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Thanksgiving, Hope and the Hidden Heart of Evil

This is a piece I wrote. When a writer begins writing they don't necessarily know what is going to come out. On that day, in a kitchen in Berkeley, this is what came out of me. I'd like to say "I wrote that" or "these are my thoughts", but in some way writing to me is like alchemy. It is a mix of stuff you don't always know consciously. The magic that is family stories, heritage, experience are what come out. What does it mean to be a "Native American"? Well, I feel this piece went some way in finding that answer for me.

Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy.
- JK

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

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 their food.

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.

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 his people.

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 caused.

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.
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Radiohumper said...

I loved this post so much when it first appeared on "Truthout" that I've been searching for it all week.

There is a whole lot I could add here, but your new preface says it for me too. This year, I am grateful for your words flowing down this electronic river where I could find them again.

Garfunkel said...

Hey, this piece has been really duplicated all over the net by now.
I'm a european male currently living in germany and I've been sympathetic to some, what I believed to be, native american views of living.
I kind of wanted to point out things and get into the thanksgiving origin debate, because it kind of saddens me, but it really seems to not be worth it.

I liked what you added at the top, though it does not diffuse the article, but I was wondering... Could you not just be yourself instead of trying to think of what it means to be a native american? It seems to just be an empowering limitation, a label.
I'm not saying a culture should be ignored or anything like that, absolutely not. It may be good if you need to unite. Just..

Europeans used to eat a lot of cabbages and apples, turnips, broad beans, cheese. And bread and meat if you were rich. Wheat was very fundamental.

The small villages (30 homes maybe) around here all still celebrate the end of the harvest. And they all do it a week apart from each other so that means they all go to one village on one weekend and get drunk and the next weekend they all go to the next one and get drunk and so on. I think it was even before the christian church that people were thankful (dankbar) for the harvest (ernte), there were a lot of pagan gods, for practical plants like the elder (holunder) for instance.
It's all very simple and very human really.

I guess I leave this comment in the hope that there is a common ground somewhere.

Jacqueline Keeler said...

Thanks Garfunkel. I see what you mean, but as it was the Wampanoag that brought the food to the first Thanksgiving and the English had been living off their kindness throughout that hard, first winter, I see this story as not having a direct tie to the traditions you outline. And certainly as a staple of American history it does not serve that purpose, either. The purpose is one of American myth making in order to make the taking of the land okay in the mind of high-minded but morally worried Americans. If you grow up here being taught the story in elementary school you would experience that first hand as I did and see that is the case.

America is a very racially-minded place and I am constantly being asked (every single day!) by white people to explain "who I am" "where I am from" because the assumption is that if I am not white, I must not be from here. So, for my own well-being and sense of self, I must understand my indigenous roots. Also, my Navajo grandparents were traditional (they spoke only Navajo, no English) and were so until they died a decade ago in the 21st century. This is who we are even today. I could pretend in my mind to be white - blanca, a blank American slate, but no one else would see me that way and it would be like cutting of my arm, or cutting out my heart. It is who I am and my culture and traditions are precious to me.

Peace - Hozho