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Native Resurgence Spurs Hope


A few days ago my 4th grade daughter came home with a 20 question “Thanksgiving Quiz” very disappointed at her failing grade. We looked it over and noticed not one question about Indians, a topic she knows well. But I quickly noticed that there were two questions about football. “How many football games are played between Thursday and Sunday? And “What pro football team always plays on Thanksgiving?” At a loss, she had kept both blank and was marked wrong.

There are, in fact, two Thanksgivings in rough torn opposition, I told her. There is first the U.S. imperial tradition in which American Indian history is swept under the banquet table so that the feasts of turkey, football and shopping can be thoroughly enjoyed. All three are tied, fittingly, to accumulation and war. This year brings news that K-Mart and other top retailers opened on Thanksgiving Day itself. Meanwhile Walmart, Target and other top retailers are going for the “holiday jugular” in their competition for consumers, encouraging folks to preview websites on Thanksgiving Day to prepare for the Black Friday siege.

The other Thanksgiving is being born in the Indian resurgence of the last forty years, culminating in some dramatic leaps in the 21st century. In 2004 the ($100 million) National Museum of the American Indian opened along Smithsonian row just across from the Capital, Their main message is not “we seek justice, ” but “we are still here.” The Museum should be required for all visitors to DC.

We also discussed the fact that President Bush pardoned two turkeys this Thanksgiving season, sparing their lives. This had also been mentioned in school. Then we talked about the power of pardons and how it relates to Thanksgiving. I pointed out that the President didn’t pardon Leonard Peltier, the American Indian political prisoner unjustly jailed for 30 years now.

Thanksgiving is a fitting day to pardon Peltier since American Indians are – or should be -what Thanksgiving is largely about. In the celebrated European tale the Wampanoag Indians rescued the starving Pilgrims with their friendship and bounty leading up to a glorious feast in 1621. We learn that the Pilgrims gave hearty thanks to the Indians at this very First Thanksgiving in North American history. To commemorate the ritual our children are encouraged to wear paper brown bag costumes and feathers in school plays celebrating this poignant affair of brotherhood.

But, like the substitution of football for American Indians, there is no mention in the official tale-become-myth that just 16 years later the Pilgrims returned the gesture by massacring hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children at Mystic, Connecticut. John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Governor, announced a thanksgiving in celebration of the slaughter.
Like the Pequot massacre, Peltier is unmentionable.

America prefers Tonto-esqu “good Indians” located in the far off past where Indian rebellion can be ideologically managed. Real Indians with real culture and real grievances are generally taboo.

The Smithsonian Museum counters this though several creative multimedia exhibits and artistic displays, illustrating how hundreds of thousands of American Indians are actively reclaiming their identities. One of my favorites is “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities” which shows how residents of eight Native communities – from the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians (California, USA), to the Pamunkey Tribe (Virginia, USA) – live in the 21st century. Visitors hear their stories and come to understand the difficult choices American Indians make daily in order to survive economically, preserve their languages and traditional arts.

But the Smithsonian messages are remarkably modest as anthropologist Jack Weatherford underscores in his important book, “Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the world.” Weatherford goes far beyond common sense to demonstrate that indeed, “the Indians gave us three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation.” These crops range from potatoes (associated with dramatic power shifts after its adoption in Europe), the peanut, squash, beans (string, butter, lima, navy etc.) and chocolate. In the dominant consciousness corn is usually relegated to a few ears of disfigured, multi-colored “Indian Corn” not the raging agricultural empires of Archer Daniels Midland, a transnational that has not given anything back to the Indians.

A visit to the Smithsonian museum this summer revealed some severe cognitive dissonance with this kind of knowledge. I overheard a lunchtime conversation from a visiting family in which the children said they wanted to eat at the Indian museum which hosts a spectacular cafeteria with 100% American Indian foods. An elderly man in the group, probably the father, announced, “No way am I eating here, I want to eat real Amercian food!” and then led the group outside to Union station where they, no doubt, ate Indian food.

Weatherford shows how the U.S. Constitution borrowed heavily from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, with 500 year old established ideas and practices related to the federal system, the separation of powers, how to accept new member states, the importance of letting one person speak at a time (unlike the British) and impeachment. In many ways the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee.

is superior to the U.S. Constitution. There is a provision for example, endorsed by Franklin, where warriors had a say in electing the chiefs who put them to war. Weatherford calls his chapter “The Founding Indian Fathers,” the sort of courageous language that the Smithsonian curators have not broached, sitting as they do a stones throw from world power.
Weatherford also has much to say about Zapatistas and others who “gave the world generation after generation of revolutionary inspiration.” The ongoing rebellions in Chiapas continue this example.

Today 2.4 million U.S. citizens claim Indian heritage as of the 2000 census, up significantly from 1990. There is a dramatic growth of Indian Law programs, Indians Studies programs, a regeneration of Tribal Colleges, and an all out effort in the fight for sovereignty.

In public education some teachers are increasingly action confronting the distortions. The AP’s Ana Beatriz Cholo reports that when San Francisco teacher Bill Morgan enters his third grade class wearing a black Pilgrim hat made of construction paper he begins snatching up pencils, backpacks and glue sticks from his pupils, telling them that the items now belong to him because he “discovered” them. The kids protest and want their things back.

There is resistance from some quarters. “It’s an uphill battle,” he said.
Make no mistake, the pressure of neoliberal capital is incessant. A terrific 2005 award winning film “Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action,” captures this dialectic well. It documents one of the least known but most important human rights stories today: nearly all 317 American Indian Reservations in the US face environmental threats from the Bush administration — toxic waste, strip mining, oil drilling and nuclear contamination. The film profiles four instances of how First nations are fighting back, and sometimes winning, if only until the next wave of right wing battles. The film is beautiful to look at showing spectacular backdrops from Alaska to Maine to Montana to New Mexico, at the same time it is a call to action showing how grassroots organizing and environmental lawyers can help in the fight. Winona LaDuke gives important insights in the work.

There is a historic thread leading from Peltier to the Homeland film to the new Smithsonian museum. Peltier stood with the American Indian Movement when AIM and similar groups helped reassert Indian pride using many of the strategies and tactics of the Black Panthers. They took over Alcatraz, Wounded Knee and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to draw attention to their plight. Peltier is part of the movement that the popular t-shirt announces is “Defending the Homeland since 1492.”

The essence of the struggle is that the Europeans and U.S. colonized these lands through genocide, slaughter and deception. It was, theoretically speaking, part of the primitive accumulation of capital in which the Europeans played the part of the primitives. In Algeria the indigenous people kicked out the French and in Southeast Asia the Vietnamese turned back the French and Americans. But where does the U.S. government go if the Native Americans (dwellers here for at least 10,000 years) remove them from its soil? The issue raises too many uncomfortable questions. And thanks to the Indian resurgence, these questions are increasingly being asked.

But they are not often asked on Thanksgiving where it is most appropriate. The dominant Thanksgiving is instead a prolonged ritual enactment that works to help reassure Americans that our country was founded on good will and cooperation between two equal peoples. It’s a fetishized (false) harmony that suppresses much of the essential truths about Indians and about capitalist culture, in general. In this version the ritual also works as a relief valve, a celebration of the ideal of family togetherness in a world of job insecurity, suffering and broken families.

In Native American culture, every day is Thanksgiving and in fact, harvest celebrations (i.e. thanksgivings) go back thousands of years. But with European colonization many of them, like the Creek’s Green Corn Festival were forced to go underground. This is all part of the hidden history of thanksgiving.

The truth is, the two alternate narratives are not reconcilable.
Do we pay homage to good dead Indians or honestly reckon with the redress of grievances of millions of native peoples before our own eyes?
Do we thank the Indians for helping out a few puritans or thank them for helping to give us our culture at large?

BRIAN McKENNA can be reached at:




Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at

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