Thanksgiving has always been a Native tradition, and Comedian Ernie Tsosie of 49 Laughs said he has never been one to say, “No Thanks, No Giving!” “It’s never been about the pilgrims or turkey,” he said. “ It’s a gathering day. It’s a great day to appreciate your family and to feast.”
Tsotsie, Navajo, waxed nostalgic for his mother’s unique stuffing of macaroni, almonds, and breadcrumbs. “It’s not like anyone else’s!” he said. Slipping into comedy mode, he laughed, “It’s always the mom who’s busy that day. The kids play, the men are watching sports; hey, wouldn’t it be cool if the men cooked?” Still laughing, he said, “Shoot, if they tried to cook it would be a total disaster. They’d substitute ingredients, take short cuts, try to microwave the turkey; in the end they’d have to call in for Chinese food.”
Ernie Tsosie thinks that Thanksgiving is like the Day of The Dead for Turkeys, and demonstrates his sympathy with a smile.
Tsotsie also showed compassion for the turkey. “I always wondered what the turkey thinks about. It used to be that you only saw turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s like Memorial Day for turkeys, like Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for the turkeys!”
For Chuck Trimble, Lakota author of the book Iyeska, Thanksgiving meant a chance to go home to Wanblee from the Holy Rosary Mission School in Pine Ridge. The students were given a four-day reprieve to return home, as long as they could find a way to get there. Wanblee is more than 80 miles from Pine Ridge, and Trimble said, “My mother had no means of transportation, so it was always a matter of catching a ride. If we could get to Martin, we could get a ride in the mail truck, or jeep, or whatever was running,” he recalled with a laugh.
The Wanblee celebration was a community affair, shared between two churches at either end of town, and a long log house reserved for such events. “A lot of times, families didn’t have the wherewithal to have a Thanksgiving dinner, so it was always a community event.”
“Everything smelled good!” he said, thinking back about a turkey or goose cooking in the wood stove. “In the 1930s and 40s; we ate dried meat, corn, squash, and all those choke cherries were dried in patties. You would add water to make wojapi. Every get-together had to have wojapi. They were really made for the dead of winter and you couldn’t wait to eat them,” Trimble said. “The community events, getting together and everybody serving, that was the important thing.”
There may be nothing like a traditional Thanksgiving, but Walter Lamar, a retired Blackfeet/Wichita FBI agent and remarkable teller of heartwarming crime tales, remembers one Thanksgiving invitation that was anything but traditional.
It was 1985, and Lamar had just been transferred to San Francisco, assigned to bank robberies. “The first bank robbery I responded to was a ‘note job,’” Lamar said.
The thief had come into the bank demanding money, and the teller handed it over with an attached tracking device. The thief ran across the street between row houses and when Lamar found the tracking device on the other side of the fence behind the houses, he chose to investigate the house.
Entering the apartment building, he knocked on door after door, asking neighbors if they had heard anything and if they knew their neighbors. “When I got to the second floor, I knocked on a door,” he said. The lady who answered said she knew her neighbor, and added, ‘I know he’s there because I heard his door slam just a while ago,’” Lamar went down the hall and knocked repeatedly on the door until a shirtless man opened it, yawning and stretching, saying he had been asleep.
Lamar noticed there were no wrinkled sheet marks on his body, and said, “I think you know something about this; and you can tell me now or you can tell me later, because we have fingerprints and photographs and once I figure this, out I’ll be back.”
By the time Lamar returned to his office, the man had already called. Lamar returned to the apartment. “He was giving me all these hypotheticals and I said, ‘Hey look, did you rob the bank? and he said, ‘Yeah I did.’”
Lamar told the man to gather up his clothes and the money, and they went back to the office where they wrote up the confession. In the midst of taking his statement, Lamar found discovered that the man couldn’t read, was a cocaine addict, and his pregnant wife was having a very tough pregnancy. “The guy said, ‘You can put me in jail, but somebody needs to be looking after my wife.”
Lamar agreed to allow the man to go home and told him he’d return in the morning to take him to his initial appearance before the judge. “But you better not make me look like a fool and not be there,” Lamar said.
Back at the office, Lamar told the other agents he had cracked the case. The agents wanted to arrest the man immediately, but Lamar told them he was working on something. “The next morning,” Lamar recalled, “I go to pick him up and he comes running out in a blazer, slacks, and his little briefcase. I hauled him down to the courthouse and recommended to the U.S. Attorney that they release him on his own recognizance, and that’s what they did.”
Lamar explained that in most cases bank robbers get between 8 and 25 years. “I recommended that he get drug treatment and that he learn to read, and if he can do that successfully, that he be put on probation. And that’s exactly what happened,” Lamar said. “His wife had the baby, and they named the baby after me. The following Thanksgiving they invited me to have dinner with them, and I politely declined. I told him I already had plans with my family.”
Chirs Eyre has a thing for pumpkin pie.
Food and family remain the constant, and for Pura Fé, a Tuscarora musician and singer with Ulali, Thanksgiving was the perfect time to show appreciation for her grandmother’s southern cooking of fried chicken, collard greens and sweet potato pie, for which friends and family came from near and far. But beyond the food, Pura Fé said, “Singing was a huge thing among the people down here, and we would sing in full harmony at every gathering! It was mostly family, which was pretty large, all my cousins, my grandparents, aunties and uncles, even friends and neighbors would stop by.”
Chris Eyre, the Cheyenne and Arapaho director of "Smoke Signals" and many other films, more than anything, remembers pie. “I wasn’t raised in a Native American home, so every Thanksgiving, we’d celebrate the holiday with a delicious meal. When I got older and finally understood the history and about Christopher Columbus it gave me ‘pause’ for a moment… before I exclaimed, ‘Can someone pass another slice of the pumpkin pie?’”