Charles Trimble: A time to give thanks -- For whatever reason

Charles Trimble. Photo by Native Sun News

A Time to Give Thanks: For whatever reason
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

I got a call recently from Indian Country Today Media Network reporter, Christina Rose, whom I’ve gotten to appreciate for her accurate and balanced writing; she wanted to interview me about Thanksgiving experiences back home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where I was born and raised.

She is doing a story on Thanksgiving in Indian Country, and I presumed that she wanted my opinion on the issue of Indians’ resentment over an annual celebration imposed on them. But I was pleased that she didn’t lead off with something like, “Did you and your family boycott Thanksgiving or otherwise express resentment about the alien white man’s holiday.” She merely asked if I would recall experiences of Thanksgiving when I was young, whether it was in the Indian boarding school I attended or in my hometown village of Wanblee.

I was glad to do so, for I have given much thought to the passive rebellion of some Indian scholars and activists against all things imposed on us by a colonialist society. Being an Iyeska, or mixed-blood Lakota person, I have of course adopted much of non-Indian culture and religion. And I feel that, regardless of any resentment we may feel about the destruction of our traditional cultures and their replacement with “holidays,” the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays do bring people together, bring our children back home, and bring much joy to millions, including many Indian families.

Several years ago, the Omaha World Herald carried a story about the Mesquakie reservation in Tama, Iowa, and attitudes about Thanksgiving on the part of some of the tribal people there; the story was to gauge their feelings in light of some reports of boycotts and other expressed resentment of the holiday by Indian people.

People quoted in the World-Herald article said essentially that the celebration to them meant getting together with family and friends. They didn’t feel compelled to feast and celebrate, and they held no bitterness. On the other hand, some said, they did have plenty to be thankful for. I suppose that their response pretty much reflects the majority in Indian Country – on the reservations and in urban Indian communities.

Wannabee tribal elder, Roger Welsch, recalls that the late Alfred Gilpin, Jr., of the Omaha tribe “scoffed at the idea of a special day set aside for prayer and thanksgiving because in his own words, ‘For us, every moment of life is a prayer of gratitude.’”

Most native tribes have historically celebrated harvest festivals, which were for giving thanks; so the modern turkey fest isn’t all that alien. And Thanksgiving is one festival where Americans should take note that most of the food on today’s Thanksgiving menus have their origin in Native America. It was food the indigenous peoples of the continent discovered and domesticated that nurtured the new nation through its infancy, and saved European countries through famines.

Since the dawn of warm-blooded life every fall before winter sets in, man and beast have stocked up foods for survival. Many still try to relive that tradition for, although grocery stores are more reliable providers, the hunt represents the spirit of something that we have lost and always seek to rekindle: that sense of true self-sufficiency.

Brother Louie LaRose tells of a great role-reversal that plays out every fall hunting season on the Winnebago reservation here in Nebraska: the white hunters turn out with bows and arrows, and the HoChunks with their 30.30 rifles.

Foods preserved by the Lakota for winter survival have always been good and nutritious, as shown by the statuesque warriors that dominated the Northern Plains over the years. Buffalo meat and venison were staples, but there were also fish, fowl, wild turnips and wild berries. Corn, beans and squash could be had following Lakota “shopping sprees” in neighboring Pawnee or Omaha villages. The meats, berries and tubers were dried to supplement the hunted game, and nourished the camp throughout the winter.

In my growing up years, feasts back home – including Thanksgiving, almost always included delicious soup made of papa saka (dried meat), wastunkala (dried corn), and timpsila (dried wild turnips); and the meal was always followed by wojapi (berry pudding).

Getting back to the Thanksgiving controversy, my favorite curmudgeon and co-adopted brother, Sam Deloria says “I think much of the anti-Thanksgiving rap that some professional Indians put on is crap.  These are the same people who adopt all kinds of other ‘American’ habits and customs without thinking a thing about it. Sure, a more accurate story about those days needs to be told, but a lot of professional Indians are busting their butts to get home for the Holidays or to get the turkey ready and wait for their kids to come home.” 

We can all agree that there is much in the history of America’s treatment of the tribes that warrants resentment, and if a person wants to ignore Thanksgiving as a statement of that resentment, it is that person’s choice. But there is also the choice of honoring the day for whatever reason we wish and celebrating any way we wish – how about Lakota harvest festival (although hardly anyone up there grows a garden anymore)? Or how about Lakota endurance-and-survival festival (we’re still here and plan to stay)?

Then your kids and grandkids can go back to school on Monday and tell with pride what was celebrated in their homes, and not have to try and explain how they endured a day of their grown-ups resenting and sulking about historic injustices.

If as an Indian you resent the imposition of Thanksgiving into your life, find something else to celebrate – your life, your family, your heritage, your health, your god.

But, like it or not, I extend greetings for a Happy and Blessed Thanksgiving to all our readers.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble is a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com or charlestrimble.com

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