Saturday, November 20, 2010

Last Week for We Are Pilgrims

There are just three more days left to see Annie Bissett's woodblock print series, We Are Pilgrims.  Stop by Cullom Gallery (603 S Main Street, Seattle map) next Tuesday or Wednesday, Nov. 23 & 24, or the show's final day, Saturday, Nov. 27, and see this strong suite of Japanese woodblock prints that dig much, much deeper than the grade school myths of black hats and buckle shoes.  Bissett's series explores the real hopes, anxieties, mistakes, irrevocable impact, and real life personages of the American Pilgrims from many different angles.

John Alden, 1621 & Priscilla Mullins, 1621.

Annie recently shared with me a lay-sermon she delivered earlier this year at her own Congregational Church, an old Pilgrim church, close to her home in Northampton.  Here is a passage that I think gets at some of her kernel thoughts. (bold is mine, not Annie's).

They Looked Behind.
 for two years I studied everything I could find about the first Europeans who settled here in New England, especially in those first 50 years, when nothing was certain. I read about them, I thought about them, I tried to imagine this land as they encountered it, and I made these 15 woodblock prints about the stories that most intrigued me.  I discovered many surprising things in my research. Did you know that of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, only 37 were members of the separatist congregation coming from Holland? They called themselves not "Pilgrims," but "Saints" and they called the other 65 "Strangers." Did you know that the first brick building on the Harvard campus was a school for native American students? Or that the first Bible printed in North America was an Algonquin Indian translation? Or that two homosexual men were tried in court in Plymouth colony way back in 1637? Some of the stories amazed me, but what was even more amazing to me was that many of the things we're grappling with today were there right at the beginning: the role of religion in government, the question of who belongs in society and who doesn't, the role and rules of family life and marriage, and always a spirit of seeking, a pilgrimage to find home.

Honey, I'm Worried About the Kids.
Caleb & Joel Wend to Harvard.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, the story of the Mayflower was a distant, self-contained, and contrived tale that resonated little with me. It was covered as a requisite part of third grade then pushed to the back of my mind with the rest of the lore of early America.  The complicated, rich, proud, and later tragic history of Northwest coastal and Great Northern Plains tribes, their great pre-contact societies, and their violent snuffing-out at the hands of European Americans, this was the real, dirty story or my ancestors' interaction with the native people of North America.  Growing up in Puyallup, WA, I also witnessed the abject poverty and the effects of ghetto/reservation life on the original Puyallup people.  In my mind it was arrogant at best and worse, dangerously retro-revisionist to accept the notion of shivering Pilgrims taken into the warm embrace of the wise Indian, never mind what we Europeans did to them once we got our strength back.  That is all to say that through my own engagement with Bissett's prints and her words of discovery, I have made a slow but profound turn-around in my understanding of the relevance the Pilgrims' experience as an American creation story, a story that we are it seems inexorably tied to.  As Annie points out the same hopes, tragic misunderstandings, and steadfast (some would say intractable) beliefs first manifested by the Pilgrims are the same issues we wrestle with today.  Sometime this summer Annie mentioned
that Nathaniel Philbrick's book, Mayflower: a Story of Courage Community and War, had been a valuable resource for her while researching her series.  I wish I had started this book earlier, but finally did only this week.  Here is a passage from the preface: The Two Voyages.
Vast Unpeopled Lands.

...the Pilgrims (I thought) were the stuff of holiday parades and bad Victorian poetry.  Nothing could be more removed from the ambiguities of modern-day America, I thought, than the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.

But, as I have since discovered, the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving.  When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex.  Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know.
I certainly needed to know.  I see now that I must spend some time engaged with this story of the origin of our country, and I am guessing that it's especially those magical 50 years -- before the fighting and division tore our country apart for the first time -- that have a lot to teach us about how to be American today. 


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