Our Beloved Kin, by Lisa Brooks, is “a new history of King Philip’s War”, published in 2019. It’s an amazing book, deeply affecting for me, and I’m afraid I have to exult about it for awhile at anyone who will listen and that’s you.
King Philip’s War: that’s the name colonizers gave to the first of the many, many generational wars between colonizing English invaders and the Native peoples of what would become North America’s east coast. It’s the name I was taught about that conflict under, briefly, in school. I imagine kids outside Massachusetts don’t learn about it at all. But it interested me, growing up, because it was the only other war in the history books that took place on the land where I grew up, among the rocks and crags, the swamps and thickets I spent so much time in and tied my identity to as a kid.
What got me excited about this new history, 350 years after the fact, was that it was an attempt, a start, at a history of that conflict from an Indigenous perspective. It couldn’t be called a definitive Indigenous history, for all the same reasons I grew up thinking of the events it’s describing as King Philip’s War even though there never was any person calling himself King Philip, and the person the colonial historians assigned that name didn’t start the war, wasn’t responsible for prosecuting it, and didn’t finish it. Written by the victors and all that. Colonial historians, American historians, Western historians: they all have a tendency to assign figureheads, lone heroes, to represent massive complicated confluences of events for the sake of convenience and dumbing-down, thinking we can’t handle anything more complicated unless the subject is white men. Here in Detroit where I live now, Chief Pontiac wasn’t the organizer or the leader of Pontiac’s Rebellion, but it sure was convenient to the colonizing white supremacist narrative to make it seem so after he was assassinated by members of a rival Anishinaabe band.
Brooks is of Abenaki and Polish descent.
I’m a member of this organization, based in Massachusetts, called Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. That community is where I first learned about this book. Reading it is certainly part of the same undertaking everyone there is embarked upon, thankfully focused far beyond one token day of remembrance, of reorienting towards 500+ years of colonial history. Time was, an Italian American speaking ill of Columbus was fairly unheard-of. My grandfather lived during that time. My dad is still influenced by it. My sisters and I have come out the other side. Granted, we’re only half Italian. But the other half sure ain’t Indigenous. We’re a mix of immigrant and colonizer, like a lot of white Americans. But I want to feel like I’m getting out ahead of trying to reconcile that.
It turns out Our Beloved Kin answers an important question for me: now that they tore down the statue of Columbus that’s stood in the North End overlooking Boston Harbor ever since the year I was born, who do we replace it with?
Our Beloved Kin is a beautiful book, really painful to read in places, and full of gaps where record is lost or never existed because it would have been oral and then wasn’t. Lisa Brooks calls repeatedly for further scholarship into all of it, and the further I got in reading it the more plain the spaces became that scholarship could fill. I am woefully unqualified for any of it, but I want it, so here I call for it into the collective id.
When the Wampanoag and Narragansett families fleeing colonizers take refuge at Great Swamp in the winter of 1675, we see a little of what that feels like, the supplies they’ve laid by, the landscape, the fortifications. Early in the book, Brooks dramatizes a series of short scenes where we get actual personal perspective. And though I was confused and put off at first to see what reads as fiction in a historical work, they turn out to be my favorite parts.
Monoco and the protectors laid their trap, and waited among the trees and brush, their knowledge of the marshes and hill country around them their best asset. They heard the clop-clop-clop-clop of hooves long before the heavily clad, sweaty men came around the bend, plodding, their horses weary. Monoco caught Mattawamp’s eye, making a subtle sign, from behind a massive oak. Others hid among the branches of the tall pines, behind the moss-covered boulders, aside old stumps, among makeshift blinds in the brush, their legs hidden by tall ferns and in the marsh, behind old beaver dams and lodges, under cover of brush, their skin protected by a sheen of bear and hog grease. Breezes cooled them beneath the forest canopy as they awaited the approach of the troop.
—Our Beloved Kin, p. 184
Later, they conveyed in their letters and stories that Wampanoag warriors “encased themselves in green boughs,” but while they were in the swamp, they believed the great trees and bushes had come to life with the gradual setting of the sun. Thorny tendrils of greenbrier grabbed at their ankles, disabling their knees, pulling them to the ground. Grapevines looped around their necks, halting their movement. As they lumbered on, their eyes “muffled with leaves,” their heads became “pinioned” in the “thick boughs of the trees”. They tripped over roots that “shackled” their feet. Branches seemed to move toward them. Raspberry brambles grabbed at their arms, piercing through fiber and breaking skin. Ensnared in a net of shadowy green, they could not discern shapes even a few feet before them. And, just as the animated swamp had them in her grasp, a shot sailed through the air from behind a tree and hit one of the privateers in the chest. He howled, staggering forward, ready for a fight, but no one appeared. A second shot flew from the trees in the opposite direction, hitting another, as the first fell to the ground. The men started shooting at the bushes, and another fell, by the hand of one of his own, then a young warrior fell to the ground. The younger soldiers ducked, screaming as the thorns scraped their faces. But they found themselves hugging the ground, terrified the plants were demons that would pull them into the bowels of the earth, even as they avoided shot sailing from the trees. They waited, listening to the deafening sound of crickets as they resumed their evening song.
—Our Beloved Kin, p. 164
Englishmen getting lacerated by greenbrier and brambles as they vainly pursue Natives intimately familiar with the landscape: it relaxes muscles in me I didn’t know I was clenching. Even knowing those Natives and their descendants are doomed to eradication, enslavement, assimilation, that they were close enough to the land to let it be their ally and refuge brings tears to my eyes. Tears of relief, to know that someone, anyone, ever was that close to that place. Because almost every lens I’ve ever been encouraged to look through at those places has words like “undeveloped” and “opportunity” overlaid on it, and through that lens, in my own lifetime, I’ve seen crags dynamited, swamps drained, brambles bulldozed and replaced with parking lots, high-end condos and lawns.
I want more of the history of those original peoples from their perspective. I want to see the history through the eyes of someone who knows that ground—not in a close, location-specific tactical military sense, that doesn’t exist, that ground has changed, but in knowing the plants, the animals, the ecosystem, the Native human interactions and interconnections with it as well as all the systems, emotional, diplomatic, nurturing, that they’ve developed in concert with it. This isn’t impossible. Humans still possess this kind of intimacy with those ecosystems, while they last. Please, I need someone to jump on that possibility and show me.
Brooks demonstrates so adeptly how effective a respectful and restrained speculative rendering of lost history can be. But she’s interested in these ethnobotanical perspectives on survival in war only notionally, not practically. What she’s asking for, what I’m asking for, specifically, is for others with expertise other than hers to flesh out this vision. I don’t care that it’s speculative. I want to be able to imagine it. I need us to be able to imagine it, because humans can’t go on treating the land as raw material to be extracted and transformed into sterile, lifeless, massively wasteful and inefficient highrises worth more than anyone can afford to live in. Not if we expect to go on living. We need to rebuild a relationship with the land and with life that is mutually regenerative, based on respect.
Please, everyone, do more like this.
James Printer, Wawaus, a Nipmuc scholar, one of the first attendees of Harvard, was also among the few people trained to operate one of the first printing presses in the New World. He typeset the Wampanoag Bible, the most substantial representation of the Wampanoag language ever printed, a copy of which I’ve visited, housed at the Peabody Museum in Cambrige, and which was instrumental in Jessie Little Doe Baird’s reconstruction of Wampanoag language starting in the 1990s. He worked as a Christian evangelist and distributor of colonial propaganda in the “Praying Towns” around Boston. Later, as a result of the Massachusetts colonists’ relentless campain of deception and betrayal against his people, he rebelled and joined the Native resistance early in the war. He and his family were taken hostage by the colonists, held in starvation conditions on Deer Island in Boston Harbor (now a sewage treatment plant) through the frigid winter of 1675 and beyond. His family’s safety and survival were used as leverage to force him to turn spy and traitor to his people. He did what he could to protect and save them, though many were massacred, hanged or sold into slavery. He survived. After the war, he went back to work as a typesetter, and among the books he produced was Mary Rowlandson’s popular narrative of her captivity by the Wampanoag resistance, which Lisa Brooks draws from extensively for its rare firsthand, if massively prejudiced, depiction of Native family custom, hospitality and diplomacy. Brooks makes of Printer such a complex figure, of incredible patience and capacity to endure suffering.
Black Lives Matter protestors beheaded the statue of Columbus in the traditionally Italian North End of Boston in 2020, and it has subsequently been moved to the grounds of some Italian American heritage society nearby. No statue has yet been chosen to replace it.
Fuck Columbus. He never set foot in Boston. Italian Americans don’t need him. We should be looking forward, not back, the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did when they came here. For me, that means figuring how to take ownership of all this place’s complex, brutal, revolutionary, redemptive, contradictory history and go forward and make something new of it, build new connections and institutions that will redeem that past.
I think the new statue in that place of honor should be of James Printer. I can’t think of anyone who better represents where Boston has been and the colossal work that desperately needs to be done. I don’t care if nobody knows what he looks like. Just let us imagine him. Put a book and a composing stick in his hands.