I am grateful for the incredible life I have lived, but I do not think will never come to truly embrace the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Growing up of mixed heritage, Cherokee and European decent, it is easy to feel torn. Like every grade school kid, I got that bullshit story about the Puritans being shown by the Indians how to plant corn and save themselves for the bad winter. The idyllic poses of bowed Pilgrim heads and those of Indians in feathers gathered around a plank table near a log cabin, the surrounding forest, a riot of colour as if to say, that yes indee, God approved of the feast and all of the harmony and love spoken of in the Christian bible could be attained in this vast land of plenty.
Then I grew up watching the civil rights of the seventies, of Wounded Knee II, the occupation of Alcatraz Island, and the incident at the Jumping Bull Farm where two FBI agents were dead and three men, all of them Indians, were tried for their killing. Two were acquitted. Leonard Peltier got to serve out two life sentences for a crime supposedly committed where the bullets don’t match the gun.
ames like Dennis Banks, John Trudell, Russell Means, Anna Mae, and words like COINTELPRO and AIM came up regularly. It didn’t take long to listen to my brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles from the part of the family that had been separated from our branch and realize that the majority of folks eat lots of food, watch football holiday and thought little of a day in the past that had more behind it. Even as a small child, something about Thanksgiving always felt “off” to me. When I found out about the over 700 men, women and children that were slaughtered on that day, it made my heart sick. My Seneca ‘brother’ Fred jokingly referred to the holiday as “Pilgrim Welfare Day” and it stuck for me. It was a stab back at the dominant culture that made a great noise about giving thanks to God for all that they had, and yet never acknowledging how ill-gotten those gains had been achieved through the blood of ancestors.
I often get chastised and chided that I should let the past of that event die and stop trying to foist guilt upon those who obviously had nothing to do with any of it. They claim that it wasn’t their fault and pontificate that we are a nation that is grateful for all we have and choosing to have collective amnesia about many of history’s finer points. I have personally found that When the story of the true first Thanksgiving is recounted, the listener, should they be non-Indigenous, tends to get extremely uncomfortable. The accusation of just trying to be politically correct is flung out and protests ensue. Such a discussion, to their minds, is misguided and they think that your anger at how your ancestors were treated is somehow aimed at them. “Oh, no!” they cry, “My ancestors never did ANYTHING to yours! You can’t include me in all of that!” The sins of the fathers cannot now be visited on the children this far down the line. It no longer applies now. “Besides,” comes the last indignant remark, “you should be thankful we brought your murdering savage ancestors law and civilization!”
The inclusion of those who feel that they are above what happened by whatever reason,does, by the way touch on some of my own non-Indigenous ancestors as well. This inclusion is by culpability. We all are collectively responsible for how we are as a Nation. It is a Nation that has now become one that does not think of what or how consumes. We as a people tend to live in the moment. We more often buy what we want when we fancy it, choosing to put it on credit. And how we pay for these things is that we owe our existence more and more to corporate entities. Those entities which care only for their bottom line and the profit margins of the investors on Wall Street. Barely a second thought is given to environmental concerns or the Walmart worker who does not make a decent living wage and is forced to go on public assistance. The high paid executives of these same corporations grumble that they cannot provide things like healthcare benefits for them, even as consumers will elbow past fellow shoppers, squabbling over that last wide-screen television set for $198 that is only available from 11PM-12AM on the night of Thanksgiving: The L-Triptophan and starch haze from too much turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie having barely lifted its fog from their senses.
When I outwardly shudder at those who think participating in the Black Friday shopping frenzy is the highlight of the year, they think something is wrong with me. When I bemoan that the Cedar Rapids Gazette, now three inches thick and ts cover price having been tripled is all made of ads and only ten pages of “news”, I am just embittered. Of course, who can blame the Gazette, that Fisher-Price of newspapers? That they, too, should be able to take advantage of the selfish shopping habits of Americans who MUST spend their way through the holidays, shouldn’t they? Never mind that another paper will be out a mere three days later for $2.00 with many of the same glossy advertisements just overflowing with materialistic temptations for our nation of consumers. Watching all of these people salivate for Black Friday deals is like watching the modern-day equivalent of Pavlov’s Dog. It’s all conditioned behaviour, and yet if you confront these people they have no idea that they are being maneuvered and managed by the corporations to consume on command. The greatest irony of all, I think, is the fact the day most know as Black Friday, was recognized and signed into law by President George W. Bush in November of 2008 as National Native American Heritage Day.
All of us are all grateful, even in these hard economic times, particularly if we still have jobs, or we are able to keep a roof overhead, or feed ourselves without public assistance or even if we do get assistance, grateful to be alive, to have our health or that of our families. There but by the Grace of the Creator, would any of us go. And yet there is this underlying spirit of mean-spiritedness and greed that permeates even the airwaves. Mocking those on food stamps or EBT, looking down its nose on those who must take advantage of Pell Grants or student loans just to be viable in the job market. The new buzz word on Capitol Hill is “Entitlements”, as if people have a sense of entitlement to these things that they invested in via their paychecks and now the richest 2% don’t want to pay, because it just takes away from their own bottom line.
But even with all of these things that I hate about this holiday called Thanksgiving, I have witnessed first hand some wonderful testaments of the ultimate good in people. One of my regular customers at the store where I work spent over 14 hours of the previous night helping to prepare Thanksgiving at his church for a couple of hundred people who would otherwise have no Thanksgiving dinner at all. This same man brought a plate of food for those employees who were working. The bosses, a wonderful couple, would have loved to have closed the store, but their biggest consideration and worry was for their customers being able to get that last minute gallon of milk or gas to get to Grandma’s. Then there was the retired Sheriff who came in with a large plate of banana bread he had baked himself as well. So many others of my acquaintance opened their homes as well and shared what they had with those who had none.
To my mind, that is the biggest part of what our Indigenous ancestors meant when celebrating Thanksgiving. It was being thankful that we had plenty, and that those whom we love were once again near and we could share in that moment once more. I wish that I saw more press and air time given to that sort of celebration of Thanksgiving rather than to the consumerist’s stampede that inevitably comes after.