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About the photo: Some American Indians consider Thanksgiving a day of mourning. Although many consider Thanksgiving a day for rejoicing, a dissenting view from some Native Americans holds that depictions of the "First Thanksgiving," with Pilgrims and natives celebrating the harvest in 1621, overlooks the long history of suffering, theft of lands, disease and wars that followed. This year, the day after Thanksgiving has been proclaimed as Native American Heritage Day.

American Indians reflect and mourn on Thanksgiving

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Prairie Rose Seminole's family once observed the traditional Thanksgiving celebration, including the obligatory turkey dinner and trimmings.

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But after the Fargo woman began embracing her traditional Arikara and Lakota roots, Thanksgiving took on an aura that was more reflective than celebratory.

For many American Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, given the displacement from their lands and deaths from wars and disease that came in the wake of the Pilgrims.

Now, for the first time, the day after Thanksgiving will be observed nationally as Native American Heritage Day.

Seminole has already observed her own informal version. For the past five or six years, she has gathered with friends and family on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a "Black Friday" ritual featuring a companionable potluck dinner.

Thanksgiving, a day set aside for reflection and giving thanks, provides an opportunity for American Indians and non-Indians to acknowledge the losses that natives suffered in the settlement of the nation, she said.

The past lingers for descendants of 38 Dakota Sioux men who were hanged in 1862 following an outbreak by several bands in Minnesota, and the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, to name two prominent and painful episodes for area tribes.

"It's not so much guilt, it's just that we need to know the reality," Seminole said. "This is our history. So knowing that history is pretty significant in shaping our world view."

In recent years, North Dakota's public conversation about relations between American Indians and non-Indians has largely centered on the ongoing controversy involving the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

Formal apology?

The nickname controversy, in fact, recently inspired Lloyd Omdahl, professor emeritus of political science at UND, to propose that the state issue a formal apology to American Indians for past wrongs, including treaty violations, discrimination and bigotry.

The suggestion, made in an opinion column that ran in newspapers around the state in April, was inspired by the actions of half a dozen Southern states that passed resolutions expressing regret for slavery.

"There wasn't much of a response to that," Omdahl said of his column. Non-Indians tend not to see the grief that appropriation of the nickname causes, in light of the difficult history between the two cultures, he said.

North Dakota officials should find a useful public avenue to air the ways that history still plays out today, said Omdahl, who as lieutenant governor from 1987 to 1992 served on the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission.

"As long as you don't talk about it, it just festers," he said.

Indians and non-Indians are reluctant to talk about the connection between past and present, for different reasons, Omdahl said. Whites feel guilt about treaty violations and other wrongs, and some involved in tribal government benefit from keeping things as they are, he said.

Grievances surface

Gregory Gagnon, an associate professor of American Indian studies at UND and an enrolled member of an Ojibway tribe in Wisconsin, said negative stereotypes and a lack of mutual understanding on behalf of both cultures get in the way of better relations.

He gives a talk, "It All Began With Fences: Barriers Between Indians and Whites," that both groups were "intensely ethnocentric," firmly convinced they were right and others were wrong.

The grievances on both sides tend to surface in the Fighting Sioux controversy, Gagnon said. Many whites believe, wrongly, that Indians go to college for free and collect money, while Indians tend to see whites as greedy and selfish.

Gagnon, who has taught in the Indian studies program at UND for 11 years, routinely has his students survey non-Indian students' views on Native Americans.

"Those stereotypes are just as virulent as they would have been 50 years ago," he said. "They've all been asked these things, and they keep coming up with the same stereotypes. That's ignorance."

Cultural divide

No wonder there is a divide between the two cultures, Gagnon said.

Setting aside Nov. 28 as Native American Heritage Day as a day of tribute to American Indian contributions could be a positive step, Gagnon said. November has already been proclaimed as Native American Heritage Month.

"It all depends on how it's treated," Gagnon said. "It could be something like National Pickle Day, or it can be something more significant."

The heritage day's association with Thanksgiving is fraught with ambivalence for many American Indians, especially those who embrace their traditional religious and cultural practices.

Still, most native cultures had a similar ritual of giving thanks, often associated with the fall hunts and harvest, Gagnon said.

"Gratitude for that is common in every Indian culture," he said. Gagnon's family sometimes gathers on Thanksgiving, but not as a religious observance.

"It's just a good family event," he said.

Lingering stereotypes

Seminole agrees that lingering racial stereotypes - "all Indians are drunks," for instance - stand in the way of better relations. So does ignorance of the past, including treaties and the recognition of tribal sovereignty, she said.

"Until we break that barrier of apathy, ignorance and stereotypes, we're not going to get there," Seminole said.

Her informal "Black Friday" gathering evolved as a way to bring together a diverse mix of family and friends, Indian and non-Indian.

It was sort of a do-it-yourself event, since there was no local organized native observance, or counter-observance, of Thanksgiving.

"It's basically about reclamation," she said. "It's taking back the day."

It's also about unity, she added. "Let's really make it a day of coming together."

The fact that the day also will be an official Native American Heritage Day is a welcome addition, a reminder for the nation to remember the contributions of the first Americans.

"I like that we're raising our consciousness and being intentional about it and celebrating our diversity when we can," she said.

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Patrick Springer
Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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