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I’m Grateful My Kids Know All The Words To Neil Young’s Pocahontas

Neilyoung2Thanksgiving. What’s to complain about? Family, food, gratitude. I’ve mellowed in my old age. Cut some slack. I was not so agreeable, though, in my 20s. Immersed in texts that aimed to revise the European discovery of the New World from the perspective of the discovered, I was outraged and easily angered and I played a lot of Rage Against The Machine at ridiculous volumes.

But you know what? Fine. That little tale from 1621? It’s a good story. Not an awful story, and probably an appropriate one to tell elementary school kids. Those Mayflower Pilgrims were cold, passing around the scurvy, and dying (half of them did). So Samoset and Squanto happen by and they’re all “Hey, white people. Here’s how you grow corn, get sap from maples, and catch fish,” and the white people were all “THANKS! After we reap our first harvest, let’s have dinner!” Massasoit brings 90 friends, there’s a big feast, and there you go: Thanksgiving.

And, in isolation – again – okay, fine. Let’s have the kids do a play and it’ll be cute and we’ll take Thursday off and eat turkey.

But, in terms of the greater context of atrocity in which that story is one of the few warm fuzzy things that happened, a constant struggle of mine has been to what extent I rain on Thanksgiving for my family and children. Because, in one big sweeping stroke, the context of that little story, the context that needs to inform that story, is that Christian Europe’s colossal failure of imagination when confronted by the rich and varied diversity of this continent resulted in one of World History’s biggest swindles (and that’s a pretty nice way to put it; I told you I’ve mellowed).

How crazy it is that our kids’ school plays frame things in such a way that the Pilgrims threw a big party and had the Indians over for dinner? How nice of us. We were dying from exposure, they taught us how to survive, and we were good enough to put their instructions into practice and kick off Thanksgiving. However, beneath the initial gratitude for having their lives saved and the universal goodwill that inheres in breaking bread together, there remained within the Europeans an arrogant faith that, to this day, remains incapable of abiding peacefully with other forms of faith, but can only achieve self-confidence when actively seeking the conversion of other faiths to itself.

And so it begins. So arrogant, certain, resistant to question. And brutal.

May 26, 1637. Connecticut militiamen attacked a Pequot village on the Mystic River. The goal, far beyond negotiation and conquest, was complete and utter annihilation. They circled the village, set it on fire, and shot anyone who attempted to escape being burned alive. Though the steady destruction of wilderness (where the Devil dwells) and the accrual of land was the byproduct of this oft-repeated approach to handling Native Americans, the fundamental motive was always the obvious and justified need to exterminate pagans and polytheism as instructed by the word of God. It gets worse. So much worse. But I will turn now to Neil Young in an attempt to find composure in our contradiction.

The lonely 1979 ballad, Pocahontas, by Neil Young describes the European annihilation of the Americas with lines such as “They killed us in our teepees / And they cut our women down / They might have left some babies / Crying on the ground,” and so on. Not an easy listen, but the reason I’m grateful my kids know all the words is the way the beauty and tone of Young’s delivery contrasts with, say, Rage Against The Machine’s cultural critiques. Don’t get me wrong. Young is angry. Anyone familiar with his oeuvre can easily discern that he is way less than pleased. But Neil Young has somehow, career long, been successful at transforming his justified anger into something gentle and beautiful and reminiscent of the spirit that welcomes and embraces what is strange. His music, without ignorance, invites you in and teaches you with care how to grow corn.

In other words, he has not permitted the clearly admitted reality of bitterness to make him bitter. Now that’s something to be grateful for and Pocahontas is definitely something to play in your car while your kids sing along as E Minor mourns and the D chord hopes. Happy Thanksgiving.

Black and white photo of Neil young singing at a concert November 9, 1976, in Austin, Texas by Mark Estabrook
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