COMMENTARY: The irony of Thanksgiving

by Nov 18, 2019OPINIONS





I think it is a little ironic that Native American Heritage Month is the same month as Thanksgiving. For many Native Americans, the day is a reminder of pain, starvation, disease, forced removals, and marches, costing too many lives. It is a reminder of lies and treaties broken. A reminder that, early in European-American history, Native hospitality was ultimately answered with a display of greed and violence.

There are still many suffering from poverty and disease on reservations created all those many years ago. There are also many, both Native and non-Native, who say we should put the past away and move on with our lives. There have been memorials erected and ceremonies of apology from government officials and dignitaries around the country in efforts to “put the past to bed”. There is a range of feelings from “they can never be forgiven” to “what’s done is done”.

The federal government tried to make amends to the Native Nations by giving a form of autonomy to us, calling us independent nations but making a caveat that says we can only govern ourselves within the bounds of federal law. Natives in American maintain dual citizenship. We are “given” the right of citizenship based on federal rolls and the blood quanta derived from those rolls. We, as citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, know that there are many and complex valuations that the community uses to determine acceptance as an Eastern Band member – language, personal history, cultural knowledge, and application. Yes, technically, legally, you are Cherokee if you make the connection of blood relation via the Baker Roll. But, go out in the community, and listen to the criteria comments within the family of Cherokee people. You will hear, “if you don’t know the language, you can’t be Cherokee”; “he or she didn’t grow up here, and now they are coming back, acting like they are Cherokee”; “he or she says they are Cherokee, but they don’t even know the history of our people”. We even have our race terms for those we disdain for being of mixed blood like “white Indian” or “coconut.”

We, as Cherokee people, battled the reality of forced integration into the immigrant culture. The settlers tried to remove the signs of Native and to them, savage, culture from our existence, and theirs. They tried to change what we wore, banned us from using the Native language, even changed what and how we ate.

Reservations were situated on land that the federal government deemed not fit for economic development or other mainstream societal use. In the beginning, they were typically in remote areas away from travel routes and commercial hubs. In most cases, original Indian reservation land was either poor soil for growing and too mountainous for building. If gold or other precious commodities were discovered on Indian land, the government confiscated and found a reason to relocate tribes. We, at the Eastern Band, still today fight the battles of being out of the mainstream as far as commerce is concerned. Before getting federal permission to build a casino and since, other economic development opportunities have been sparse because we aren’t near large pools of workforce and we are not on the route of large distribution hubs.

And as much as many of us have stood against assimilation into American culture, it is almost an impossible task. We enjoy the modern convenience of going to McDonald’s or Ruth’s Chris. We won’t search the woods for something we can ride by Walmart to pick up. And the medicine we rely on is in a modern hospital or picked up at the pharmacy. If we don’t carry the most current version of the iPhone, then our other Indian friends look down on us. It is like we continue to struggle against assimilation, but we don’t mind a little integration. Many of us base our assessment of the quality of life by our bank accounts and the availability of services.

Native peoples, notably Eastern Band of Cherokee, are family people. When we talk about blood relations, in addition to mom’s, dad’s, siblings, and cousins, we include the brothers and sisters in our community. As Hank Williams Jr. sang, taking care of our own is a “family tradition”. It is genuinely a Cherokee family value to care for each other. And yet, we will fight each other tooth and nail. While it is true that many families have disputes from time to time, most families do not make public displays of our battles and certainly don’t do so in front of cameras connecting us to homes and a population that might include the entire world. Our community has witnessed precisely that. We perpetrate brutal attacks on each other, many ending with the words, “but I say all of this in love”. Doing this reminds me of someone who might physically, brutally assault another person, and after the violence, reaches in his pocket, pulls out a Band-Aid, hands it to the battered one, and says, “I care about you, brother.” By and large, we are a caring people, but it only takes one bad act to change our reputations from excellent to very bad in the eyes of our brothers.

Despite the fact of the negative connotations that the Thanksgiving holiday bring for many Native Americans, it is not a bad thing to have a designated time to reflect on the good things that we enjoy and give thanks for the people and things in life that make it better. We just had a considerable remembrance month. In October, among other prompts of remembrance, we had Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Dental Hygiene Awareness Month. All worthy items to be brought to our attention and to emphasize. But the fact that we have these prompts tells us that we don’t give these causes the attention through the year, every day, that we should. I feel that we are the same when it comes to thankfulness. Even when we focus on the negative, we may be thankful for the progress of our Tribe and the Native peoples of the country. We have made great strides in awareness, education, and action to preserve culture and language. We may be thankful that we, as a people, have survived and thrived despite a historically traumatic past. We may be thankful that we can discern the difference between assimilation and integration; that we can enjoy and exploit modern American culture without forgetting or forsaking our Native roots. We can be thankful for a proud ancestry that provided the foundation of the great Nation that became the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

As we contemplate the people and things in our lives that we are thankful for, let’s indeed be grateful and spend the next year moving the Tribe forward economically, historically, and culturally. We are a family. Let’s speak in love, not as a platitude at the end of vicious criticism, but in sincere affection and for the betterment of our community.