It’s not really a custom to buy kids things for Thanksgiving. But some of us like to illuminate Advent, and counter the crazy commercialism building up to Christmas, with reminders of what the season means.
Advent calendars that slowly build anticipation of the coming of the Christ child are a lovely means to do this, but I’ve come across another. It’s a beautiful little book which I plan to share with my children this week, to shed a spiritual light in the depths of “Black Friday”: Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving, by beloved Christian writer Eric Metaxas.
The book tells in a simple, sincere, and charming way, the story of a Native American boy whose life recaps some of the most significant themes and enduring moral challenges of the American experience, especially ethnic diversity, the quest for justice and religious freedom.
In language that children can accept, but without sugar-coating the ugly reality, Squanto tells the story of a Native American boy kidnapped by European traders and sold as a slave—torn apart from his family and his culture, from a village that is depopulated by the spread of European diseases. It was those very diseases that would claim the lives of millions of Native Americans, making possible the European conquest of North and South America.
But Squanto’s story transcends the cruelties that pervade the human condition, and shines a ray of supernatural hope: Sent to Spain by the English slave-trader who captured him, Squanto is redeemed from slavery by Jesuits and given sanctuary by friars, men who have embraced the poverty and simplicity of Jesus and his first disciples.
They school him in Spanish so that he can communicate, and teach him Christianity. When he is a teenager, at his request, they help him go home to America, via English trading ships that are headed for New England.
It is there that Squanto reconnects with his people, and (fluent in English) serves as a peaceful emissary between them and the Pilgrims who have fled to American shores in search of the freedom to practice their own simple, humble version of Christian faith.
Squanto plays a major part in the first celebration of Thanksgiving, such as we’ve seen portrayed in school pageants and history books. Squanto did indeed build bridges between the Pilgrims and his people, and went much further—training the hapless Englishmen in the methods of farming and fishing in their new and alien land. He saved the Pilgrims from quick annihilation at the hands of the still-powerful natives, and from the slow, lingering death by starvation that would otherwise have awaited them.
But Squanto’s story doesn’t end where the book does. The treaty Squanto negotiated lasted for almost 50 years, unbroken by either side—one of the longest lasting peace agreements between Native Americans and European settlers in American history. Without this treaty, and the technical advice that Squanto shared with his fellow Christians (albeit of a different denomination), it is doubtful that the New England colonies would have survived.
As Americans, we look back with significant shame at the many occasions when our ancestors proved faithless to such treaties, and used their growing power to displace the Native Americans from the land they had farmed and hunted for centuries. Squanto might seem in some ways a tragic figure—a victim of European slavery, whose unlikely return helped save his people’s future conquerors from perishing. And there is truth in that. But thinking in terms of power politics obscures Squanto himself, a human being who lived and made decisions based on his own personal values.
Surely influenced by the faith which he’d made his own, Squanto practiced forgiveness toward the “tribe” which had once taken him captive. He spoke to them in their language, generously helped them, and served as a bridge of peace between their people and his own. A Catholic, he helped protect a band of fiercely Protestant settlers whose relatives back in England were persecuted (along with Roman Catholics) by an intolerant Anglican government. All across Europe, Catholics and Protestant were even then engaged in a deadly religious war.
In a century where greed for land, trading in slaves, and religious intolerance marked the behavior of nearly every European nation, Squanto showed himself more civilized and more Christ-like than either the English or Spanish governments. We should remember him as one of the great Christians in American history—and look to him as a model for reconciliation between native-born Americans and newcomers, Christians of various churches and non-Christians alike.
More than simply remembering and revering him, we should let Squanto teach us that America has always been multi-ethnic and religiously diverse, that what we love about our country is its tolerance and greatness of soul. Ours is not a land founded on simple tribal conquest, but on a quest for the supreme human value of freedom, especially the freedom to search for God in accordance with one’s conscience. Squanto helped secure this freedom for the Pilgrims. We must redouble our efforts to guarantee it for our children.
Jason Scott Jones is co-author of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.
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