority, which have marked all of America’s long days. Their struggle, coupled with the fact that so few have come to their aid, indicates inequality, and thus that Democracy is not functioning as it should.
Today I will not give thanks. I reserve that for the day when the sins and legacies of my ancestors have been purged – for the day when all people are equal and have access to the same means. When no one is persecuted or preyed upon for their difference. When no forces strives to take what is rightfully another’s. Today I stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and with all people who suffer under the forces of Capitalism which my ancestors helped to sculpt. I stand against all forces which seek to undermine democratic rights.
As a small token of my solidarity, I share the sounds of the Sioux Tribe from the 1949 Folkways release Music of The Sioux and Navajo. May their beauty bring humanity into your day, remind you of what our country once was, and give you hope for what it might be.
Male Sioux Singer with Gourde Rattle, Water-Drum Player – Peyote Cult Song (1949)
Male Sioux Singer – Love Song (1949)
Male Sioux Chorus, Drummers, Dancers with Bells – Omaha (1949)
Lucy Randall, Paul High Horse, and Oliver Standing Bear and Jonas Quiver –Rabbit Dance (1949)