‘The Legacies of War’ explored in local book
Since prehistoric times, our species has been committed to a territorial imperative that has demonstrated a penchant for squabbling over territory and seizing it from each other through warfare, seemingly without end.
"Can't we all just get along?" a tearful Rodney King -- renowned victim of police brutality in the early 1990s -- proclaimed after a horde of Los Angeles police officers nearly clubbed him to death (and were acquitted for it), sparking riots over the injustice dealt this victimized Black man.
Apparently, we cannot "just get along," as such savagery that stems from stark disparities in race, creed, social caste, and especially nationalism, is as old and entrenched as time itself ... and with no seeming end.
Author Ashely Bissonnette, assistant professor of Public Health at Eastern Connecticut University in Willimantic, chronicles human obsession with the territorial imperative and war in a recently published book she co-edited, “Conflict Archaeology, Historical Memory, and the Experience of War.” Most significantly, she has also reached into our Native and Colonial past and plucked out one of the more obscure but devastating periods of warfare: New England's brutal 1675 King Philip's War.
"This book really began in 2018 with the International Fields of Conflict Archaeology Conference, hosted by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, regarding the American Battlefield Protection Programs," said Bissonnette.
Holding a master’s degree in medical anthropology and public health, she had begun her studies of Native battlefields in 2007 with Dr. Kevin McBride, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut — former research director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and recognized as one of the foremost experts in that field.
Bissonnette's intensive work with Dr. McBride continued in 2019. During their combined studies, a constant truth has been reflected:
"It is in times of war and conflict that social constructs, such as race and gender, become most accentuated," she stated in reference to her re-examining of historic battles. "And how do we best preserve and learn from painful historical memories, while overcoming historical trauma? Why do some historical memories remain potent, while others are forgotten, revised, or erased?"
With quiet passion, Bissonnette reflects on how past warfare has left displaced indigenous victims bereft of territory, stability, nutrition, cultural dignity, rights and rituals, and access to suitable housing and health care.
"Disease played a far more significant role in Native and Colonial conflicts than many people realize," she added. "And it was the result of plagues brought over from Europe that decimated tribal cultures here. Native populations had seen their lifestyles so utterly disrupted, they were left vulnerable to lethal diseases. This is an important aspect of Native and Colonial conflicts that is not represented enough in history books, and most definitely should be."
Bissonnette goes on to explain how “Conflict Archaeology, Historical Memory, and the Experience of War” emphasizes key contributing factors to the demise of Native American cultures, and how the lasting effects of the colonial wars impacted tribal clans for years to come.
“Terms like 'intergenerational trauma' — as passed down from one generation to another, thus affecting lifestyles and behavior — cannot be overlooked or swept away."
The book also explains how indigenous people felt impelled to assimilate themselves into the conquering culture, primarily to gain access to adequate housing and medical care. In her quest to see history better represented, Bissonnette firmly believes in a more balanced and thorough reflection of both cultures involved.
She and Dr. McBride therefore co-wrote a chapter of the book, an in-depth depiction of what many noted scholars deemed the deadliest war in Colonial American history: King Philip's War of 1675-76.
"This particular war really set the tone for the breaking apart of communities, culture loss, and health disparities more than any previous conflicts," she stated emphatically.
King Philip's War marked what came to be known as the last great stand of the New England tribes in trying to resist the crushing force of colonialism. It was named in reference to the Wampanoag sachem, Metacomet, who had assumed tribal leadership in 1662 after the passing of the previous sachem, his father, Massasoit.
While under Massasoit's leadership, the Wampanoags of Rhode Island had experienced relatively peaceful relations with the English settlers ... but territorial disputes and alleged treaty violations during Metacomet's tenure ultimately mounted into heated conflicts that escalated into fierce warfare.
Eventually, other Native groups like the Narragansetts of Rhode Island were drawn into the brutal warfare that spread into Massachusetts and then all the way up to Maine.
The colonists rousted together a massive army of over a hundred militia and about a hundred-fifty Native allies that included the Pequots and the Mohegans. Both warring sides suffered enormous losses, with the Wampanoags and Narragansetts ultimately being nearly wiped out.
The Great Swamp Fight of 1676 was among the bloodiest of battles ever fought in Native and Colonial history, ending King Philip's War, with Great Sachem Metacomet killed by militia on Aug. 12 of that same year.
The aftereffects on both the European settlers and the indigenous tribes of New England represented territorial imperative at its worst. The ensuing cultural calamities reaped upon indigenous peoples of a land that was once entirely their own, is a good deal of the subject matter covered in “Conflict Archaeology, Historical Memory, and the Experience of War.” This work might also be deemed a public call-to-arms in trying to heal the damage of past transgressions.
"King Philip's War illustrates the breaking apart of communities and cultures, and how tragically difficult it is to try piecing back any semblance of who a people once were," said Bissonnette. "A good starting point is for us to know and better understand each other’s cultures … and to respect where they differ."
The book was written and published with that in mind and can be purchased through the Florida University Press: upress.ufl.edu, also available via Amazon.
"Can't we all just get along?" the tearful Rodney King asked with such heart-wrenching passion. Perhaps not ... but so long as there are enough people on this planet like Ashley Bissonnette, then a hope for something better may yet blossom.
Dr. Kevin McBride, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and widely recognized expert on Native and Colonial history, considers Ashley Bissonnette one of the most prominent scholars regarding historical trauma of indigenous peoples in the Northeast — especially in the field of cultural health crises. He reflected on his days as research director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, when Bissonnette first served there as a college intern.
“Ashley first came to us in 2007 as an intern from UConn for an academic practicum with the museum,” said McBride. “She proved to have extraordinary research and organizational skills and became a key part of our team over that year.”
Bissonnette would go on to make her mark in that field, earning a number of impressive degrees, including a Ph.D in humanities. It would ultimately lead to her extensive research and expertise in the areas of historic battlefields and the everlasting damage done to Native cultures in the wake of defeat.
“If it’s there, Ashley will find it,” McBride said of the young professor’s ability to uncover the telltale conflicts within our Native and Colonial heritage. “She became our head researcher as we investigated every aspect of past warring societies.”
McBride and Bissonnette would go on to combine their studies to produce a most revealing chapter in the comprehensive book, “Conflict Archaeology, Historical Memory, and the Experience of War.”
“Our combined work consisted of our spreading a vast net in the overall studies of battlefields,” he explained.
In highlighting the brutal King Philip’s War between Natives and Colonists (1675-1676), they were able to expose the devastating effects both cultures suffered ... especially the everlasting impact on those who were defeated.
“Ashley delved heavily into the damage done to both sides — particularly after the Battle of Great Falls in late May of 1676 at Turner Falls, Massachusetts. Our chapter puts battlefields like that one in a much broader and overall context for indigenous peoples. Health issues like dysentery took a horrible toll on tribes like the Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Nipmucks, Quaboags, and a number of the Connecticut river tribes,” he explained. “The intent of King Philip’s War was to drive the English out permanently and it wound up with hundreds of casualties on both sides.”
McBride explained that the tribal coalition actually won this monumental battle, but how the tribes all wound up spent after it and were hard-pressed to regroup and replenish their resources … especially with so many of them falling victim to disease. The English would go on to finally emerge victorious after the Great Swamp Fight of 1676 in Rhode Island, which nearly wiped out the Narragansetts.
“With the aftereffects of King Philips War — in the form of cultural calamities and perpetual health crises over the past hundreds of years — the struggles of all these tribes have lasted to this very day.”
Nick Checker is a novelist, playwright and scriptwriter living in New London.