HOORAY FOR THANKSGIVING

Where did the year go?  I’m glad it’s Thanksgiving, though.  It’s my favorite holiday; a feast of food and a great family gathering.  No religion, just a lot of good eats and family togetherness.

We’re reminded regularly of the age-old Thanksgiving story.

Most classroom materials portray Native Americans at the historic first Thanksgiving as supporting players.  They are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic “Indians” who shared a meal with the bold and gallant pilgrims.

The real story is much deeper and far more nuanced.

  • The Indians in attendance were Wampanoag, a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own religious and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture.  They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.
  • The quintessential Thanksgiving feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes (foods we still enjoy today!) would not exist if not for the knowledge and ingenuity of the Wampanoag and other native people of the Americas.
  • And unlike the image of the first Thanksgiving as a friendly gathering of two diverse groups trying to understand each other’s cultures, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances and diplomacy.

It’s a much different story than the idyllic scene depicted in countless texts and tales, but it tells us so much more about the event, and helps us understand the significance of this gathering far beyond eating turkey on the fourth Thursday of November.

Unfortunately, for centuries, history books and popular culture have separated Native American history from “American History.”  Native people who helped shape our country are recognized today as little more than car model names and team mascots.

Blackhawk helicopters…cigar store Indians…Jeep Cherokee…Red Man Chewing Tobacco…the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins.  It seems Indians are everywhere in America.

But what do we really know about native people?  How much have you been told about Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Sitting Bull or any of the other important leadership figures in Native American history.

Chief Joseph, 1841-1904, Nez Perce Leader

A powerful orator and advocate for his people’s right to remain on their homelands in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, Chief Joseph is best known for leading his people on an epic four-month-long flight toward freedom through some of the most difficult terrain in the American West.  In 1877, Chief Joseph’s people were given 30 days’ notice to relocate to an Idaho reservation—an order that precipitated the Nez Perce War, in which Chief Joseph led 300 warriors and 500 women and children in a guerilla campaign that eluded pursuing U.S. troops over 1,300 miles.  Hungry, cold, and outnumbered, the New Perce surrendered, 40 miles shy of the Canadian border and freedom.  After being held prisoner in Kansas—where five of his children died of disease—Chief Joseph became a tireless and well-publicized champion for his people’s right to return to their homelands.  Chief Joseph was never allowed to return home.  He died in 1904 at the Colville Reservation, in Washington State.

Sitting Bull, 1831-1890, Hunkpapa Military, Religious, and Political Leader

Sitting Bull was a stalwart defender of his people’s lands and lifeways, which were threatened by the intrusion of white settlers and miners on treaty-guaranteed tribal territories, and by U.S. government efforts to concentrate Indians on reservations.  These violations provoked war in 1876, in which Sitting Bull and other war leaders masterminded the defeat of U.S. troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Faced by a massive U.S. military counteroffensive, Sitting Bull and his 4,000 followers fled to Canada, but returned in 1881.  After two years as a prisoner of war, Sitting Bull settled on the Standing Rock Reservation in present-day North Dakota, where he became a successful farmer, and later toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  Yet he remained a staunch critic of U.S. Indian policy, and became an apostle of the Ghost Dance—an Indian religious revival movement, which spooked white officials at the Standing Rock Reservation.  In 1890, Indian police stormed his cabin, sparking a bloody shootout in which Sitting Bull was killed.

Geronimo, 1829-1909, Apache Leader

A symbol of Native American resistance and warrior spirit, Geronimo acquired a reputation as a fearless fighter while wreaking vengeance on Mexican troops who had murdered his wife, children, and mother.  When U.S. miners, settlers, and soldiers intruded on Chiricahua Apache lands in Arizona, Geronimo and his people resisted the newcomers, rejected U.S. efforts to settle his people on reservations, and were denounced as murderous renegades by angry whites.  Hunted relentlessly by U.S. soldiers and Apache scouts, Geronimo was finally persuaded to surrender in 1886, and was shipped as a prisoner of war to internment camps in Florida, Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  In his later years, Geronimo converted to Christianity, sold autographed photos of himself, and rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.  Despite his notoriety, the old warrior was never allowed to return to his tribal homeland.  He died a prisoner of war at Fort Sill in 1909.  Geronimo’s legend as a warrior survived.  Today he is remembered as one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States.

The National Museum of the American Indian stands proudly as an active and visible part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex.  The flagship museum is located on the National Mall, just steps away from the U.S. Capitol.  Opened in 2004, this facility was imagined and constructed with extensive input from Native communities.

The National Museum of the American Indian tells this story—and much more.  Here people will learn…

  • How the worst pandemic in human history killed perhaps 90% of the indigenous population.
  • How Native societies developed a complex system of hand signals that foreshadowed modern sign language.
  • How Native gold, silver, land, and labor, made Europe rich and changed world history.
  • How many individuals today have Indian ancestry.
  • How Native people have not gone away. They are a large presence in our society and continue to influence and shape our shared story.
  • Most of all, the museum shows visitors that no matter what your personal background or heritage, Native history and culture has affected your life.

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