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Thanksgiving myth angers many Native Americans

Dennis Zotigh, a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, won't be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday the way most of us are going to.

Neither will lots of other Native Americans.

Surprised? Then you're way too close to the papier mache, elementary school version of the Thanksgiving feast, presented as a Disneyesque love fest between the Pilgrims and the Indians.

Many American Indians don't see it that way at all.

"It makes me really mad - the Thanksgiving myth and what happens on Friday," said Zotigh, who is a Kiowa, Santee Dakota and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo Indian.

Zotigh is tired of the stereotyping and romanticizing that comes with this day.

"The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds," Zotigh wrote on the Smithsonian museum's blog. "There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples."

Think about it: Thanksgiving is a pretty grim day in Native American history. After the native Americans helped the ragged colonists survive, they let them in on their tradition of a harvest feast.

And what did the colonists do in response? Rape, pillage and nearly destroy a civilization.

We like to be all gooey about family and cranberry sauce and football.

But the day in 1621 when the Wampanoags feasted with the starving colonists was the beginning of one huge, bloody betrayal of the people who were here first.

Even today, some Native Americans refuse to acknowledge the holiday, as mainstream America celebrates it.

The National Day of Mourning is what the United American Indians of New England has called it since 1970, when they first led a march and protest to the area known as Plymouth Rock.

Their flier for this year's event urges marchers to "Help shatter the untrue glass image of the Pilgrims and the unjust system based on racism, sexism, homophobia and war."

Zotigh said he's heard from Native American parents who sign their kids out of school on the day of their Thanksgiving reenactments, whose children have been punished in class for bringing up the American Indian's side of the story, from those who want "the national moral atrocity of genocide" to be acknowledged and from those who simply call that day of national gorging "The Last Supper."

He remembers having to bring a paper bag to school to make his costume for the reenactment of the big feast, complete with cartoonish, construction paper feathers and headdresses.

This week? He's going to keep it simple and have some chili with friends.

The native Americans I talked to said they've all heard of someone who doesn't celebrate the holiday, food catalog style.

But all of people I talked to said they hold on to the original message that the Wampanoag had that day - a harvest feast to give thanks.

"Thanksgiving is like every day for us. Giving thanks is a big part of the native cultures. So the basic message of the holiday, that's still part of who we are," said Ben Norman, 32, a member of the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia.

His tribe's chief, Kevin Brown, said he travels to reservations all across America and he hears about folks who won't celebrate Thanksgiving.

"But most people I know, we love eating and we love being together with family. And that's what this day is about," said Brown, 58.

His favorite part of the meal? "Turkey. Not fried, just plain cooked, Betty Crocker style," he said. "And venison, we have venison too."

"I'm too busy eating and watching football to spend my life worrying about the past," he said.

The Oneida Nation representative, Ray Halbritter, who has been the primary spokesman for the campaign to get the Redskins football team to change their name, takes a similar approach to Thanksgiving.

"Thanksgiving comes out of our culture," said Halbritter, who himself is a stuffing and squash kind of guy. "It's a wonderful time to reflect on being thankful, to be with family, to celebrate our blessings. It really comes from our harvest celebrations."

Halbritter's point, the one he makes when he's talking football, is that American Indians don't want to be thought of as relics or mascots.

And actively celebrating a harvest feast, rather than dwelling on the injustices by the colonists that came after that day, is one of those ways to keep a culture alive and relevant.

"That's one of the reasons we do the Thanksgiving parade," he said. The Oneida Nation has a big, turtle island float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York every year. And they say it's to remind Americans of that first meeting, that day when they helped and trusted.

If it isn't enough that the rest of America has marred the harvest feast of thanks with family squabbles, idealizing of the pilgrims, jellied cranberry sauce in a can, marshmallows on yams (the WORST),Turducken and football, what happens on Friday is the final slap in the face.

Black Friday - after supposedly giving thanks for all that we have - Americans are now compelled on this day to shove, fight and maim in order to buy even MORE!

"You know that's supposed to be our heritage day?" Zotigh said.

Yes, the Friday after Thanksgiving is designated as the official day in America to pay homage to the heritage and culture of the American Indian.

Somehow, I just don't think that hand-to-hand combat over a big screen is what the Wampanaog had in mind.

Please, for once, listen to the people who were on this land first.

Keep it simple, just give thanks.

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