Thanksgiving: A Native American View

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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.
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.
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.
(From: Pacific News Service. Posted January 1, 2000)

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