Talking Across Cultural Barriers

Talking Across Cultural Barriers

On December 21, 1620 an English ship named Mayflower docked at today’s tiny port of Plymouth in Massachusetts. Its 200 passengers landed. They were called Purists because they preached a very strict religion. Later, they were referred to as the pilgrims. They knew that a very hard winter was ahead of them, so they got to work and built mud-and-wattle dwellings. But these proved inadequate. Also they neither had enough food nor the skill to tap local resources. Some Indian people watched and tried to help but the Purists were untrusting and fired their muskets at them. Less them half of them survived the winter.

The Indians made friends with them: taught them how to build good log houses, plant corn, catch fish, and kill turkey. In the fall of the following year they had adequate shelter and enough food. Together with their Indian friends they celebrated Thanksgiving, which is a national festival of America to this day. Soon the newcomers started setting up a township and asked the Indians to ‘sell’ them some land. The Indians ‘sold’ them some land and even took some gifts in exchange.

But the Indians kept coming for fishing, hunting and gathering. The Purists objected and finally organized a court to clarify obvious misunderstandings on both sides. Below, I quote some of conversation that took place in the court.

The British: “Did we not buy this land for seven coats, eight hoes, nine hatches, ten yards of cloth, twenty knives, and four moose skins? Now it is ours. No one has the right to trespass upon our property.”

The Indians: “ What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth. For the land is our Mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. Wood, the streams, and everything on it belongs to everyone and is for the use of all. How then can one man say it belongs to him only?”

“Why did you sell us this land then?”

“Because you are strangers far from your own earth, we sold you only the right to use the land together with all of us.”

It was no use arguing. The Indians could not understand the concepts of land titles and private property. Nor could the Europeans understand the Indian conception of general use of land. The barrier was never broken. However, living by their concept the English ended up owning all the land. They killed the Indians to end the conflict.

July 9, 2007