STUDY: Colonization Killed So Many Indigenous People, the Earth Cooled

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We know the story. Or, at least, we think we do: In 1621, a shared feast between Pilgrims and Indigenous Americans in Massachusetts to give thanks for the harvest and survival of Plymouth colonists created a 400-year tradition Americans mark annually.

Most of us know that tale is, in large measure, a lie.

The myth that lasted 400 years

Even Plymouth Rock, where European colonists purportedly set foot, is just staging. The Thanksgiving holiday itself wasn’t even formally established until more than two centuries later, not to honor the colonists or native people, but to heal a nation after the bloody war fought over the enslavement of Black people: America needed the fable more than the truth.

Science Direct: Human impacts prior to the Industrial Revolution are not well constrained. We investigate whether the decline in global atmospheric CO2 concentration by 7–10 ppm in the late 1500s and early 1600s which globally lowered surface air temperatures by 0.15C, were generated by natural forcing or were a result of the large-scale depopulation of the Americas after European arrival, subsequent land use change and secondary succession. We quantitatively review the evidence for (i) the pre-Columbian population size, (ii) their per capita land use, (iii) the post-1492 population loss, (iv) the resulting carbon uptake of the abandoned anthropogenic landscapes, and then compare these to potential natural drivers of global carbon declines of 7–10 ppm. From 119 published regional population estimates we calculate a pre-1492 CE population of 60.5 million (interquartile range, IQR 44.8–78.2 million), utilizing 1.04 ha land per capita (IQR 0.98–1.11). European epidemics removed 90% (IQR 87–92%) of the indigenous population over the next century. This resulted in secondary succession of 55.8 Mha (IQR 39.0–78.4 Mha) of abandoned land, sequestering 7.4 Pg C (IQR 4.9–10.8 Pg C), equivalent to a decline in atmospheric CO2 of 3.5 ppm (IQR 2.3–5.1 ppm CO2). Accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks plus LUC outside the Americas gives a total 5 ppm CO2 additional uptake into the land surface in the 1500s compared to the 1400s, 47–67% of the atmospheric CO2 decline. Furthermore, we show that the global carbon budget of the 1500s cannot be balanced until large-scale vegetation regeneration in the Americas is included. The Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth System in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The truth, of course, isn’t an occasion to celebrate. I cannot fully debunk the myth of the Thanksgiving story in one newsletter, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend the work of historian David Silverman: In short, it’s bloody and certainly nothing to be thankful for.

Archival photo of Hopi Indians participating in a harvest dance sometime between 1909 and 1919. 
(Library of Congress)

The colonists and Wampanoags weren’t friendly allies. They’d formed a necessary, if not entirely trusting, mutual-defense pact. The people in Plymouth Colony had not gathered for a solemn meal to express thankfulness. Pilgrims and Puritans who came from England usually expressed gratitude through fasting. Instead, they were having a party to celebrate their harvest — one so raucous the celebratory gunfire caused the nearby Wampanoags to believe the Europeans were under siege and came to help defend them.

“They were firing off their muskets and making all the noise as the English do,” said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) chairwoman. “We thought they were under attack because who does that?”

Once Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief, and other tribal members who came to give aid to the colonists realized there was no imminent threat, they hunted, fished, and joined in the harvest celebration.

“It wasn’t like there was an invitation for us to come,” Andrews-Maltais said. “But overall, that alliance stayed strong for years.”

It wouldn’t last.

Violent battles and displacement would devastate the Indigenous population already nearly wiped out by European settlers, who began arriving in 1492. Yet the myth of Thanksgiving endured.

“That story exists in part to obfuscate the quite bloody reality of how the nation was actually claimed by the colonists who arrived here,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a journalist, activist, and advisory board member for The Emancipator.
A day of mourning: A foundation of gratitude

So how do Indigenous people in America mark Thanksgiving? The ways are as diverse and complex as the communities themselves. They do mourn the atrocities their ancestors suffered. But Indigenous culture is also firmly rooted in the tradition of giving thanks. They find a way to do both.

One of NoiseCat’s traditions is attending Sunrise Ceremonies at Alcatraz Island, the Indigenous land that became the now-shuttered prison, to commemorate a 19-month occupation that began in 1969. Bay Area Native American activists sought to reclaim the island under the terms of a 19th-century treaty.

The vision was for Alcatraz to be “reclaimed as a symbol of Native rights, of Native sovereignty, of treaty rights, and of self-determination” in the West, NoiseCat said, much the same as the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the immigration and growth of America from the East. The fight to make that vision become reality continues.

For Andrews-Maltais, the day is marked with the annual National Day of Mourning in Plymouth. The event will be livestreamed by United American Indians of New England at 11:45 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

The observance is a good opportunity for those seeking to better understand the truth about Thanksgiving origins and hear from Indigenous people themselves, she said. It shows the community is not defined by the tragedy it has endured but by its resilience.

“It’s part of who we are,” Andrews-Maltais said. “We’re spiritual beings. We have to be able to find what we are grateful for.”

Source: The Emancipator/Boston Globe