Putting Thankgiving’s roots on the table
“Over the river and through the woods …” to grandmother’s house we went every Thanksgiving for years to feast on her roast turkey and Slovenian delights such as potica and streukla-delicacies still created by Little Falls’ Janet Atutis.
In one of my earliest remembrances of the holiday, I was in elementary school and wearing a paper headdress, part of the annual “pageant” reconstructing the sit down between the Pilgrims and Wampanoags.
I vaguely recall the teacher picked the “good” kids to be Pilgrims and the rest of us to be “red men.” We learned that the immigrants from England who had fled religious persecution met to celebrate the fall harvest and give thanks to the natives for providing them with the food (corn, squash, pumpkins) which had saved them from starvation the winter before.
Ironically, if the Wampanoags had known what was in store for them, there might never have been a Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t until I took a course in Native American History from the renowned Dr. Tom Hagan at the State University of New York at Fredonia that I came to understand why our first inhabitants had no reason to join us in celebrating turkey day. I mean what could they be thankful for? Hundreds of thousands of horrible deaths caused by the white man’s diseases (e.g. smallpox); the loss of millions of acres of land; the over 300 broken treaties-treaties which “guaranteed” them their land until either gold (Black Hills) or oil (Oklahoma) was discovered on it or, as with the Cherokee, when Old Hickory (Jackson) refused to enforce a Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) upholding their treaty with the Federal government. Jackson’s impeachable offense resulted in the tragic Trail of Tears when thousands of Cherokee were rounded up, incarcerated in prison camps and deported west of the Mississippi-during their diaspora, over 4,000 men, women and children, including Principal Chief John Ross’s wife, died. Some by the bayonet.
Could they be thankful for the Navajo Long Walk? Or the boarding schools where children forcibly separated (sound familiar?) from their parents went to attend classes where every effort was made to destroy their “Indianness” and turn them into “apples” (red on the inside, white on the outside). Or having Christianity shoved down their throats despite the fact that in many ways, unlike us, they remained true to their religious beliefs. Or being relocated on reservations where even today life expectancies are lower and unemployment, alcoholism and suicide rates higher; where hopelessness and despair hang like black clouds over the land.
But then I met Sid. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1983, I accompanied a couple of Vietnam vets to the Syracuse VA for their appointments and went to the cafeteria to wait. It was crowded. I asked a guy sitting alone if I could join him and what followed were three of the most memorable hours of my life.
Come to find out, Sid, a bear of a man with long, black hair, tan skin and coal-black eyes, was an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) who had relocated in Central New York. When I asked why, he said that he preferred not to talk about it. I then asked why he was at the VA. He had just finished an appointment and had a few hours to kill before his ride came. He went on to tell me that he served two tours in the Army in ‘Nam, had been wounded twice, was honorably discharged and returned home to the rez. I asked why he had volunteered to fight for a government that treated him and his people like third-class citizens, and he answered-tradition. His father and uncles had fought in World War II, and his grandfather, an Oglala chief, had shed blood on the killing fields of France in World War I (c. 10,000 NAs volunteered). They were, in the tradition of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, warriors.
He continued on to say that he was at the VA to get help for his combat-related problems. PTSD. He related that the nightmares were the worst, revisiting the same battlefield, over and over. I asked if he was getting the help he sought and he said yes. He’d hooked up with a really good counselor, gotten a job and was finally in a “good place.”
Before leaving, I told him I’d wish him a happy holiday but that to do so, given the historical realities, would be out of line. His response floored me, teaching me a valuable lesson — don’t assume anything. He said he would celebrate Thanksgiving. He took pride in the fact that the Wampanoags had shared their bounty with the strangers in keeping with a teaching of the Creator-a sort of do unto others philosophy-something sorely missing in this country today. He reminded me that despite everything tragic that happened since then, he and his people had continued to keep their faith. I told him that I wish we had. As he got up to leave, he shook my hand and wished me good health and a happy Thanksgiving.
I never saw him again but will never forget him or what he taught me. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Ray Lenarcic is professor emeritus of history at Herkimer College and a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia.