Tim Giago: The myth of the Pilgrims and Indians

Rupert and Jeannette Costo, now both deceased, celebrated only one national holiday and that was Thanksgiving Day.

Rupert, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians of California, and Jeanette, an Eastern Cherokee, were the publishers of the Indian Historian Press of San Francisco, a publishing house dedicated to publishing authors of Native American heritage.

Both were historians of note when it came to the First Americans. They had researched all of the tales of how Thanksgiving came to be and dismissed these stories as so much rubbish. Growing up, Rupert had witnessed the unfolding of these untruths every year as the teachers told and retold the story of how Thanksgiving came to be. He witnessed the white children putting cardboard feathers in their hair, painting their faces, and trying to pretend they were Indians. To Rupert, it was an insult.

Jeanette was raised in the East and early on she realized that she felt uncomfortable with the school events leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Over dinner one year she said, “The other children knew that I was Indian and when they donned their Thanksgiving costumes they would circle around me making those ‘whoooo, whoooo’ sounds by cupping their hands over their mouths just like they had seen it done in the movies. To me it was not only disgusting but it was also frightening.” She said that one time she went home in tears and asked her father why the kids were so cruel to Indians.

But Rupert and Jeannette both agreed that they had much to be thankful for. They had been together for more than 40 years. They had built a successful publishing house and at one time had published the only national Indian newspaper, Wassaja, in America. It was a monthly paper that distributed as many as 60,000 papers each month. They had also given many aspiring Indian authors a chance to see their works published.

And so they decided that Thanksgiving was the only holiday they would ever celebrate.

I met Rupert and Jeanette in the early 1970s we became friends. I handed them a shoebox full of poems I had written over the years and that is how the small book of poetry, The Aboriginal Sin, came to be.

The Costos always invited their published authors to their Thanksgiving dinners in San Francisco. I made it there almost every year in the late 1970s and 1980s. One year I took my daughter Denise, and another year my son Timmy, and one year my grandson Michael. One year my Cherokee friend and fellow journalist, Leta Rector, showed up for the day of festivities. It was a wonderful way to renew old friendships and to participate in deep and invigorating conversation.

The chef at the famous Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco always catered their Thanksgiving Day dinners. It was a day of feasting and the different dishes just kept on coming throughout the afternoon.

Jack Norton, the author of Genocide in Northern California, was always there and we became good friends. Adolph Dial, the author of The Only Land I Know, was there one year and he talked about the people of the Lumbee Nation, a tribe that has been fighting for federal recognition for more than 30 years.

Rupert died in 1989 and Jeanette held only a few more dinners after his death. She had a stroke in November of 2000, a stroke from which she never recovered. I flew out to San Francisco and sat at her bedside, but she was in a deep coma. She eventually returned to her beautiful home on Masonic Street to recuperate. She never did. She died in her sleep in April of 2001.

Every year at Thanksgiving time I get nostalgic and think about San Francisco and long to celebrate this one holiday with my friends and then I remember that they are both gone. I miss Rupert and Jeanette, the wonderful dinners, the good wine and above all, the conversation that flowed like the waters of Yosemite around that dinner table.

All of the books they published, their magazine “The Indian Historian” and their children’s magazine, “The Wee Wish Tree,” can be found at the University of California at Riverside. Rupert had a “Chair” named in his honor at UCR and the Costo Library at UCR is a wonderful place to do research for anyone interested in Indian history.

Rupert and Jeanette detested the myth of Pilgrims and Indians. They were thankful for their many friends and for the changes they brought to Indian country. I am thinking about following in their footsteps and hosting an annual Thanksgiving dinner for longtime literary friends and to pick up where Jeanette and Rupert left off. Maybe next year. Watch for my invitations.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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