Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pilgrims and Indians (or Thanksgiving Thoughts, a little past due)

I am the parent of two Native American children.

For those of you who might have grown up in my era, with my type of textbooks, you probably believe like I did--that the Native Americans were friendly with their corn, saved the pilgrims that miserable first thanksgiving, and forged a wonderful bond of friendship.

Oh, how we lie!!!

Here are the facts:  Each Native American tribe represents a unique culture.  Across North America, there were at one point literally thousands of these tribes.  This means there were thousands of unique languages, foods, traditions, clothing, and belief systems.  Little by little, through a variety of governmental programs and policies, our nation has systematically destroyed all but a few of these unique cultures.

Most of us are at least minimally familiar with the Trail of Tears, the long walk forced upon thousands of Native Americans during the 1830s, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  This act forced Native Americans to leave their own land in the southeastern part of the United States and walk half way across the country.  The majority of this walk occurred during the winter months.  Without adequate food, shelter, or clothing, death was common.

During the late nineteenth century, it was a common belief that Native Americans needed to be "civilized" by assimilating them into the culture of the majority (meaning caucasians).  Boarding schools aimed to "civilize" young Native American children became common, emphasizing a practice of removing Native American children from their families and placing them in these schools in an effort to force them to learn "white ways".  Children were discouraged from (and often abused for) using their native languages or practices.  Combined with multiple other governmental policies, it becomes easier to see how hundreds of unique cultures have been lost.

And lest we forget the wonderful "reservation" idea...does anyone else find it ironic that the one place the government dumped these people was, at the time, the driest, dustiest, most useless piece of land in the country?  There were several jokes circulating around Thanksgiving time about celebrating the holiday by walking into one's neighbor's home and announcing you've moved in and they need to move out.  My personal favorite was my husband's idea, in which I, being white, would yell "Manifest Destiny!" as he and my children began the long hike back to Oklahoma.  (In case you're unfamiliar, Manifest Destiny was a concept created by our government in the 19th century which basically announced we were entitled to take any and all lands from anyone, because we were chosen by God.  Apparently we were pretty special.)

Thanksgiving is an ambivalent time for me.  As a child, I remember participating in the traditional "Pilgrim and Indian" play at school and the feast.  I was pleased by how nice the Indians had been to us white folk.  It was really great they provided us with food to eat and we could be friends.  It wasn't until years later that I came to understand that these same tribes who had extended their hands in friendship were given blankets infected with smallpox (a disease new to Native Americans and devastatingly deadly), increasingly forced out of their homes and their land through deceptive treaties and just outright lies, and to this day are one of the single most underrepresented groups in the country when it comes to governmental policy.

So how do you raise a Native American child when you're a white parent at Thanksgiving?  You talk about reality.  You talk about morality and ethics.  You talk about the heart of the first thanksgiving, and the true nature of thankfulness and kindness.  You point out that the right thing to do is always right, even when other people do the wrong thing.  And you don't lie.  Ever.

We enjoy turkey like everyone else, and we have a lot to be thankful for.  Love and one another top the list.  But we don't participate in a rose-colored glasses look at the horrific treatment of a group of individuals that are easy to love one day of the year.

After all, my kids are Native American all year long.

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