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Briggs: Storytellers weave their own Thanksgiving memories

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November is a busy month for Native American storytellers.

Schools, libraries and museums everywhere want storytellers to speak during the prelude or immediate aftermath of Thanksgiving. These gifted Native storytellers venture into classrooms of children dressed in paper feathers , into rooms decorated with images that bear little resemblance to what really happened. It’s this story, which separated from the Wampanoag, exaggerated and made idyllic, can give many Native peoples pause about this holiday.

In the modern world, Thanksgiving can be traumatic for any of us who struggle with family concerns or addiction issues. And the downturn in the economy, considered to be the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, may intensify feelings around the day after Thanksgiving, which has become the busiest shopping day of the year.

Maybe we all need a new narrative. Already, Congress, at the urging of Native organizations, designated the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day, a day to acknowledge living Native peoples, past and present.

But I wondered what traditions Native families are building now around Thanksgiving. I decided to ask three keepers of our oral traditions what Thanksgiving meant to them.

These gifted Native storytellers venture into classrooms of children dressed in paper feathers.

“There wasn’t any real connection for me with the Indians I read about on the east coast,” said Sunny Dooley, Navajo. “They were different from us. But I remember the Anglo kids at school would say you’re an Indian and I would say no I’m a Navajo.

“I felt responsible for identifying myself as not just Indian”
At home in her community on the Navajo reservation called Chi Chil’ Tah, Dooley’s family used the Navajo term Kishmish for Christmas. Thanksgiving is called Little Kishmish because it is a little less than Christmas. Mashed potatoes were called smashed potatoes, and turkey for the one day replaced mutton and deer meat. But these American holidays pale for her compared with the Navajo feasts throughout the year.

Now Dooley’s family tends to go to their respective in-laws for Thanksgiving. This year she will travel on Thanksgiving so she can be at the National Museum of the American Indian to tell Navajo stories on the first Native American Heritage Day.

Gayle Ross, Cherokee, remembers childhood Thanksgivings when her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-aunt would converge in her family’s Texas home. All skilled cooks trained in the finer points of Southern cuisine, the women would try to outdo each other in the kitchen as they raced to get everything hot on the table at precisely the appointed hour.

“It was like watching an intricate dance,” Ross said. “It had to be choreographed exactly so because one errant elbow could send a gravy boat flying.”

Looking back Ross thinks her mother and aunts took such pride in cooking Thanksgiving dinner because as girls during the Great Depression this kind of spread would be both luxurious and unimaginable.

“Mom would make three pies, one for the family, one for my brother and one for me,” said Edmo.

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Now living in the Texas hill country near Fredericksburg, Ross usually gathers her immediate family, single friends and others who are far from home around the Thanksgiving table.

But last year, the invitation to chaperone the Cherokee National Youth Choir at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turned that particular Thanksgiving into one of her favorites ever.

“When I was a child the experience of coming together around this meal that was the major focus,” Ross said. “What was so amazing last year was that all these Cherokee kids and their families came together around an amazing experience. We didn’t miss the fact that we didn’t make it about a meal.”

Ed Edmo, a Shoshone-Bannock storyteller from Portland, Ore., remembers that when he was young Thanksgiving was the one day that he and his brother knew they would eat their fill. Growing up on the Columbia River, the family often ran short of food.

“On our birthdays, my mom and dad couldn’t afford birthday cake, so mom would take us up to large, flat rock on the west side of the Dalles, and say, ‘God made your birthday cake.’” But on Thanksgiving, he said, “Mom would make three pies, one for the family, one for my brother and one for me.”

As an adult, Edmo said, “When I wake up sober and not underneath a bridge or in a drop-in center, that is Thanksgiving . Because I have a life and family, and hopefully food and water, that’s Thanksgiving.”

Edmo and his wife, Carol, have made their own family from Portland’s diverse urban Indian community. They’ve spent Thanksgiving at potlucks held by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups. At these, the Edmos find community among fellow sojourners. He imagines that they have found a Thanksgiving similar to what the first one might have been.

“It’s important that human beings help human beings,” Edmo said. “If we hadn’t helped the Pilgrims, they wouldn’t have survived. Indian people have always been sharing people.”

Kara Briggs, Yakama and Snohomish, is a columnist for Indian Country Today, and a longtime journalist. She lives at the Tulalip reservation in Washington State. Reach her by e-mail at