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Forty years

Forty years

I have a confession. I love Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. That's not the confession; there's nothing wrong with loving Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Everyone should love Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The confession is that I am on page 100 of her book, The Age of Homespun, and I cannot move forward. Every time I look at the cover of the book, I am filled with sadness. Because the last sentence I read was this one, and I could not move past it.

It took forty years for the English to subdue the Abenaki.

I read this sentence in the waiting room of my neurologist's office. Some absurd '80s ballad was playing on the radio. I read the sentence about twenty times.

It took forty years for the English to subdue the Abenaki.

I am 34 years old. 34 years is a reasonably long time. You can do a lot of things in 34 years. You can read hundreds of books. You can travel far and near. You can picnic with your friends on sunny summer afternoons. You can go boating, you can draw something, you can write an epic poem. You can repair things and cook things and plant and harvest things (literally or metaphorically). You can work! Why, why in the name of all that is good and true, would you ever spend forty years of your limited time on earth subduing anyone? 

Here is what the English said to the Abenaki:

If you will constrain us, by your repeat'd Insults, to any violent proceedings, we have force Enough; & wil pursue you to your Headquarters (which we are well acquainted with, & can Easily take possession of) & we will not leave you till we have cut you off Root and Branch from the Face of the Earth.

That was in Maine in 1720. It reminded me of the orders that George Washington gave to General Sullivan in 1779. Sullivan was to go to the frontier - the Genesee Country - and put an end to the ability of the Iroquois to support the British, and also, it would seem, punish them for choosing the side they chose.

The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

 . . . 

I would recommend that some post in the center of the Indian Country should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provision, whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.

. . .

After you have very thoroughly completed the destruction of their settlements; if the Indians should show a disposition for peace, I would have you to encourage it... But you will not by any means listen to ⟨any⟩ overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.

And Sullivan did effect the total ruin of their settlements: he burned it all to the ground. This, too, reminds me of something. What is it? What could it be? Oh yeah, that time the Marquis de Denonville burned the Seneca village of Ganondagan to the ground back in 1687, because he was annoyed that the Iroquois did not prostrate themselves in abject servitude to the French. I literally just tonight realized that this sign I've been seeing all my life is in reference to that . . . "victory."

 So as to keep within my tradition of terrible photos, I took this at night.

So as to keep within my tradition of terrible photos, I took this at night.

This event was also commemorated with a medal 250 years later by the city of Rochester, for reasons I cannot fathom. The reverse of the medal has a map on it showing the "Battle at Victor" (that's the Seneca village of Ganondagan), and also Rochester, where I live, Pittsford, where I get my ice cream, and Honeoye Falls, where I grew up and where the sign above is located. It took me many years of seeing that sign to realize that even though the United States isn't covered in castles, this land is as old as anywhere else. That might have been the first inkling of the idea that turned into Under a Bravery of Stars. I put Heli in the uncomfortable position of being a settler on land that rightfully belonged to someone else, and I put her father in the even less comfortable position of having served under Sullivan. Because this is a truth we have to accept - that we acquired the place we live in by unjust means.

 That's Ontario Lake at the top, flowing into Irondequoit Bay. And the line to the left is the Genesee River, across which the Iroquois would eventually be exiled.

That's Ontario Lake at the top, flowing into Irondequoit Bay. And the line to the left is the Genesee River, across which the Iroquois would eventually be exiled.

The image at the top of this post is from the new Seneca Art & Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site. It's the "Gonanda-man," waving hello from the past. I took it last weekend when I finally made it to the new museum. It's an excellent museum that I wholeheartedly recommend - for its design, its clarity, its detail, the friendly informativeness of the staff, and, last but not least, for the personality behind it. Because someone, and I think I met him, included this in a sampling of Seneca vocabulary:

 You can see the speaker next to it where you get to hear the pronunciation. This museum is so great!

You can see the speaker next to it where you get to hear the pronunciation. This museum is so great!

All the samples are kind of like riddles, so if you don't already know what the translation is, you'd be guessing, say, Fire! or Locusts! or Plague! But it is none of those things. It's this guy:

 Naturally, we are pleased and proud that our first president used genocide as a military strategy!

Naturally, we are pleased and proud that our first president used genocide as a military strategy!

The curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center is my hero.

The Abenaki were not, obviously, cut off roof and branch from the face of the earth; nor were the Iroquois destroyed with the kind of permanence that Denonville and Washington, though separated by almost a century, both wanted. But it is difficult to see the self-righteous rage in the words of the English in Maine, and Washington's dispassionate ruthlessness, and not wonder how different the world would be if humans were just a little bit better.

It took forty years for the English to subdue the Abenaki.

They could've spent that time working on a cure for cancer - or doing nothing but making daisy chains. Both would've left the world a better place.


"Ganonda-man" photo taken by me at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site.

The threat by the English toward the Abenaki is quoted from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's The Age of Homespun: Objects & Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. (Penguin Random House, 2002, page 100). You should also, if you're so inclined, read A Midwife's Tale. It is so interesting.

Washington's orders to Sullivan are on the National Archives website. “From George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, 31 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified October 5, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-20-02-0661. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 20, 8 April–31 May 1779, ed. Edward G. Lengel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010, pp. 716–719.]

Totiakton sign photo by me.

Denonville Expedition medal photo by Timothy Corio, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14160915

Devourer of towns and George Washington photos taken by me at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at the Ganondagan State Historic Site.

Never doubt

Never doubt

Sense of the Terrific.

Sense of the Terrific.