Thanksgiving A Loaded Holiday for Many Native-Americans

Published on
by
The Wisconsin State Journal

Thanksgiving A Loaded Holiday for Many Native-Americans

by
Melanie Conklin

Mark Anthony Rolo, left, and his nephew Nick Rolo pick out a bagged turkey at Sentry Hilldale for their Thanksgiving family gathering. (Wisconsin State Journal)

When Bobbi Webster, a member of the Oneida Nation, talks about being
thankful, she mentions the strawberry harvest, tapping maple trees for
syrup, the summer solstice and seasonal change. Feasting, family and
giving thanks are the root of multiple thanksgiving celebrations spread
throughout the year for the Oneida and other American Indians.

And
on this fourth Thursday in November, Webster, like millions of
Americans, will gather with her family for a feast, make her mother's
recipes for chocolate cake and cranberries, talk about gratitude and
celebrate Thanksgiving.

"This time of year we all celebrate
Thanksgiving, but we have 13 ceremonies of thanksgiving ongoing
throughout the year," Webster said. "Sometimes you have to take the
best of the worlds around you, draw from all the cultures. Thanksgiving
is a time we see what we have in common."

But because of the
roots of today's holiday in the early encounters between European
settlers and native populations, there's a multiplicity of viewpoints
among American Indians about Thanksgiving.

"Some see it with
hostility. Some celebrate it with guilt, while others see it as an
opportunity to educate and get in touch with our Americana," said Patty
Loew, a historian, journalist and member of the Bad River Ojibwe.

She's
in the latter camp. If you entered her kitchen, she said, "you would
probably mistake me for any other American celebrating a day of food,
friends and family." Her family table includes red cabbage from her
German ancestors and Korean kimchee from her brother who loves spicy
foods.

But Loew understands why some American Indians choose to
fast or protest the holiday because it is rooted in a mythical image of
the 'first' Thanksgiving feast in 1621 as a "hands across the waters,
friendly, wonderful experience." Squanto, she noted, learned English as
a slave. And by the time Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, tribes were
already decimated by diseases likely brought by earlier European
settlers.

So she uses Thanksgiving, and November's National
American Indian Heritage Month, as a chance to correct that image and
replace it with a deeper understanding of native culture.

"In
mainstream America, sometimes we just give thanks for our football
teams and the extra notch on our belts," Loew said. "But this one time
of year is a real chance for me to share the native spirit and talk
about thanksgiving in a broad, spiritual way."

Loew cited an
Iroquois thanksgiving prayer as embodying Indian sentiment on thanks.
It gives thanks to the waters, birds, plants, moon, people, teachers,
the creator and more, beginning:

"Today we have gathered and we
see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to
live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So
now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks
to each other as people."

Prayers of thanks to the creator are
said every day of the year, said Anne Thundercloud, public relations
officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation.

"We're a very spiritual people
who are always giving thanks," Thundercloud said. "The concept of
setting aside one day for giving thanks doesn't fit. We think of every
day as Thanksgiving." She added that her family, and many Ho-Chunk,
have adopted today's Thanksgiving holiday as well, drawn to another
chance to gather for a feast with family. And the celebration continues
Friday, which is Ho-Chunk Day, celebrated in Black River Falls with a
large community event.

Mark Anthony Rolo, a member of the Bad
River Band of Ojibwe and a UW-Madison lecturer in the School of Human
Ecology, counts Thanksgiving as one of his favorite holidays, despite
its challenges for American Indians.

"It's hard to figure out how to be," Rolo said. "So I don't want to talk about Native American politics on Thanksgiving Day."

He
stressed that not all American Indians "view Thanksgiving as a downer"
but said conflicting expectations from non-Indians can be exhausting.
So he focuses on enjoying the time with his brothers, avoiding people
who might want to overanalyze the holiday's meanings.

"Liberals
want us to mourn and be angry or feel bad about commemorating our own
cultural death," Rolo said. "Meanwhile conservatives blame us for our
condition. Can you imagine having to sit around a Thanksgiving table
with those folks telling us how to be while trying to digest a meal?"

Rolo
spends much of the rest of the year wrestling with such topics as he
writes and speaks about the plight of American Indians.

Thanksgiving is a day of rest.

"Now
Thanksgiving dinner is such an easy meal to make, even for a lousy cook
like me," Rolo joked. "You have cranberries in a can that actually
taste good, heat-up pumpkin pie and turkey that comes preseasoned that
bastes right in its bag. Native people are very grateful. And I'm
thankful for turkey in a bag."

The food most Americans have on
their table today has Native American origins. Dana Jackson, education
director for the Bad River Band Ojibwe and an American Indian language
teacher, cited turkey, pumpkin, corn, cranberries and wild rice as
providing a cultural connection.

Each year Jackson asks his
students at Northland College in Ashland to write a Thanksgiving
oration or prayer in the Ojibwe language. Some students give thanks for
things like their cats or dogs, but he encourages a broad world view.

"The
speaker at our feasts is speaking for everyone," Jackson said. "We
thank the turkey or deer for dying, for sacrificing its life to feed
us. We don't ask for much for ourselves. This isn't a chance to ask for
a new Corvette."

Students find much to be thankful for as they
write the orations, he said. And Jackson hopes other cultures will
adopt the American Indian tradition of multiple thanksgiving ceremonies
throughout the year.

"I would personally encourage people to do it more often," Jackson said. "Please, borrow that. Feel free."

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