The Remnant: Does My Ethnic Background Give Me a Different View of History

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and American Transcendentalist, he made that sentence a household phrase.

One set of my ancestors tried to kill another set, not just kill, in fact, but dominate, conquer and annihilate. For the most part, they succeeded.

I like the modern world and entertain no fantasies that I would actually prefer living in any premodern society. Still, if I were asked to pick among premodern societies, I might very well pick one of the Algonquian tribes from the eastern coastal region of North America. I’m a little self-conscious about that choice since I feel like maybe I’m being bigoted here. Still, I can’t help feeling that they had a really pleasant culture. If you don’t mind a bit of poverty, they still do. When the Europeans first arrived here, they reported that most of the tribes were really peaceful. I’m quoting from memory, so pardon me if I’m inaccurate, but Roger Williams wrote that if they had a war for seven years they would not kill seven men, that wars among Algonquian tribes mainly involved cutting off trade relations and endless negotiations. That is in all likelihood an exaggeration, but there is no doubt they definitely are high up on the peaceful scale and leave the premodern Europeans far behind. The are also well ahead, at least according to my own personal preferences, of the Europeans on the matter of gender equality. They seem to have not had any particularly onerous religious rituals, another plus in my book.

I don’t think I’m romanticizing Native Americans because I don’t necessarily view other premodern North American cultures quite as rosily, not that I’d put them beneath the Europeans. I’m afraid I don’t know much about the culture of the California coast and even less about the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa. Instinct tells me in a region so large I’d probably find at least one or two groups to be highly agreeable. South Pacific Islanders definitely give everyone a run for their money and they have a far better climate than Eastern North America. Still, I think we can say that, according to standards of my very modern self, the Algonquian tribes had a pleasant, agreeable, peaceful culture.

It is a puzzle to try to know how much some of these cultural traits endure, but all of the people I’ve met belonging to communities descended from Algonquian tribes have been really nice, kind, gentle people, which just reinforces in my mind the image of these groups.

In late elementary school or middle school, I recall going to the library looking in books to find out which Indian tribes lived where in North America. The adoption agency said that my biological mother’s ethnic background English, American Indian and French. I knew she came from the East. Now, people can move, but still I was putting higher probability on the eastern tribes, which according to the books were “extinct.” The word doesn’t mean the same thing for human beings as it does for dodos. For animals, it means every last member living on earth is dead. The northern white rhino is not yet extinct but almost certainly will be, still we do not call it extinct as long as a few survive.

Regarding Native American tribes, the word “extinct” means that the nation no longer exists as a political entity. However, more often than not, they left descendants. In many instances, the descendants live in the same community, or a handful of nearby communities. The word I found in the books as a child was “remnant.” Previously, I had mainly associated that word with a nearby carpet factory that advertised that its outlet store sold “remnants.” It was a weird and vaguely unpleasant association that I’ve never really been able to shake.

Since that time, I’ve met people belonging to those communities. One day, I’d like to take a trip and drive from New England to the South and visit some of the communities with the end of writing something about them. For now, l just want to point out that, where the fate of these people are concerned, there was no justice. The arc of the moral universe will never be long enough to bend towards them.

The “good guys” don’t always win. By our current moral standards, the Algonquian tribes were at a higher level than the barely modern Europeans who destroyed them. Moreover, it was the very quality that makes their culture morally preferable to us today, their peacefulness, that made them especially vulnerable.

When President Obama compared today’s Syrian refugees to the Plymouth Pilgrims, I felt quite angry with him. I thought it showed a callous disregard for the indigenous people of New England as well as a willful ignorance of history. Take it from a remnant, the universe is not moral.

 

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