Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving A Loaded Holiday for Many Native-Americans

Thanksgiving A Loaded Holiday for Many Native-Americans

by Melanie Conklin

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.

[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)]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)
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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