Thanks for nothing
Native American perspectives on Thanksgiving
By Douglas Burns
For most of the United States, Thanksgiving is a day during which that most popular of contemporary sins — gluttony — is celebrated with gusto and gravy.
Americans eat, watch football and stop stuffing the stuffing into their gullets in just enough time to hit the Christmas shopping season starting line.
But for many Americans, those descended from the first Americans, in fact, Thursday is a day that marks centuries and generations of betrayal and horror.
“It’s a difficult time for many of our people,” says Jeanne Marie Brightfire Stophlet, a Shawnee Cherokee. “We came in friendship and caring, and we suffered from that friendship and caring.”
In a phone interview, Brightfire Stophlet, chairwoman of the North American Indian Council of Greater Cincinnati, says celebrating “Thanksgiving” — a term she doesn’t use — is a slight to millions of Native Americans.
“Some people feel like it’s a reminder of what we lost,” says Connie Louise Smith, the publisher-owner of The Lakota Country Times in Martin, S.D., and an Oglala Lakota.
To many in the Native American community, celebrating Thanksgiving as a historical day of peace and community between different peoples and races would be like England and Germany marking the Munich Agreement with a feast.
Brightfire Stophlet said the Anglo-Americanized version of the holiday is really a celebration of betrayal, not friendship. The Puritans destroyed much of the Native American culture in New England and even sold many Indians into slavery. Ensuing centuries were filled with more death and destruction of native peoples and culture at the hands of Europeans.
“We have a right to be offended at Columbus Day,” Brightfire Stophlet says. “We have a right to be offended at Thanksgiving.”
True enough, says Sidner Larson, the director of the robust American Indian Studies program at Iowa State University. But Larson, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe in Montana (who also has an ISU office in Carver Hall with an arresting view of stately Beardshear), says the obvious issues for Native Americans on Thanksgiving are ones to avoid.
“Oppressed people don’t allow themselves to get too carried away with that,” Larson says. “I mean, they’re aware of all of the implications, but you don’t go there personally because that way lies madness. So you have Thanksgiving dinner like everyone else and like it and lump it. If American Indians allowed themselves to feel the full weight of the apocalyptic situation they endured and the post-apocalyptic situation they live in, it would be too much to bear. You just allow your natural psychological defense mechanisms to kick in, and there are places you don’t go.”
That means compartmentalizing life.
“If you’re an American Indian person, these are realities you have to accept, such as the fact of a celebration of a relationship with people whom you have practiced genocide against and whom you maintain carefully and very strictly living in situations of enforced poverty,” says Larson, who grew up on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.
Many adult Americans celebrate the holiday as if they were schoolchildren, blithely passing over the cultural significance of the day and what it has grown to represent for Native Americans, says Brightfire Stophlet.
“We’re a big hit around Thanksgiving time,” she says. “Every school wants to get a turkey and have an Indian over for lunch.”
Adds Larson, “The argument that most Americans know history from Hollywood is true.”
Brightfire Stophlet believes Native Americans are more disrespected than other minorities in the United States and points to the current controversy over Indian-themed sports-team mascots as an example.
“You couldn’t do that to any other group,” Brightfire Stophlet says. To drive home her point, she wondered how the “Kansas City Jews” would go over with sports fans.
For his part, Larson says non Native Americans tend to view the community in three primary stereotypes: the savage, either of the noble or “wagon-burning” variety; dysfunctional drunkards; or as a vanished peoples.
The latter one is prevalent in Iowa, says Larson, who remarked about the reaction he’s heard from white people visiting the Meskwaki casino in Tama. They are shocked to see modern Native Americans working there.
“It flies in the face of their deep-seeded belief that ‘I thought all the Indians were gone,’” Larson says.
When Brightfire Stophlet speaks with Anglo-Americans at various functions or events, some of the reactions she gets can be surprising, very 19th century in some respects, she says.
“We’ll get people who’ll say, ‘We thought you all (Native Americans) disappeared,’” Brightfire Stophlet says.
She’s even heard ugly lines from westerns, like “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
“You’ll get that thrown back at you,” Brightfire Stophlet says.
For many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of political action. Many gather near Plymouth Rock for a “Day of Mourning.”
“Within a few years, the children of those who ate the feast together were fighting each other in what became a genocidal war,” writes The Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Denise Smith Amos. “Most of New England’s Indians were exterminated. Others died of smallpox or were sold by the Pilgrims into slavery.
“It was a pattern of violent takeover that swept the countryside, lasting generations and nearly wiping out our country’s indigenous peoples. No wonder many Native Americans have mixed feelings about this holiday. It reminds them of things not to be celebrated but solemnly observed.”
Some take it further.
Instead of recognizing Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, some Native Americans will celebrate the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne defeat of Lt. Col. George Custer and the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn in 1876.
One of the more influential Native American activists of the last half-century, a Standing Rock Sioux who spent his life debunking myths about Indians, is an Iowa State University graduate, Vine Deloria Jr.
Deloria referred to the Battle of Little Bighorn as a “sensitivity-training session.”
According to The Washington Post, which ran a lengthy piece on Deloria after his death at age 72 in 2005, a writer for Indian Country Today argued that Deloria was the greatest American Indian thinker since Sequoyah, the Cherokee who devised a system of writing for his people in the early 1800s.
In his well-known 1969 book, “Custer Died for Your Sins,” Deloria reported the results of an opinion poll taken among Native Americans on the Vietnam War: Fifteen percent replied that the United States should get out of Vietnam; 85 percent said the United States should get out of America.
“We have brought the white man a long way,” Deloria wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 1976. “From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence.”
There they were, the Pilgrims and the Indians with all that food in 1621.
Now, nearly 400 years later, here we are in our living rooms, many of us with full Thanksgiving spreads on the table and football on our televisions.
But what about the Native Americans, the people who were the other part of this Thanksgiving equation?
What do they have to be thankful for on this annual day of the great repast after the United States took all their land and stuck them in remote places of Oklahoma and South Dakota?
Some reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent. Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don’t have electricity.
“Few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans — our First Americans,” President Barack Obama told the Tribal Nations Conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C. “We know the history that we share. It’s a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation. Treaties were violated. Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your cultures, your languages were not yours to keep. And that’s a history that we’ve got to acknowledge if we are to move forward.”
American Indians have a suicide rate that is 70 percent higher than that of the general U.S. population, while Native youths have the highest rate of suicide of any group in the nation, according to Indian Country Today.
In the first 10 weeks of 2007, tribal authorities at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota were called to three suicides and scores of attempts — “a total of 144 so far this year, at doctors’ best count,” The New York Times reported in a Page 9 story (Paris Hilton made Page 1 that Saturday).
Suicide is still a major problem in Native American communities, says Eileen Janis, an Oglala Lakota who is the outreach coordinator for a sweeping suicide prevention program, the year-old Sweet Grass Project, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, west of Rosebud.
“It’s so many, it’s hard to get the numbers,” Janis says.
A day after an initial interview, Janis called back to say she was helping to deal with the aftermath of a teen-aged girl who had just been found hanging, another apparent victim of suicide.
“It just happened so we’ll know more tomorrow,” Janis says.
Janis cites a Bermuda Triangle of despair — drugs, alcohol and poverty — as major reasons, but also lists “historical trauma,” the multi-generation impact of living in compulsory settings with the inherited pain that went along with a genocide.
“I think it’s because there’s no hope with a lot of our kids,” Smith, the newspaper owner, says. “Eighth-grade (graduation) used to be heralded as a success, and that hasn’t changed here.”
The founder of a high-traffic Native American blog — nativeunity.blogspot.com — is an 86-year-old Native American activist living in Yuma, Ariz.
Bobbie Hart O’Neill is part Mohawk Indian from her mother’s “Canadian side of the family” dating back to the American Revolution “when the Cryslers got involved with Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant during the American Revolution — on the Tory side.”
“I almost think at this stage of the game, it’s a personal thing,” she said in a recent interview about Thanksgiving.
She gets more spirited feedback on Columbus Day.
An East Coast Native American activist, Julianne Jennings, a descendent of the Pequot and other tribes, said in a phone interview that she views Oct. 12, 1637, as the first “Thanksgiving.” On that day European settlers in Massachusetts celebrated an earlier massacre of hundreds of Pequots.
“For many, it’s the beginning of the end,” Jennings says, adding that the holiday should be a teaching moment.
Jennings, an academic at Eastern Connecticut State University, has devoted considerable scholarship to the violence waged against native peoples by George Washington to lesser-known but significant figures in early American history.
Larson knows the history, too, but at Iowa State University his approach is to use Indian culture to teach students about the inspiration behind good and evil in their own lives with an aim of improving the overall human condition.
“If you start lecturing Americans about Indians, they shut down pretty quickly,” Larson says. “It appears to be a guilt trip. It’s understandable the frustration that people have. They didn’t have anything to do with what happened to the Indians. And when it sounds like you’re trying to hold them responsible, they’re not capable of receiving that kind of information.”
Larson, 60, earned his bachelor’s degree at Northern Montana College and his master’s at South Dakota State. He knows he’s defied the odds in making it to the heights of academia.
“Most American Indian scholars are white people,” Larson said. “Most of my contemporaries are dead, let alone managed to get off a reservation. It’s that harsh.”
In the end, Larson says, you have to go back to the beginning of the relationship between European settlers and Native Americans to understand what is happening today. Land remains the issue, says Larson, who holds a law degree from the University of Minnesota.
“American Indians legally hold to title to significant portions of the United States,” Larson said. “They legally own it. But the United States is not about to turn it over to them. One of the ways that gets managed is just a holdover from the older, crueler, colonial days — keep them carefully located in a situation where you can then publicize the fact that they’re incompetent and need to be taken care of. Then you don’t have to face up to larger issues of what you’re going to do about the fact they own the Black Hills.” CV
Caption: coverpic3: “Some people feel like it (Thanksgiving) is a reminder of what we lost,” said Connie Louise Smith, the publisher-owner of the Lakota Country Times in Martin, S.D. and an Oglala Lakota. Not all traditions are lost in Native American communities. Smith’s newspaper recently published this photo from the Black Hills Powow. Photo courtesy of The Lakota County Times
Caption: isularson1: Sidner Larson, director of American Indian Studies at Iowa State University, says non Native Americans tend to view the community in three primary stereotypes: the savage, either of the noble or “wagon-burning” variety; dysfunctional drunkards; or as a vanished peoples. Photo by Douglas Burns
Caption: cover julianne: Julianne Jennings, a native American activist.
Caption: vine deloria: Vine Deloria Jr. wrote the book “Custer Died For Your Sins.”
Caption: obama: President Barack Obama, shown here in Newton after being elected, delivered a speech on Native Americans’ history recently in Washington, D.C., which he said has been “marked by violence and deprivation.” Photo by Douglas Burns