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Iron Shell: Wondering on Turkey Day

It's that time of the year again. No dread for the colonial post-traumatic stress syndrome that tends to kick in across 562 federally recognized Indian tribes this time of year. It starts out like a Vioxx-induced bad dream. I see Vice President Dick Cheney with his bird dogs looking for wild turkey in the tall Dakota grass that by treaty law still belongs to my ancestors. Secret Service and brownnosers in tow, Dick bags more birds than terrorists on this hunt for the fowl among us. I wonder why G-Dub is absent from my dream. I wonder if waterboarding the feathered ones is considered cruel and unusual punishment. About that time, the alarm clock sounds. No time for Indian time; the Thanksgiving holidaze is here and it's time to get my holiday hustle on!

American Indians are thankful for every breath, so this concept of celebrating the act of gratefulness 24 hours out of a year is somewhat baffling. From what I've learned through the lines of my black and white television, most Americans prepare for this holiday by scheduling airline tickets or contemplating the effects of a $100 oil barrel and a road trip on the family budget. I guess I could be grateful that my economic condition will never allow me to sit idle on an airport tarmac during any holiday season. My worries are to offer a festive meal for my children that won't cause us to go hungry five days before the next food stamp allocation.

'Tis the season to stand in line for compassion from others. The churches are a great resource for all the fixings. I notice this year there are more Caucasian families in line with us. The cynic would say white privilege isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's interesting to see that the democracy of poverty is open to all and standing in line gives people time to play out the gray areas of their own bias. ''What did they do wrong to stand in this line,'' we wonder about each other while avoiding eye contact. ''Are they the victims of predatory lending?'' Rumor has it that economic mobility - even among the privileged Caucasians - has shifted, but I wouldn't have believed it without it standing in line in front of me. It would be so wrong to tell them, if only in jest, to get to the back of the bus buddy, us colored folk have finally moved up front. Holiday spirit should remind us that we are all related by blood or oppression, and I shouldn't be so mean and intolerant.

I wonder how the world might interpret the American Indian Thanksgiving experience? Do they judge us by the disparities commentated on CNN during the Denver Columbus Day Parade? I think most Americans have been conditioned to think the American Indian should be grateful for saving the Pilgrims during their hard colonial days along our eastern shores. I sometimes wonder what conversations had to happen before the Indians made the decision to take pity and teach the Pilgrims how to live in a natural environment. I wonder if those discussions on immigration were as heated as they are in today's time and mind.

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Among the presidential candidates, whose community values would hold up to those held in the tribal governments and social systems of that time? During the first Thanksgiving, throughout the lands, there truly was zero tolerance of the domestic violence, elder abuse or spiritual terrorism of entire peoples we find too common in these contemporary times. When having the respect to acknowledge each life force around you is found to be that which keeps you alive on this planet, it can be a rude awakening for a guilty conscience, both in your heart and in your intellect. Realizing the frailties of humanity is an eye-opener, no matter how one is snapped into reality.

The young America could have learned a lot from the indigenous of this land had it worked past its fear and ignorance of the unknown. It caught a glimpse of true concepts of democracy and collective freedoms from the Iroquois Confederacy, which was created generations before the coming of the Mayflower. The colonists similarly drafted a pretty good U.S. Constitution from their interactions with the Natives. At some point in this process, the Indians went from friend to foe when the young America grew tired of the glitter of their friendship. The learning curve had almost stopped until Al Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize for telling the world an inconvenient truth that our Indian logic had been saying all along: Mother Earth is alive and needs to be treated with the same respect we give to our children's health.

There will be many diverse conversations around the old dinner table this holiday season. Some are common to all Americans. The soaring price of gas, sorting through the propaganda of the national political race, which toys will Santa deem safe for our children. There are similar discussions in the Native home but, too, we have some very different dialogue than other Americans. Who is the least ignorant presidential candidate when it comes to tribal issues? Will our warriors returning from Middle East battlefields fare any better than the other soldiers who have returned home? Why is candidate Stephen Colbert more appealing to us than Hillary and Barrack? But the ultimate question has not changed since that first Thanksgiving: Should we save the non-Indian from themselves?

Andrew Iron Shell serves as community organizer for the Western South Dakota Native American Organizing Project in Rapid City. He can be reached at