Native American View
I celebrate the holiday of
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
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.
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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
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
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.