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Thanksgiving and the Relentless Indian Will to Survive

What does Thanksgiving mean to Native Americans, and how do Natives celebrate the colonial holiday?

It was earlier this month during a snowstorm that I stumbled upon an interesting tidbit of American history—the kind you’d hope would make it into inner city high school textbooks, but somehow gets omitted like so many other things.

I need to read, I thought. I had been glued to the boob tube for most of that afternoon listening to Kim Kardashian’s mother—Kris Jenner—back pedal from her Indian-giver gaffe. I felt like my brain cells were burning out one by one like stars among the cosmos, so I shut the TV off, grabbed a research article I found online and began reading about the first newspaper in North America.

According to the article, published in the Howard Journal of Communications, the first news story to run in America’s inaugural publication was about Native Americans and the “observance of a day of Thanksgiving.”

The second story was about two white boys gone missing, thought to be taken by the “barbarous Indians.”

Ye Gods! I thought. Talk about sending mixed signals!

The article got me pondering about Thanksgiving and its place in Indian Country. Not much has been written on the subject, so it makes sense that I’m often asked, “Do Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

Answer: If they can afford it.

Personally, I don’t partake in the November feast. Not anymore, anyway. There’s just something innately gluttonous about Thanksgiving, and gluttony any day of the year is bad times, indeed.

This morning I received an e-mail from a local elder inviting everyone in the community to a “Thanks-Taking” sweat in defiance of the colonial holiday.

“… So if you are not cooking for family dinner that morning or have other colonialist plans,” read the message, “come pray with us.”

That’s what I’ll be doing, folks. Praying with my elders at an inipi in the northern plains of Colorado. That’s my kind of Thanksgiving, bub. No turkey. No stuffing—just sage, the pipe and our prayers.

And speaking of ceremonies, James Arthur Ray is gone now, at least for the next two years, so take that as a lesson, kids, not to partake in sweat ceremonies that cost $10,000 at the door.

I grabbed more research articles and locked myself in my room. The snow continued to blanket the city, and I rarely ever venture out onto snow-packed streets. I never learned how to negotiate hairpin turns on black ice with bald tires, so best to stay in, I thought, do more reading.

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I even printed off an old New York Times article about the fire hazards of deep-fried turkey.

I recall one year witnessing a yutz on the east side of town slam-dunk a frozen bird into hot oil. There went the block, and his eyebrows. Needless to say, that family stuck to ham that year.

But let us get back to Thanksgiving and whether or not American Indians celebrate the colonial, settler holiday. Frankly, I know many Native families that do, but I also know oodles that don’t.

For some it’s a political thing; for others it’s a money thing. Still, at the end of the day I know more Indians that don’t (or can’t) celebrate Thanksgiving than I do Indians who gorge on 20-pound turkeys.

I recall one year as boy while living in Downey, California, my fourth grade teacher cast me as the Indian in the school’s Thanksgiving play. I was made to wear a cheap, paper-mâché headdress and paint my face with leftover Halloween makeup.

Maybe that’s why I get ugly vibrations during Thanksgiving. That cheap headdress traumatized me so much that now I can’t walk into a Hobby Lobby without curling in the fetal position at the sight of the arts and crafts aisle.

I called my Mom yesterday and told her that I’ll be at the inipi Thanksgiving morning with a few elders, but that I’ll be over right after for fry bread.

“OK,” she said, “bring some honey.”

“Heavens!” I said. “What’s fry bread without honey?”

I bought another book recently to feed my reading addiction. Let’s face it, there are worse addictions to have … like fry bread.

The book is James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Chapter 3 covers Thanksgiving and the false realities surrounding the national holiday. For example, Loewen reveals that it was in fact Abraham Lincoln, not George Washington, that set forth a day of Thanksgiving to prompt patriotism throughout the union.

I did not know this. I’m convinced high school history textbooks are black and white. I’m still not sure which water fountains Indians were made to drink from in the ‘60s.

Oh well. I’m not a complete Grinch, as it were. And to prove it, I’ll say this: This Thanksgiving I am grateful for my people, for our youth and that relentless Indian will to survive. Hoka.

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is a freelance writer and political science graduate from the University of Colorado Denver.