I’m tempted, as usual this time of year, to write about the underlying story that is never told around the groaning Thanksgiving table surrounded by family and friends. Fortunately this year, Joanne Barker has already done a good job in her Truthout article:
“Thanksgiving has nothing to do with Native American and Indigenous people. Its purpose is to serve the capitalism of empire.”
If I did write about the legacy of the first Thanksgiving, I’d have to write about my memories of living in Indian Country in western Nebraska and South Dakota, on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
There was little outright segregation against our indigenous brothers and sisters in 60s Nebraska. Several of my classmates’ families were from Pine Ridge, the Horse family, the Robedeauxs, the Man Afraids. I think there was awareness of their ethnic origins, but, at least among the friends I circled with, their was no animosity or negative feelings that I recall. Of course, I sort of floated through those innocent days, unaware of much of the turmoil around me.
Yes, there were those who came into town with their GI cheese and peanut butter and traded them at the bar near the railroad tracks for cheap booze. And there were those who found shelter, food and someone else’s religion at the mission across from the bar.
And then there were those families I met on the Pine Ridge Reservation as I worked with folks from the local history museum buying furs and regalia for the collections. The old men would call me over to sit in the sun and talk to me, for as long as I would sit there, about the old ways and the return of the buffalo and the swan.
After I graduated from college and suffered through eight weeks of a mercifully short military experience, I worked as a photographer in northwestern Nebraska. One of my stops on the school packet circuit was Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where I photographed school kids from the first to the twelfth grades for the grand American tradition of school packet pictures and annual photographs. Just like the white folks 25 miles south, the kids from Pine Ridge lined up for the obligatory photographic experience.
I remember noticing that the kids up through junior high were just like kids everywhere, shy, giggling, playful, responsive… normal school kids.
Somewhere between junior high and high school that all changed. The high school kids were withdrawn, sullen, quiet, taciturn. They wouldn’t look me in the eye, wouldn’t respond to a smile and an affable demeanor, the tools of the children’s photography trade. They walked in, sat down, barely looked up, and after the flashes and the meaningless encouragement, they shambled out, head down, back to their real world.
I think in that transition between childhood and incipient adulthood, their plight had finally sunk in. They understood their Thanksgiving legacy. They had discovered what they had lost. They figured out the shallowness of their future.
It’s true that some of them persevered and found a place for themselves in the usurper society. Some others found their place in what was left of their traditional society and did well for themselves and their families.
But in so many of those children, the lights went out, never to be reignited.
It’s hard to ignore those memories of the other side of Thanksgiving.
Maybe we shouldn’t forget.