Ben Tanzer talks with Kathryn Brewster Haueisen about the Mayflower, pandemics, & giving voice to Native Americans in her new book.
To speak with Kathy Haueisen is an education. Which is to say, that in doing so, one is exposed to how little they know about something they thought they knew so much about. In this case that would be the story of the Mayflower and the (not at all) New World. We live in a time where readers and human beings are challenging the known historical narratives. These narratives have been told primarily through the lens of the white patriarchy and those allowed to tell these stories. And so if you grew up as I did, receiving a public-school education in upstate New York in the 1970s, what you know about the Mayflower, or anything really, is at a minimum, begging for a richer version of the story, and at a maximum, a full-throated reinterpretation. Hence my excitement in sharing this conversation with Haueisen about the Mayflower story with you. Spoiler, there’s a lot more to it. Full disclosure, I’ve been working with Haueisen on the release of her new book, Mayflower Chronicles: A Tale of Two Cultures. Further disclosure, Haueisen is a white woman telling this story. Don’t worry though, we were sure to address that.
BEN TANZER: Please tell us who you are, your background, and what we need to know about your book?
KATHRYN BREWSTER HAUEISEN: I am the daughter of a reference librarian. When my mother retired, she spent many days — probably months — at the library documenting our family’s connection to William Brewster. I am a wife and mother. My experience in those roles informed my curiosity about the women of the Mayflower, especially Mary. I was stunned to learn she left three of her five children behind when they sailed on the Mayflower.
One of my daughters married into a Hispanic family, with a generous percentage of Native American DNA. The three children of that union are bicultural. Seeing the world through the lens of their Hispanic relatives led me to rethink some of the history I was taught, and what I never learned that I should have. I’ve often told these grandkids that they are the whole Thanksgiving story — they carry both English and Native genes.
I am a Lutheran pastor and half my DNA is German. I’ve been immersed in the history of the Protestant Reformation, which started in Germany in 1517. It soon spread throughout Europe. I spent many years teaching young teens that Martin Luther is not the same person as Martin Luther King, Jr., and why the Reformation matters. That formed a foundation for my research into the religious turmoil that is part of the Mayflower story.
Finally, I am an author and an avid reader. I’ve read my way through every crisis I’ve ever encountered. I know the power of the printed word. When I discovered William Brewster pretty much replicated what Martin Luther had done a century earlier, I was convinced I needed to tell the Mayflower story again — this time to give voice to the women and Natives. Since their versions of the story have not been recorded, that required me to tell it as historical fiction. The people are real. The events are real. Most of the dialogue and some of the details are my imagination.
There is a lot to talk about here, but to begin, I was struck by your desire to “give voice to the women and Natives,” and I’m wondering what kind of research you did to ensure this happened. I’m also interested in what your research looked like more broadly and beyond this specific subject matter.
Giving voice to the women part was fairly easy. The Protestant denomination in which I was ordained has only been ordaining women clergy for 50 years. I was one of the early female candidates. During my seminary years I read a great many books on the history of women in the church. Though the women on the Mayflower were part of what has become the Congregational denomination, their experiences with the church of their day would not have been much different than all the other women I read about. I also read a great many books written by female theologians. All I needed to do for that part of the research was read up on life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in terms of housing, food, clothing, daily life, etc. I had access to plenty of books and other resources for that.
Telling the Native version of the story proved problematic. My son-in-law, who is not quite half Native heritage, told me it wasn’t likely Native people would talk to me because white folks have made and broken so many, many promises over the past four centuries. However, I read books, articles, and online material; I hired a research assistant to find people for me to interview. I talked to university history professors, including Dr. David Silverman at George Washington University who wrote a book about the Wampanoag people. I read books by Native authors. I followed a couple of Native folks who teach Native American studies and write about that history on social media. The other challenging fact was that prior to COVID-19 shutting down all the plans for the 400th Mayflower anniversary events, the few Natives available for interviews were swamped with requests for their time.
Through a combination of determination and persistence, I eventually managed to connect and interview five Native people:
Chris Newell, an editor at Akomawt, a cultural editorial service. He reviewed an early draft and was extremely helpful in writing a realistic account of several aspects of the Native community in the area at that time.
Darius Coombs, a senior leadership staff member at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. We spent an hour talking one afternoon after I’d already spent several hours at the Plantation listening to the guides and reading all the plaques.
Three generations of the Pokanoket family, all descendants of Massasoit Ousamequin. The senior member of the Family, Bill Guy, is 10 generations down from the Massasoit and the current Sagamore, or head of the modern Pokanoket Nation. His daughter, Tracey Brown, is a sachem or local, regional leader, and Tracey’s son, Donald Brown, is the Tribal historian. They have Pokanoket names, which translated mean Winds of Thunder (Bill), Dancing Star (Tracey) and Strong Turtle (Donald). This trio wrote the forward to the book. We’re confident their ancestor and my ancestor, William Brewster sat together along with many others in the spring of 1621 to work out the details of the treaty between the Native population and the English settlers.
To summarize: Though I can hardly speak for all women, I have no hesitation writing about what a white woman’s perspective might have been 400 years ago. I do hesitate to presume what the Native perspective would have been. However, I have access to an audience most Native people probably do not. I hope in risking telling portions of the story from the Native perspective I am adding a few more bricks in a road that connects our two cultures. I wrote in the letter to the readers that if I have offended anyone, it was not intentional.
Thank you for all of that. Before I move on to some other things, I’d like us to take one more beat on your being a white author telling this story. Which is to say, even having done the research you’ve done, and written as sensitively as you have, what do you say to someone who says: why should a white person even write a book like this?
I once had a male colleague who sat as the lone male in a course in women’s studies. He wanted to be a counselor and knew he couldn’t experience life as a female. So he did the next big thing. He immersed himself in a course about women’s issues, surrounded by women. I’m sure he heard many things that must have made him uncomfortable. We can only know life through the filters we have — gender, family heritage, ethnicity, etc. It is with some fear and trepidation that I presume to speak for the Native community. However, I have access to people most Natives probably do not. I see myself as a bridge between the all-white community in which I’ve been raised and the not-a-bit white family I’ve been linked to through my daughter’s marriage and the resulting three children. Though this Native family is far removed from the Natives who are part of the Mayflower story, it is still a tale of two cultures within my own family. The effort and struggle to connect with people of a culture different than our own requires some of the same basic approaches. Listen. Be willing to learn. Observe. Refrain (as much as is humanly possible) from judging. Look for things we have in common. We will offend and not know how or why we did. We will misunderstand and be misunderstood. But if we aren’t willing to risk making cultural mistakes, we’ll never be able to live and work together in peace. I thought the potential benefits outweighed the risks.
Your response strikes me as a potential set of guidelines for how America might embrace any number of contemporary issues, including but not limited to race, violence toward women (and violence in general), immigration, and the polarizing ways people are responding to COVID-19. I’ve also been struck, though, by how many contemporary issues the book speaks to. I’d like to spend some time exploring those further with you, and I’m hoping you can begin by commenting on the parallels between this story and that of America’s current immigration policies and narratives.
Having studied both Old and New Testaments in detail for many years, I do believe the idea that one group of people has the right and God-ordained responsibility to rule over other groups of people is built into the very basic DNA of homo sapiens. This may be true of other species, as well, I don’t know. I’m not a student of zoology; only sociology, theology, and history. Given that, The Jewish people recognize themselves as God’s chosen people. The Christian community believes the Jewish people passed the torch on to them to convert the rest of humanity. If we understand chosen and appointed as in the role of older siblings to watch out for younger siblings, society would work fairly well. But we tend not to understand that. We tend to assume to be in charge is to be boss of, to dominate and subjugate others for personal gain. And then all sorts of problems erupt. We end up with slavery and justify it by proclaiming that one ethnic group is superior to other groups. We presume that one gender is superior to another gender. We insist one interpretation about a divine presence in the universe is the only correct understanding of divinity. From there it is one small step to whatever it takes to make the other person/culture/society do what we want them to do because after all, “we’re doing it for their own good,” and “God told me/us that this is what we should be doing.”
There were multiple groups on the Mayflower. There were the men who decided to make the journey and the wives and children who were either left behind in Europe or tagged along with little say in how things would unfold. There were the members of the Leiden congregation, formed when Separatists emigrated from England a decade earlier who most sincerely believed they were tasked with creating a more first-century-like Christian community to get away from the oppressions that had become embedded in the newly formed Protestant churches that formed in response to the abuses of the Roman Catholic church. Then there were the adventurers — assigned at the last moment to give confidence to the people financing the trip that they would make money on the deal. Some came as indentured servants on a seven-year contract to pay off the cost of their transport across the Atlantic. Others had a fair amount of personal financial resources.
The Mayflower passenger list — and crew that brought them — are a microcosm of a much larger population in the United States today. Voluntary servants — people working for hourly wages with no safety net under them, doing menial jobs people with more resources don’t want to do.
Ironically, as I type this response, three Hispanic men are working outside my window in 95-degree heat, turning what has been a barren backyard that turns into a mud hole when it rains. They are employed by the white man who owns the landscaping company. I do not know what he is paying them; only what I am paying him. I do know I’m sitting in air conditioning, working with my fingers, while they are outside working with many other muscles in extreme heat. I take cold drinks to them twice a day, and tomorrow I will give each of them a tip on top of whatever their boss gives them.
But I digress. We have hourly workers who have little chance of truly advancing in our society. We may pay them, but not enough and with no financial security should they get sick or injured or age out of being able to do the hard work. We have Natives, of course — who continue to suffer greatly from the promises made and broken by people of European descent who continue to believe in the policy of Divine Destiny. We have people who feel a personal responsibility to neighbor by doing such simple things as paying taxes and wearing masks during a pandemic. We have people who believe rules are for losers and refuse to inconvenience themselves by following them. We still have ordained preachers proclaiming from pulpits that men are superior to women, even though the landscape is full of women who have led courageously and competently in any area of society you can name. We still have people who believe they have the right to own other people — selling women and children for profits, enslaving people in deplorable living and working conditions, making themselves rich by withholding the basic necessities for a life worth living.
The Mayflower event did not create this situation. There were conflicts and carnage among the Natives before any European ever saw this continent. However, the Mayflower did import the notion that either God is on the side of those who are doing the conquering, or just as often today, that God has no interest in human affairs and it’s all about the survival of the fittest — which is often translated as the strongest, wealthiest, best-armed, cruelest, or most devious.
The Mayflower event shows us a better way. Desperation brought two cultures together to negotiate shared space and resources. It’s an idea worth reintroducing.
Your answer naturally drifts into matters of race and questions around inequality and even brutality, topics very much alive in America right now in light of George Floyd’s murder (and so many others) and the Black Lives Matter movement, though also in terms of healthcare and other institutions built on racist practices. So with all that, please take a moment to talk about the Mayflower story and where it parallels and seeds America’s ongoing dialogue around race.
There is a line in Animal Farm that I believe reads, “All pigs are created equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.” I read that in high school a half century ago, so that may not be the actual quote, but close enough. We see the world through the filters we inherit and absorb in whatever communities raised us. The religious group of the Mayflower passengers saw the world through the filter that Christianity was God’s plan for the world, and their moral obligation was to spread that message wherever they went. Some used gentle persuasion — I would claim all the members of the Holland Separatist group did. Others who came later used more violent means of “conversion.” They considered the Indigenous people “savages,” believing they were ignorant of the Christian message, and therefore unenlightened.
However, and this is very significant, once they started getting to know one another, they realized that their Native neighbors were fully developed humans who saw the world differently. They forged authentic friendships. The non-Separatist passengers were sent to ensure the financial backers made a profit off the venture. They came out of a highly structured social system that they also believed to be ordained by God. A few — the monarchy and the religious hierarchy (bishops and archbishops) — were destined to govern. Others were obligated to serve them directly through a complex system of knights, dukes, earls, etc. I’ve tried to comprehend the complex social system of Europe in the Middle Ages and gave up. The vast majority did all the work — growing the food, making the clothing, making all the household items, etc. etc. Not unlike today, about 5% lived very well. Another few percent did okay because of their close affiliation with that 5% and the rest — perhaps 4/5 of the people struggled for the basics. This seemed normal to the people who sailed on the Mayflower. So they imported with them understanding that God chose some to lead and the majority to serve them. We see this assumption playing out yet today as policies are passed that enrich the already wealthy and leave out the vast majority of the people.
So, to summarize, if you believe God chose you to be more equal than others, and that it is your God-mandated duty to convert everyone to your way of seeing the world, and that it is part of God’s plan that a few of the more intellectually gifted and wealthy should run the world, subjugating others is not a moral or justice issue at all. Quite the contrary — it is the way God ordered the world. And if you suffer in this world for your station in life, not to worry. It’ll all be made up to you when you die.
It’s a closed system. Only those who already are in charge have access to the decision-making process, and of course they’re going to make decisions that benefit themselves. One closing ironic note. Somewhere in Eastern Germany there is a castle with a room full of gilt-gilded everything. It was decorated that way to honor some royal wife who used to sneak out of the castle at night to give food to the many poor people who begged at the castle gates. When she died, they wanted to honor her charity in some way. So they designated a gold-gilded room to her. I doubt anyone involved in that decorating project saw the irony of wasting (my word) money on gold that she would have preferred to be spent on food for the people.
As I wrote in response to someone’s post this morning, the roots of injustice in this country reach back centuries. We won’t make much progress trying to pull them out. That is about as futile as trying to get the whole root when we weed a garden. We’d be better off planting new plants that will grow and crowd out the old plants. That is what the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets did when they sat to work out their treaty. It worked once. It’s time we tried it again — and this time honor our government’s end of the treaty.
I want to touch on one more parallel before we move on, that of COVID-19, its relationship to the heartbreaking pandemic that afflicted the Indigenous people in the 1600s, and what we can learn from the consequences of what is known as the “Great Dying.”
One of the astonishing things I’m watching unfold in this summer is how resistant today’s population is to learning from the suffering and sorrows of the past. When whatever highly contagious disease(s) swept through New England, around 70% of the Indigenous population died. Whole villages were abandoned. The people were reeling from the massive death toll. I imagine that if anyone had told them, “wear masks, keep your distance from one another,” they’d have jumped at the chance to have some way to contain the disease. We seem to have a great many people determined to prove that if we don’t learn from history we are condemned to repeat it. While I doubt there is any new group of people waiting offshore to come ashore and take over communities we’ve abandoned due to out-of-control diseases, I believe we will see a very large shift in the basic structures, just as the massive death rate led to a total restructuring of human societies in the New England area.
I know you’re not necessarily a historian or even a futurist, but when I hear “I believe we will see a very large shift in the basic structures, just as the massive death rate led to a total restructuring of human societies in the New England area,” I’m curious what you think this shift and restructuring might look like, as well as what we can learn from the time period you write about as we look forward?
Great question, and the answer is purely my imagination, but here goes. I think of this in terms of lessons learned:
We need human companionship, and Zoom is better than nothing, but it is a poor support for being with people in person, being able to hug, hold a hand, put a hand on someone’s shoulder, or bounce a baby on a lap. The Brewsters named one of their sons “Love” in response to how much love they experienced in their Leiden fellowship. The Natives spent long winter nights together in Long Houses passing on the oral traditions of their people.
We really are all in this (global village) together. When we all cooperate, we get good results like New Zealand and Japan. When we insist on our rights over our social responsibilities, we get results like we’re seeing in the U.S. now. I think those of us who survive this will be more aware of our interdependence on one another. At first all the English settlers shared what they had in common — that didn’t last, but it started out that way. The Natives knew they were totally dependent on the land, and thus developed sustainable ways to care for the land.
We can do much more with computers than previously believed, making it possible for large segments of society to telecommute, which would be a huge benefit for the environment. The people in the Mayflower story obviously did not have computers; but they did work and live in the same places. They walked much more softly on the earth than we do today. We can’t go back (or wouldn’t be willing to go back) to life the way it was in the 17th century. But we can do a lot more to find ways to sustain life and ease up on the wear and tear on terra firma.
We don’t have to choose between healthy people and a healthy economy — but we do need to rethink our economic priorities. One of the connections with the Mayflower story — the investors in England were focused on profits. The settlers were willing to work as indentured for seven years, half of them died early on, and the people back in Europe were most worried about recovering the investment. We have some similar situations today when making profits for stock holders takes precedence over worker safety.
In summary, we will be more aware of how much we need community; we will learn how much we can accomplish without paving over more and more land to make freeways and add more carbon dioxide to the air; we will rethink who really holds down the essential jobs and how we compensate them.
What a terrific answer, thank you, and while I didn’t intend that question as a wrap-up, your response is so positive and forward-thinking it feels like a natural ending point to this terrific dialogue. And so at this point, please share your thoughts on anything you feel I overlooked or that you would like to comment on further.
One final thought. Those of us who have been born into and raised in a culture of white privilege need to develop thicker skin. Yes, our ancestors accomplished magnificent things and developed a nation that has been the destination for desperate and hopeful people for centuries. But some of this was accomplished by excluding those of different ethnic heritage. We did not do the excluding, but we have benefited from it. We need not feel guilty about what others did before us, but we do have a moral obligation to acknowledge the injustices and work to correct them. We are faced with a moral decision. Do we try to justify the injustices of the past? Do we try to deny those things happened? Or admit they did, but deny the long-term repercussions? Or do we accept that we all, all of us — white, black, brown, and any other skin color of people — are born from imperfect parents into an imperfect world but choose to strive to make this union of fifty United States and many more Native Nations within the U.S. borders a more perfect place? Are we willing to listen without judgment; learn from what we hear; and choose justice and compassion over justification and compliance with the status quo?