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REMEMBERING THE INDIANS ON THANKSGIVING
For most Americans, Thanksgiving Day is associated with one thing: food. I'm talking about enough food to feed the Russian army for one year. All-you-can-eat turkey, raisin stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, gravy and pumpkin pie; enough good cuisine to make me purchase an overpriced plane ticket back to Pennsylvania and fatten up for the long, tortuous Russian winter. Even more importantly for many Americans, it is the day before the start of the over-hyped Christmas shopping season. But between these large bookends there lies a lot of dusty history that most Americans have chosen to forget.
For those who stayed awake during their history lessons, Thanksgiving commemorates the survival of the Pilgrims in the harsh New World. Admittedly, their prospects were not very promising. After enduring a 65-day voyage across the vast Atlantic Ocean, the Mayflower washed ashore at a lonely place which they christened "Plymouth" — as in Plymouth Rock. The place lived up to its cruel name, and the Pilgrims nearly starved to death that first bitter winter. Then, on March 16, 1621 (the date was important enough to be written down), like a veritable god, the Indian Squanto entered their quiet suburban settlement speaking impeccable English. As it turned out, this worldly Indian brave had been in England years before the Pilgrims had docked at Plymouth, making the voyage with a buoyant Bunch of fishermen. (Oh, the fishing stories that one must have created. "Hey, honey! Look what we caught!"). Eventually, the good-hearted Squanto taught the Pilgrims valuable things the city of London had not, like tapping the maple trees for its rich syrup, distinguishing between yummy berries and deadly berries, and learning the tricky science of growing Indian corn (they surrounded the seeds with dead fish which served as a powerful fertilizer).
Soon thereafter, in a rare display of bonhomie between the dark man and the white man, the Pilgrims asked the Indians to join them in a gastronomical feast. Chief Massosoit and 90 brave braves turned out for the historic celebration; how many land contracts the Pilgrims forced the Indians to sign during this revelry is unknown, but the festivities reportedly lasted for three days. Ever since it has been a true American tradition, and in 1863 (13 years before "Custer's Last Stand") President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national day of Thanksgiving.
There can be little doubt that the surviving Indians in the United States look askance at this tradition. From their government-controlled reservations, and casinos, and roadside taverns where many Indians now spend their days in alcoholic-inspired indifference, Thanksgiving must seem an ugly joke. They must feel much the same way the African-American population would feel should America suddenly decide to institute a national holiday to the Ku Klux Klan. But that is a different story altogether.
They were a proud people who went from peacefully roaming the Great Plains on horseback to just plain roaming (the government would call it loitering these days and hand you a citation for it). To put it in hard terms, we committed a brutal fact of genocide on this diverse and beautiful people; we wiped out 10 million colorful people north of the Rio Grande River. To briefly sum up the ugly story: The horizon line of the vast American frontier kept advancing and it seemed that we could not seize the land fast enough. Then gold was discovered in California and the Great Rush was on. And with the flintlock rifles and cannons and gunpowder that the Pilgrims hauled across the ocean those Indians never stood a chance. Of course, they managed to stage quite a few successful late-night raiding parties which were rewarded with handfuls of fresh scalps; or other rare, magical days when the arrows flew truer than the bullets. One such memorable day was June 26, 1876. The Sioux tribe, under the leadership of Chief Sitting Bull, handed Custer and his 200 men their last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But such bittersweet moments were fleeting. In the end the Indians lost more than just a war. They lost their entire way of life (and much more often, their lives), traditions and most importantly, their wild, wild land.
The American colonists, the oppressed emigrants of the European continent who in time became the horrible oppressors themselves, simply did what many others had done before them: They massacred an entire population for their own enrichment. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the English and the French all did the same with brutal efficiency and little remorse.
So on this great American holiday, as you are going back for second helpings of pumpkin pie, or drinking a beer and watching the traditional football game, think about those vanquished Indians who helped your ancestors survive many years ago on a rock christened Plymouth.
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