After online voting, “Butter" was officially pardoned as the National Thanksgiving Turkey for 2019. Photo: Andrea Hanks / White House

A Thanksgiving Day memory – Those ‘derned’ Pilgrims

This week, Thanksgiving is the appropriate topic. Once again, I share one of my favorite stories about that National Holiday, a repeat version of one previously printed. However, since it has been years ago since that was published and now with new readers or those of limited memory, I retell it.

Years ago, in the 1980’s, I moved, with children from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the only home my children then knew, to Washington DC, accepting a job with U.S. Senator, John Melcher (D-Montana), dragging my reluctant children along. I then thought to be a ‘big shot”, bur found myself a very little shot’ in a big sea of sharks. Yikes!

The kids were perturbed about this move, especially ‘Sis”, the youngest and only girl who had many friends at school, a first grader, where she was somewhat of a self-imposed queen: best at spelling, reading, math and everything else, especially fighting in the school yard, skill learned at the hands of four older relentless brothers. “Even the third-graders don’t mess with me”, she proudly declared.

Thus, I literally had to drag her into the van for the trip. “I want to stay at home with grandma!” she screamed. Nonetheless, she had to come along.

The U.S. capitol dome in 1980. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith / U.S. Library of Congress

After five days, we finally reached the destination: a very busy place with more people than we had collectively seen in our lives; finding the small house in Arlington, Virginia, located by the good Senator’s staff. We unloaded kids and meager belongings, got settled and the kids quickly enrolled into local schools.

During my previous Tribal Council trips, I had met a wonderful friend – Patty Schwallenberg, Chippewa Cree from Lac Fu Flambeau, Wisconsin, dedicated to wildlife rights, in particular, spear fishing, an age-old tradition for her people. Lac Du Flambeau is a French word meaning “Lake of Flames” so named when the natives would go fishing at night armed with big torches, lighting up the Lakes by night.

After a disastrous marriage to another tribal member, producing three children, she had the good fortune to meet Dewey, a white guy, ex-Navy Seal and wildlife biologist who fell in love with Indians, especially her. They married and he also fell in love with her children and all Indian people. It was my good blessing to become friends with both.

At that time, spear fishing by Indians was very controversial, even leading to armed stances by both the white Wisconsin fishermen and Indian fishers. The whites were convinced that the Indians ruined the resource, while the Indians clung to tradition, taking what was needed and given under treaty rights. Patty was passionate about that and as Dewey was smart, they formed a non-profit organization advocating for tribal wildlife management, conservation and related treaty rights: The Native American/Intertribal Wildlife Organization, truly labor of the heart. They got some federal grants, but then had to also lobby Congress, seeking good favor for their cause.

Lucky them. I was living in Washington, D.C., and in order to economize on the highly inflated costs of a D.C. trip, Dewey would land with us. It takes quite a bit to become a Navy Seal – ultimate tough guy, trained to kill and punish, grueling devotion. And Dewey, decorated with many medals must have done that, then turning that same attention and zeal to the cause of Native Americans. And, he had soft spot for kids, including mine who took to calling him "Uncle Dewey."

In mid-November, he came for a lobbying trip, staying with us, sleeping bag in tow, content to occupy space on the living room floor, after watching cartoons with the kids. It was a week or so before the Thanksgiving holiday, my daughter bringing home paper turkeys, pumpkins and other cut-outs to grace the refrigerator and eventually the turkey-clad table.

The next morning, we dined to toast and Lucky Charms. “So?” Dewey asked my little feisty daughter “How is School?”

“Good,” she replied while trying to capture one of the blue or pink marshmallow treasures from the Lucky Charms mix. Dewey also was. “I like the pink ones,” he joked. “How many you got?”

“More than you,”, she giggled.

“How many Indians in your class?”

“Only me,” she informed, still intent upon the elusive marshmallow charms.


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Clara Caufield can be reached at

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