I have this certain friend who is my exact opposite: she is a tall, blonde white girl from Texas and I am a short, chubby rez girl from Six Nations. Last year, her family couldn’t make it back to the states for the holidays. Being familiar with homesickness, I put together an American Thanksgiving to honor the friendship between our two families. I tuned into the Macy’s parade and we had a delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Everyone was having a good time and then – it happened. We were sitting at the table about to eat dinner and my dear American friend said, “Somebody should tell the kids the story of the first Thanksgiving? Nan? You probably know it way more than I do.”
It was like time slowed down. If it were a movie there would have been a big record scratch sound, followed by silence to emphasize the faux pas. My eyes shot around the table. An innocent and cheerful look of anticipation filled my friend’s blue eyes. This was contrasted by the look of embarrassment and social agony in my husbands eyes as he tried to send me telepathic help.
The truth is I know the story all too well. Here’s what I wanted to say, “Yes, yes I do know the story! Everybody gather ‘round. Kids, long ago there were these starving pilgrims and they were invited to the fall thanksgiving ceremony to feast together with some Indians. This kindness was eventually repaid with a Molotov Cocktail of pandemic disease and colonialist warfare that nearly eradicated the entire indigenous population of the East Coast, but who’s counting? Everybody dig in!”
Instead I took a deep breath and lied straight through my teeth saying, “No, I don’t know the story. Maybe we should Google it.”
I love my friend and this misunderstanding wasn’t her fault, but who is responsible? While hashing the problem out in my brain I had a sobering thought. This year as her family sits down to eat turkey, she will likely again give the Googled account of Thanksgiving to her children. It was then I realized that a large part of the responsibility was mine.
I got lazy. I didn’t feel like having to explain colonization to yet another person and be the downer of the party. Big mistake! Now who will tell her kids the truth? Who can explain with love that Thanksgiving is not a celebration of friendship for indigenous people, but the start of a North American genocide?
On the flip side, here I was welcoming her for ‘American Thanksgiving’ and I turned on the Macy’s Parade? What was I thinking? I began the evening with as many cliche Americanisms I had access to. How was my assumption of her culture any different than hers was of mine? I saw my self-righteousness in the mirror, and I had to turn away.
There is a phrase used at the end of each section in Ganohonyo’k. It says – ‘Ne: to gye niyohto’k ogwa nigoha’, and in English that means, ‘let it remain in our minds’. Carrying a spirit of thankfulness is a responsibility the Creator has dropped down to the Haudenosaune people. I should have told them that. My great mistake has taught me an important lesson. The pilgrims still need us to feed them another kind of sustenance.
This is what I should have said.
Let us remember that once, in the beginning, a spirit of great friendship was returned with a spirit of great betrayal. Let us remember that many indigenous people suffered and continue to suffer in the name of progress. Let us now gather together with a spirit of thankfulness as friends, speaking the truth to one another in love and traveling side by side in respect. Ne: to gye niyohto’k ogwa nigoha.