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The True Story of Thanksgiving

The real story of that first Thanksgiving although filled with happiness for the Pilgrims was actually a very difficult time for Indian communities.  Many Nations on the eastern seaboard were devastated by diseases such as smallpox and many villages were now uninhabited and the former inhabitants extinct.   Here is a part of the story that is rarely told in America today.

One day in 1605, a young Patuxet Indian boy named Tisquantum and his dog were out hunting when they spotted a large English merchant ship off of the coast of Plymouth, Mass.  Tisquantum, who later became known as Squanto, had no idea that life as he knew it was about to change forever.

His role in helping the Pilgrims to survive the harsh New England winter and celebrate the painting of the first thanksgiving“first” Thanksgiving has been much storied as a legend of happy endings, with the English and the Indians coming together at the same table in racial harmony.  Few Americans, however, know the story of Squanto’s sad life and the demise of his tribe as a result of its interaction with the Europeans.

This year as we sit down to celebrate that First Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims we should also tell the story of Squanto and the fate of the Patuxet tribe.

Squanto’s fateful journey to infamy begins the day that Capt. George Weymouth who was anchored off the coast of Massachusetts, Weymouth and his sailors captured Squanto and four other tribesmen and took them back to England as slaves because Weymouth thought his financial backers “might like to see” some Indians.  Squanto was taken to live with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, owner of the Plymouth Company.  Gorges quickly saw Squanto’s value to his company’s exploits in the new world and taught his young charge to speak English so that his captains could negotiate trade deals with the Indians.

In 1614, Squanto was brought back to America to act as a guide and interpreter to assist in the mapping of the New England coast, but was kidnapped along with 27 other Indians and taken to Malaga, Spain, to be sold as slaves for about $25 a piece.  When local priests learned of the fate of the Indian, they took them from the slave traders, Christianized them and eventually sent them back to America in 1618.

But his return home was short-lived.  Squanto was recognized by one of Gorges’ captains,silhouette of a native american in front of a sunset was captured a third time and sent back to England as Gorges’ slave.  He was later sent back to New England with Thomas Dermer to finish mapping the coast, after which he was promised his freedom.  In 1619, however, upon returning to his homeland, Squanto learned that his entire tribe had been wiped out by smallpox contracted from the Europeans two years before.  He was the last surviving member of his tribe.

In November 1620, the Pilgrims made their now-famous voyage to the coast of Plymouth, which had previously been the center of Patuxet culture.  The next year, on March 22, 1621, Squanto was sent to negotiate a peace treaty between the Wampanoag Confederation of tribes and the Pilgrims.  We also know that Squanto’s skills as a fisherman and farmer were crucial to the survival of the Pilgrims that first year – contributions which changed history.

But in November 1622, Squanto himself would succumb to smallpox during a trading expedition to the Massachusetts Indians.  The Patuxet, like so many other tribes, had become extinct.  The lesson of Squanto and the Pilgrims is not one of bitter remembrance, but rather a celebration of the generosity of Indian people.  Under the guidance of Squanto, the Pilgrims followed a longstanding Indian tradition of offering thanks.  Although we celebrate Thanksgiving as an “American” holiday, its beginnings are Native to the core.

Feasts of gratitude and giving thanks have been a part of Indian culture for thousands of years in Lakota culture, it’s called a Wopila; in Navajo, it’s Hozhoni; in Cherokee, it’s Selu i-tse-i; and in Ho Chunk it’s Wicawas warocu sto waroc.  Each tribe, each Indian nation, has its own form of Thanksgiving.  But for Indian culture, Thanksgiving doesn’t end when the dishes are put away.  It is something we celebrate all year long – at the birth of a baby, a safe journey, a new home.

illustration of a horn of plentySo when you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, remember Squanto and the great sacrifices made by him and his tribe to a people they didn’t know.  That is the legacy of the Indian people of New England – one that we can all enjoy.

It is easy to forget (historical amnesia) about the earliest years of our country.  Yes, there was conflict but there was also mutually beneficial relationships that helped build the foundation of this country.  Thanksgiving Day is one of those special times.

Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) is a passionate and committed advocate and fierce champion of Native education in the United States. From 1997-2012, he served as president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, a national non-profit scholarship fundraising organization for American Indian students attending tribal colleges and universities which provide culturally based education and are run by the tribes. He presently serves as Indigenous Peoples Programs Consultant for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Paper Headbands

closeup of blanket with the words native american heritage month overlayedAmerican novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin probably stated it best in the 1989 documentary The Price of the Ticket, when he said,

“It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover the country, which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your
identity, has not in its whole system of reality involved any place for you.”

When contemplating American Indians in America we soon realize that to many Americans, American Indian History month is American Indians only reality.  In fact that reality might be best offered up by anti-racist activist Tim Wise, in his book “White Like Me” when he described that to many, three tepeesappreciation of other cultures is reserved to “food, fabric and festivals,” with nary a consideration for the socio-political views or the social economic realities these others face.

I’ve shared in writing and speeches on a number of occasions that it seems that I begin each year by having to approach the school’s principal and teachers and educate them about Indians, dispel myths, and fight against the stereotypes they bring to the classroom. And the good news is, this almost always leads to the opportunity to go to my daughters’ classrooms and chat with their classmates about Indians.  And for my daughters, this is an important part in them taking pride in their heritage.

Some years are better than others.  For example, three years ago, after similar conversations, I still had to specifically ask the principle to remove the goofy Indian caricatures from the entry bulletin board.  The past couple of years, however, I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised, so the persistence must be paying off.  In fact, I would love to give a special acknowledgement to Jim Heacocks, the principal at my daughters’ school, who last year sent the following to his staff:

Please be sensitive to cultural stereotypes of all of our students at Central.  For the obvious reason that half of our students are of Hispanic/Latino ancestry, we are usually very aware of avoiding stereotypes of the Hispanic culture.  However, we do have other cultures at Central:  Chinese, African American, and Native American, to name a few.  At this time of old photograph of native americans on horsebackyear, we can slip into stereotypes around Thanksgiving, i.e., the Pilgrims and the Indians.

We have Native American families who are very sensitive of cultural stereotypes and we need to ensure we do not propagate those stereotypes.  One of the practices to avoid is presenting sacred activities in trivial ways.  A popular activity (I saw some on students’ heads at the end of the day today…) is making headbands with feathers. In some Native American tribes feathers are highly religious articles and the aforementioned activity is highly offensive and disrespectful.

I have some resources and information that can help us become more aware of the Native American culture and stereotypes to avoid.

This is just a reminder that we need to be aware of how other cultures may take offense at something that we see as perfectly innocent.

FIRST NATIONS DEVELOPMENT INSTITUTE LOGOAs I have written about before, here at First Nations we spend a fair amount of our time and energy building programs and opportunities for the next generation of culturally competent leaders.  I, and most Indian parents, spend and equal if not greater amount of energy doing so at home.  We send our kids to school, with the hope that they will survive these attempts at cultural indoctrination.  And while we may do so with less fear for their physical well-being than our grandparents had when sending their children off to the horrors of Indian boarding schools, our fear for their self-worth and self-esteem is just as great.

So as much time as I spend railing about what is not going right, let me take the time and acknowledge when it does.  It is so refreshing to have a school leader like Mr. Heacocks, and for his work in making my daughters school an okay place to be Indian – Gunalchéesh (Thank you).
Here are a couple of things that you can do to help:

1) drop off, at you kids or grandkids school, a copy of Rethinking Columbus, edited Bill Bigelow and Bob Patterson; and

2) assist school libraries find books that portray Indians as living, thriving cultures, not as victims of history.  The American Library Association and the Office of Literacy and Outreach Services compiled a Selective Bibliography and Guide for “I” is Not for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People.  Print this off the web and deliver it to the principal and the school librarian.

It’s November – Time to Learn about the Indigenous Peoples of the US!

closeup of blanket with the words native american heritage month overlayed
In November each year, people become interested in American Indians.  It originally had to do with – and still does to some extent – the fact that Thanksgiving happens in November.  However since 1990, there has been a joint resolution by Congress, approved by the President, proclaiming November to be Native American (or American Indian and Alaska Native) Heritage Month.    So people – typically teachers – become very interested in the Native peoples of the U.S. in November.   Native people and organizations are asked if they can help educate their students, members, or employees and are happy to do it.  It’s a benefit to Native peoples to have others know more than what they were taught in their high school history class or scouts lessons.old photograph of a native american wearing a headdress

Well, if you are interested in learning more about Native peoples in November or all year long, here are some ideas in case you don’t know where to start.  If you are able to visit with Native peoples, preferably in their own communities, that is the place to start.  If you cannot do that, then you can always read books.  I have many favorites but thought I would share just a few recommendations:

  • If you just want the facts then I would start with “Tribal Nations and the United States: A Brief Introduction.”  It is about 45 pages filled with rich infographics and beautiful photographs and much content for you to read and learn.  There is a web version you can view and also a PDF to download if you want to share with others.
  • Anything written by Vine Deloria, Jr. is more than worthwhile. If you don’t know who he is, that is where you start – do a Google search to learn more about him.  He was a writer, activist, theologian, historian, lawyer, and teacher.  I think his best book to start would be his 1969 “Custer Died for Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto.”   In it, he breaks down stereotypes and destroys myths about Native peoples as it captures the story of growing Native power and activist efforts.
  • Like a Hurricane” by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior covers similar ground as Deloria in “Custer Died for Your Sins” in terms of the activist movements in Indian Country but it extends beyond 1970 into critical events that shaped where
    we are today.
  • If you want to learn about an earlier history, then Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West,” is definitely worth reading. It was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1970 and two chapters were later adapted for an HBO film in 2007.
  • Finally, here are just two recommendations for works of fiction. Michael Dorris’ debut novel and dubbed his best, “Yellow Raft in Blue Water” is the story of three generations of strong Native women set primarily in Montana.  And just for fun, I recommend “The Indians Won” by Martin Cruz Smith as an alternate view of history.  It is out of print but available on Amazon.

Now that I’ve written this piece, it has made me hungry to re-read some of my favorites soman standing next to a painted horse as I head on vacation I’m taking one or two with me.  Enjoy learning!


Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month and we will use this space to reflect on the United Tribes Technical College Spring Graduation on May 8, 2015Foundation’s mission to Indigenous Peoples. Later in the month, we will publish pieces from Sherry Salway-Black, who has been a member of our Board since 2006, and from Rick Williams, Foundation Consultant on programs serving Indigenous Peoples.

The Johnson Scholarship Foundation has been investing in Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada for 25 years and has granted about $20 million towards that end. Currently, grants in support of Indigenous Peoples total $1.5 million per year. The Foundation’s strategy is to assist economic development through business and entrepreneurship education.

One of the Foundation’s programs is the Entrepreneurship Scholarship, created in 1995. Itjewel honga, nau student provides scholarship assistance for students pursuing business or entrepreneurship education. The theory is that the trickle-down effect of this will contribute to business and economic development on Indian reservations.

The Scholarship program has been expanded to serve Indigenous students at institutions other than tribal colleges. Several of our tribal college partners, with our help, have been able to build endowments.

The College of Menominee Nation, Oglala Lakota College and Salish Kootenai College, for example, have built substantial endowments which will fund scholarships to business and entrepreneurship students in perpetuity. They no longer need Foundation grants for this purpose. The Foundation has also worked with A*CF to build an endowed fund to provide scholarships to business and entrepreneurship students at any tribal college.

The Entrepreneurship Scholarship Program has helped over a thousand students graduate from tribal colleges and universities.

Another Foundation program is the country’s only MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurshipgroup photo of people wearing graduation gown and caps. This was created in 2001 and was intended to support tribal college faculty in their delivery of the Entrepreneurship Scholarship program. It was designed to
be taken at distance during the traditional academic year and on campus in the summer. This would allow faculty to continue teaching, while obtaining the MBA.

The MBA was funded by the Foundation but developed and delivered by Gonzaga University.  The Foundation interviewed several candidates and chose Gonzaga, mainly because Gonzaga really wanted it. Gonzaga’s original mission was to serve American Indians and this was an opportunity to honor that history. Gonzaga also has a highly ranked MBA program and that helped tip the balance.

Gonzaga’s MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship has produced 59 graduates and is still going strong.  In 2013 First Nations Development Institute conducted a
comprehensive evaluation of the program and found that most of its graduates had returned to their respective communities and participated in virtually every aspect of life there. As of 2013, sixteen of the program’s graduates were managing their own businesses, one was a tribal college president and others were in senior positions in woman posed with graduates wearing graduation caps and gownstribal and federal governments, colleges and business. In 2014 the Foundation and Gonzaga University entered into an agreement to endow the MBA program with a $2 million fund, which will provide permanent scholarship support for students in this program.
MBA-AIE graduates have traveled and expanded the path for students coming behind them. They act as mentors and role models for Indigenous students, particularly those from 4 year tribal college degree programs, who can pursue the MBA-AIE and continue to live in their community.

Economic growth through education is a long term proposition. There is no quick fix. Development comes from within the community and it takes time. That said, economic growth in Indian Country is increasing. In 2005, the Harvard Project on American Economic Development found in its study of socioeconomic change between the 1990 and 2000 census that “The growth in reservation residents’ per capita income was approximately three times the growth experienced by the average U.S. citizen” (Taylor and Kalt, ix).

The Foundation will continue to invest in the Entrepreneurship Scholarship, the MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship and in other programs that contribute to economic development in Indian County. We will, in the words of Joseph Marshall III, “Keep Going.”