Happy Thanksgiving. I love this holiday - the chill in the air, the comforting traditional foods, the emphasis on family.
A lot of my Native American friends are not as fond of it, for obvious reasons, and I understand. Around this time of year, I get contacted by radio stations across the state wanting me to speak, in my official capacity as a historian, about the origins of the holiday. I always try to explain the political nuances of the tense relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Confederacy, but that always gets edited out so I can answer the question, “Yeah, but did they have pie?” This is because most Americans only want to take a quick, surface look at history, and that is only to reinforce their feel-good myths. American Indians do not exist to them, except as artifacts frozen in amber.
But they DO exist and are going strong. They are about 2 percent of the U.S. population. That may not sound like much, but it is slightly more than the number of Mormons, almost the number of Jewish people, and twice the number of Muslims.
They are not just part of our past, they are part of our present and our future. And we owe them a lot. We owe them for all the contributions their cultures have made to our own. We owe them for all the agreements our ancestors made with them, all the promises broken. We owe them for all the contributions they continue to make. Did you know that Native American Indians are, by proportion, the group with the highest volunteer military enlistment in every American war for the past century? I am thankful for Native America, today and every day. We all should be.
There are several ways to show that gratitude. One is by learning about their history and culture and appreciating it. Another is by honoring them. There’s a caveat to that last one, though. If you choose to honor Native Americans - without asking them - in a way that most of them find offensive, you are not honoring them at all. It is not really about them, then, it is about you and what you want. For example, most every indigenous person I know is offended by their image being used as a sports mascot. Especially “redskin,” that one is the very worst. It is an insult equivalent to the n-word. Yet there are still schools in Tennessee that use it.
Another way to show gratitude to American Indians is by learning about their present-day concerns and issues and doing our part to support them. Did you know that until the 1970s, Native children were still being taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their culture, and where many died, or to orphanages where they were adopted out against their parents’ wishes? Did you know Native Americans were not free to fully practice their traditional religions until the 1970s, or that many states prevented them from voting well into the 1960s? Did you know that indigenous women are far, far more likely to be abducted, raped, and/or murdered than women from any other group - primarily because tribal police have no authority over non-Natives who come onto the reservation and commit such crimes? Did you know the Supreme Court recently reversed 200 years of precedent and gave the state of Oklahoma criminal jurisdiction over reservations, or that a case is working its way to the court that would reverse the 1970s law that ended the practice of taking Indian children away from their tribes and putting them up for adoption?
Native Americans are not our mascots, or our Halloween costumes. They are our brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens. We may not be personally responsible for what happened to them in the past - but we can stand with them in the present.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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