SAN DIEGO - "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" That's what I found myself asking in the days leading up to the American holiday, which took place Thursday. Two weeks in California, and you'd think that I had gone native. You'd think that like everyone else, I was inquiring as to whether the people I met were celebrating the holiday with grandmothers or aunts and uncles, or about how sweet the sweet potatoes would be or how the turkey (one of the 46 million slaughtered in honor of Thanksgiving ) would be stuffed.
But that wasn't what I was interested in. The people I was asking were the real natives - those whose ancestors were in the country before Columbus' arrival. To my surprise, the term "Native American" is not used more frequently than the baseless term "Indian" or "American Indian," which is often used by the people who fit those categories. "Me and some friends wondered one day about what we call ourselves," a college student from the Cherokee tribe, who is active in an intra-tribal organization, told me. 'Indigenous' sounds too academic, 'Native American' is too long. So we might as well be 'Indian,' since this erroneous terminology in itself tells part of the story - but it is also true that when a white person uses the term, it can sound offensive to us." Smiling, he told me that on some reservations he has seen the erroneous term "Indian" spelled "NDN," as a form of correction.
There are more Native American reservations in the country that encompasses San Diego - 17, though they are small and sparsely populated - than in any other comparable county in the United States.
Of the 20,000 or so Native Americans who live in the area, no more than 4,000 are registered as permanent residents of the district. That didn't bother me. The invitation to lecture here served as an opportunity to begin, at last, to carry out an old plan: dedicating each visit to the United States to the study of the Native American reality - to learn from conversations and meetings, not just from books. Questions multiply during each conversation. And each article I will write about is merely an introduction.
And so I found myself asking again and again: "So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?" As it turned out, the question broke the ice. Briefly, the official story about the origins of Thanksgiving goes like this: Some time between September and November of 1621, the British settlers of Plymouth Colony in today's Massachusetts celebrated the bounty of the first harvest. In fact, they celebrated their own survival, since half the passengers on the Mayflower died. (A laconic sentence in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., discloses that at the site where Plymouth Colony was established, a Native American village was erased; most of its inhabitants died of disease ). Members of the local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, took part in the festive dinner. Squanto, a member of the tribe who spoke English since he had been taken into slavery in Europe, taught the Pilgrims, as the settlers are called in books, how to take what Mother Earth offers - how to cultivate the crops that suit it best and how to fish.
Children are raised on illustrations of an idyll that spills over the page: Native Americans with feathers share a meal with their neighbors. The day on which the holiday was celebrated changed several times, until Congress determined in 1941 that the national holiday would be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
"It should be called 'Thankstaking,'" the young Cherokee replied in answer to my question.
Persie Hooper, a member of the Shoshone tribe who teaches Native American literature in San Diego and is originally from Nevada, had a rather different response.
"On Thursday morning I pray," said Hooper. The moment she heard the question she smiled, looked at me curiously as though she had just noticed me for the first time, and explained: "I thank God for our survival. We always recall that nine out of 10 members of the nations who were here before colonialism died of diseases carried by the white man, and of wars and genocide."
Several times she has complained to the administration of the elementary school in which her daughter studies about the hurtful habit of children dressing as Native Americans, including a feather headdress, during the Thanksgiving season.
"We receive a feather to honor an important accomplishment," she said. "I received one when I completed my BA studies. For us, eagle feathers are sacred, not a game. The eagle is a bird that comes closest to the creator. What would they say were I to color a cross or deface a Bible?"
Since I asked about the holiday, my interlocutors sent me links to several websites that provide other facts, which are not mentioned in the official version of the holiday. The sites quote William Newell, an anthropologist and a member of the Penobscot tribe, who says the source of Thanksgiving is a ceremony of thanks staged in 1637 to mark the settlers' victory over the Pequot tribe in today's Connecticut. According to this version, the settlers raided the tribe at a time when it was celebrating a corn harvest, killing between 400 and 700 members of the tribe, mostly women and children.
Some who hang out their dirty laundry in public add that members of other Native American tribes also took part in this lethal raid on the Pequot. Some say this raid was preceded by Native American acts of resistance. According to Newell, the churches - or the governor, in other versions - declared an official day of thanks, to celebrate the victory. The same thing was done by other towns in New England, which celebrated their own triumphs over Native Americans. Thus, these sites argue, the thanks was being given not just for food but also for a victorious massacre.
"For me, this is a sad day," the Cherokee college student said.
Nonetheless, Hooper and her family do convene for a meal on Thanksgiving, in keeping with the custom of millions of Americans. Even on reservations, I am told, people gather for a special meal prepared by a mother or grandmother.
Another Native American, a member of the Kumeyaay, one of San Diego's first nations, told me she was not angry with the invader or saddened by her tribe's history on Thanksgiving - at least not more than she is on any other day of the year.
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