Today, biological families and families of necessity gather and give thanks for a diversity of things. When I was growing up Thanksgiving meant a day spent driving between parents houses or their surrogate locations and heart-heavy phone calls where someone wished we could spend more time together. I would fight the urge to eat my emotions in the State-sponsored cover-up of the historical trauma inflicted upon my people. I have a complicated relationship with today. It’s a jumble of historical trauma, family ritual dysfunction, & eating disorders.
“Hey woman, today is the day when we Indians get to be served by the white man,” was something that my grandfather would poke my grandmother with on Thanksgiving. My grandfather being full-bloodied Pawnee and my grandmother a white farmer’s daughter from Missouri. He meant no harm in this. It was his way to engage the hurt and trauma he experienced as a child and young man growing up in a nation that wanted what he had but did not want any part of him.
He was born in the early part of the 20th century to proud parents of noble heritage. Before his 3rd birthday his mother would be dead and his father was grieving the loss could not care for his two small children. My grandfather was taken from his father and placed in a system that actively worked to strip the indian out of the Indian.
In this boarding school he was privileged to be introduced to the white man’s ways. He got a world-class education. He played football. He was beaten if he spoke his mother tongue. His hair was cut short as a means to inhibit the savage within. If they could have erased his red skin they would have done that also.
He was also isolated from his family. He never saw his father again. His sister was lost until he was 17 and able to track here down. He was alone for the formative years. All the while he was instructed to worship God, the father, Jesus, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Lost was Tirawa and the Morning Star. Forgotten was the safety of home. He had little to be thankful for, but he was alive and determined.
Meeting my grandmother and finding security and safety in a family of his own, he gave thanks. He bought in to the trappings of traditional recipes of stuffed birds, dressing, and pies. He loved food. Food was very important to him. He drank some but food was his escape.
It seemed as if all of the broken treaties, the beatings for speaking his mother tongue, and the racist fueled oppression was poured in to the art of BBQ’g. He forgot how to express himself. He learned that if he was to survive in the white man’s world he needed to hide the Indian. Tight lipped he pretended he was not hurt. He convinced himself that yesterday did not happen. The longer this charade went on the more he hated himself. Soon, no one could hate him as much as he did. The externalized racism and persecution turned inward. With that drinking and eating became the only escape he could muster.
In our family food was always prime. We may have not had much of anything else. We never missed a meal. He passed that on to my father. At the very least food was not ever to be missed. Food became an award and treat. For good or bad food was a companion.
All of my conversations with my father or brothers center around talk of food. We do not say hello, “We ask what did you eat?” We all are “big men.” We all have difficulty with healthy processing of emotions. We eat our emotions. Happy or sad we do it with food.
Like is said, I have a complicated relationship with today. I do not hate today. I am not against Thanksgiving. It’s just complicated for me.
Today I am thankful and enjoy the company of family and make those same heart-heavy phones calls. I do wish I had more time with loved ones. I do wish that the historical trauma behind the scene of cute little kids dressed as pilgrims and Indians was addressed. I wish that people understood that appropriating Native tribal customs, healing practices, and lore is hurting the same Natives they admire or are infatuated with.
I want to be thankful for the understanding and acceptance that the same horrid actions and privilege behind blackface and other colonial holdovers is connected to the story of Native America. This is highlighted in the on going struggle to get the Washington DC football team to change its racist name. This is also present in the Atlanta and Cleveland baseball teams and in the Chicago hockey team. It is acceptable for folks to appropriate and don characters of Natives to provide for humor, entertainment, affirmation, and support. This will not change until Native America has allies and advocates that are diverse and committed. We need folks that are as committed to peace, compassion, and justice as they are to winning a Super Bowl ring, a World Series, or Stanley Cup.
Until then this day is complicated for me. I seek balance between my polarizing bloodlines, my need to eat and my eating disorder, and my soon-to-expand family and the families that are a part of me. Maybe I am foolish and today will always be complicated. Perhaps, I should settle for two out of three to be figured out. Hell, I’d settle for one of the three to be done away with.
But to be clear, it is never ok for non-Native people to wear “Indian cloths.”