october 2011


Learning to Savor Thanksgiving: Two Native Americans Let The Healing Begin
‘…this holiday can be a healer, a remembrance of our roots but with our eyes on the present and the future.’

By Meteor Blades

I forced myself to watch the History Channel's Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower last weekend. I don't feel as if I totally wasted my time. Including performances and interviews of some Wampanoags, descendants of the indigenes who saw the Pilgrims make landfall 388 years ago, made the program a good deal more palatable than it might have been.

I would have preferred a bit more about how one reason the Pilgrims were "persecuted" in England and Holland was because of their efforts to get everyone to comply with their own crabbed view of religion. Something they and the Puritans who followed them also did here in America. Not dissimilar from what some modern day others would like to do now. But what an improvement the program was over past efforts.

For the past few years, my wife--who supervises the largest English as a Second Language program in the United States--and I have had numerous conversations with Los Angelenos of various ethnic and religious backgrounds about the turkey they'll be eating three days from now. Doesn't matter if they're originally from Senegal or Guatemala, Belarus or Vietnam, Scotland or China, it's the same story with all of them: turkey has to be on the table.

Not that it'll be a traditional turkey dinner with cranberry sauce and yams and stuffing. Trimmings can range from Libyan tajeen to a cold Vietnamese egg soup whose name I've forgotten. And everybody's bird seems to be done just a little differently. Two years ago, I got to taste Thai turkey, which is definitely not for mild palates.

‘Yeha-Noha (Wishes of Happiness and Prosperity,’ by Sacred Spirit, from the 1994 album Chants and Dances of the Native Americans. Vocal by the late Navajo elder Kee Chee Jake from Chinle, Arizona. Sacred Spirit is a musical collective comprised of German musicians led by Claus Zundel that has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide. For each album sold, Sacred Spirit has made a donation to the Native American Rights Fund, the non-profit American Indian organization committed to restoring the legal rights of Native Americans.

I don't buy the "melting pot" theory of American history, nor am I a sappy kind of guy. On the other hand, since I had my Thanksgiving "conversion," I've found something distinctly appealing, yes, even uplifting, about this widespread integration of cultures through the medium of food and family get-together.

I love conversation, I love food and I love celebrations. This year, as last, we'll be celebrating with friends at the Santa Clara Pueblo home of a college friend. A few years ago, I wouldn't've done this.

Because, when I was a child, we never celebrated Thanksgiving. My grandfather forbade it. A white man's holiday based on white men's lies, he said. His take on the holiday was no distortion. But his opposition to commemoration was doubly disappointing for me. I was born on Thanksgiving. Actually, November 28. But, that year, 1946, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th, and ever since, it's been my designated birthday, whatever the actual date.

While other kids, including other kids with Indian roots, celebrated Thanksgiving with all kinds of food, our house might as well have been shrouded in crepe. Based on what made it to our table, I think he may even have told my grandmother to cook less than usual. Nobody grumbled. My grandfather was an honest, principled man, but quick-tempered, and although he rejected almost every other teaching in the Bible, he believed fully in the bit that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We were not spoiled.

We left the South and my grandfather when I was 9. I had half a dozen guests at my first-ever birthday party--on Thanksgiving Day--when I was 12. I was ecstatic. Thereafter, until my senior year in high school, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my birthday with a party. Cake and turkey. It was then, 45 years ago, that I began reading in earnest about America's historical treatment of indigenous people, including my ancestors.

Ancient Winds (José Cabezas), ‘Reflection’

That year, November 28 again fell on Thanksgiving. But I didn't celebrate. No party. And that's the way it was for the next 29 years, during which I reiterated my grandfather's warning. He had not been mistaken about the holiday being founded on the fruits of mass murder instead of some friendly, integrated get-together.

The Wampanoags who arrived on what many of us were taught in school was the "first" Thanksgiving were not invited to the feast with the Plymouth Pilgrims in 1621 after rescuing them from certain starvation. Massasoit and about 90 of his men just showed up. What followed, we are told, was three days of eating and entertainment, much of which included large quantities of beer. The tension was surely palpable. In the sole firsthand, contemporaneous account we have, nobody called it "thanksgiving." Not long afterward, in an act of raw treachery that was precursor to a thousand others over the years, Captain Myles Standish, military commander of Plymouth colony--determined to make a pre-emptive strike against a non-existent military threat--strode into a Wampanoag village with his men on the pretext of trading. He left with the severed head of Wituwamat, which he stuck on a wooden spike at Plymouth.

The real first Thanksgiving was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, he of the famous "city upon a hill" speech. That celebration capped off the massacre of 400-700 Pequots, southern neighbors of the Wampanoags, remnants of a tribe already deeply wounded by epidemics of smallpox and measles. Survivors were executed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. Proclaimed Winthrop, "This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots."

The descendants of Massasoit's Wampanoags who had sat down in 1621 were treated to their own slaughter during King Philip's War 54 years later. After decades of being pushed off their old lands, the Wampanoag were led in resistance by "King Philip," known among his own people as Metacom. When the year of fighting was over, his wife and son were captured and sold into slavery in Bermuda. Metacom was decapitated and his head publicly displayed for more than 20 years. Once again, survivors were executed or sold into slavery, with a bounty of 20 shillings offered for every Indian scalp and 40 shillings for any captive able-bodied enough for enslavement.

Ancient Winds (José Cabezas), ’Indian Song’

On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, proclaimed:

"...It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour..."

That slaughter of "heathens" and the roundup of survivors that followed allowed more European immigrants to squat on what had once been Indian land. It was a theme that kept being repeated for the next 220 years right across America. My own people - Seminoles, an amalgam of Creeks, Apalachees, runaway slaves and "renegade" whites--eventually fought three wars, and kept a few slivers of their traditional lands, although most were force-marched to "Indian Territory," where their descendants still live today.

Every year, I ranted about these brutal injustices, about the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, and the fate of the people who suddenly were in the way. And then, 14 years ago, I let it go. Not that I changed my mind about the atrocities that had occurred or the lies that had been told about them. Far from it. Not that I became enamored with the foolish iconography of Thanksgiving, including elementary school displays of construction paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands. Not that I did not and do not fully understand the feelings of those who cannot bring themselves past their rage at this celebration that has been given a full platter of historical up-is-downism.

But I got tired of missing out on the celebration and the food ... and I missed having a birthday party. And I realized, finally, that I also had missed the point that this holiday can be a healer, a remembrance of our roots but with our eyes on the present and the future. So, this year, as in the past few, I'll be together with some of my best friends, white, red and black. As we have for several Thanksgivings, we'll tell the children (and grandchildren) the true story of Thanksgiving.

And we'll give thanks that we live in a country where remembering the past need not shackle us to it. 

Sat Nov 22, 2008 at 14:29:34 PM PST
At Native American Netroots



Thanksgiving: A Native American View
by Jacqueline Keeler

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people.

Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead.

I was proud to sing the new lyrics in school, but I sang softly. It was enough for me to know the difference. At six, I felt I had learned something very important. As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors, and I learned that my family possessed some "inside" knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses came to our homes.

Chant To The Sun

When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, they were poor and hungry--half of them died within a few months from disease and hunger. When Squanto, a Wampanoag man, found them, they were in a pitiful state. He spoke English, having traveled to Europe, and took pity on them. Their English crops had failed. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow their food.

These were not merely "friendly Indians." They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary--but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect. Among the Dakota, my father's people, they say, when asked to give, "Are we not Dakota and alive?" It was believed that by giving there would be enough for all--the exact opposite of the system we live in now, which is based on selling, not giving.

To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were heathens, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves.

Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples. I sometimes wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes? And at the "first Thanksgiving" the Wampanoags provided most of the food--and signed a treaty granting Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the first Thanksgiving.

Robert Mirabal, ‘Little Indians’

What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoags. Most diseases then came from animals that Europeans had domesticated. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of our people, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. Some estimate that diseases accounted for a death toll reaching 90 percent in some Native American communities. By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way "for a better growth," meaning his people.

In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.

Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.

And the healing can begin.

Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in Winds of Change, an American Indian journal. This article was originally published at The Pure Water Gazette.


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