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The War on Thanksgiving: Pilgrim's Regress?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — This Thanksgiving, as with every year since 1970, Native Americans and supporters of indigenous peoples throughout Canada, Mexico and the U.S. will march on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to protest the turkey jubilee and reappropriate the holiday as National Day of Mourning (NDOM). After all, Governor John Winthrop declared the first official "Day of Thanksgiving" in 1637 to mark the return of men who had gone to Mystic, Conn. and massacred 700 Pequot Indians.

But this year, the sequestration cutbacks that have hampered the nation are at the forefront of the minds of those protesting the holiday.

"They have a disparate and very harmful impact on Native people," said Mahtowin Munro, an activist at the United American Indians of New England, which arranges the march. "People are already very poor in Indian Country, whether we live on or off the rez."

The NDOM celebrants, instead, will partake in a burning sage smudging ceremony, and a Mayan woman and man will lead opening prayers on Cole's Hill, overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the little Plymouth Rock shrine. A processional will wend its way through the town with speeches and cheers before disassembling into a giant potluck social. Yet this is anything but a joyous tryptophan-laden fest.

"We speak about the true history of this country rather than the whitewashed version that is frequently presented in the schools and media," Munro said.

A perennial cause célèbre has been fighting against sports team names and mascots perceived as racist (the Washington Redskins, for example, as highlighted this fall by President Barack Obama). Additionally on the agenda are the corporate assaults on Indian land and water, particularly related to the cause of the Mikmaq people in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick who have been trying to stop fracking on their ancestral homelands.

But the sequestration and its resulting economic ramifications to the indigenous populations are the focus.

That's because the sequestration reneges on treaties made between the U.S. and the tribes from 1778 to 1871 to guarantee education and health care. As part of the cutbacks beginning in March, the U.S. government sequestered $220 million from the Indian Health Service, a 5% ding to the agency's budget.

The White House estimates that tribal hospitals and clinics would provide 3,000 fewer inpatient admissions and 804,000 fewer outpatient visits--this for a population already beset by health risks (twice as likely as whites to die from diabetes, for example) and widely uninsured, with 34.2% of Native Americans under 65 lacking health insurance. Federal health care for Native Americans is not part of the nation's social welfare program, and though Congress had renewed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (PL 111-148), that's no longer.

"Sequestration has disrupted and broken this promise and forced the first people of this nation to remain the last in opportunity," said Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board.

This political behavior is part of a long history of neglect against indigenous people -- the result, Munro says, of the mindset espoused by "the descendants of the Pilgrims."

What's more, the sequestration resulted in a $65 million cut from Impact Aid, which in part provides education funds to low-property tax school districts near reservations. Given that Impact Aid constitutes up to 60% of the budget for schools near Native American reservations, a Center for Native American Youth report from May predicted Department of Education cuts would adversely affect 115,000 Native American students with shuttered programs and staff layoffs.

That's terrible news for Lena Johnson, 29, who has five kids aged 5 to 13 and lives in the town of Red Lake, one of the four communities on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. She is a single mother with sixth baby due in February who has seen first hand the adverse effects of the government cutbacks.

Because of the sequestration, two vacant positions for wellness counselors at her 12-year-old daughter's Red Lake Middle School must go unfilled, and in 2014 if the sequestration continues, all the school wellness counselors will be let go. That's especially dangerous given that the Native American youth suicide rate is ten times the national average.

After two recent suicides in the school system, Johnson's daughter was one of the students who was transferred to a facility in North Dakota for nine days to be placed under protective watch, as Red Lake Nation tribal chairman Floyd Jourdain, Jr. noted in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month. She had been bullied and now meets with a guidance counselor three days a week. The support system would go away with further cuts.

Johnson is trying to keep her family afloat by working at a day care center, a 90-day contract work stint she secured through a "New Beginnings" program. Her second extension for the $8-an-hour gig is up January 23.

Though the indigenous individuals like Johnson are burdened economically by the cuts to the aid and support infrastructure, it's difficult for tribes on the whole to bolster themselves against economic setbacks.

"Sequestration affects Native Americans disproportionately because of the way tribal government services and operations are structured and financed," sad Amber Ebarb, a budget and policy analyst at the National Congress of American Indians. "Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services."

That legal relationship is based in the treaties tribes signed with the U.S. government that ceded millions of acres of tribal lands to the U.S. in exchange for this assistance. Unlike in the tribal structure, local governments may decide at whim to increase taxes or spending for basic services when funding dwindles.

That's a particularly grave predicament for a population that needs substantial help.

According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, nearly one in three Native Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2012 ($23,492 for a family of four), and the extreme poverty rate of those on reservations was four times the national average. Much needed Indian initiatives have been decimated, like the Head Start program, which had its budget slashed $12 million for fiscal year 2013 as part of the sequestration.

Help is often promised. After a 2005 Red Lake School shooting, President George W. Bush had called Jourdain of the Red Lake tribe to offer support. The school wellness program, for example, was funded in part by federal grants from the Subantance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). Those expired and left the tribe--with fewer monies as a result of the sequestration--scrambling to provide services.

"I thought the U.S. would help us, that they wouldn't forget us," said Johnson of the Red Lake Indian Reservation. "They did forget us."

Still, she will be participating in a traditional Thanksgiving this year as usual. She has five hungry children, after all. She will host in her three-bedroom house on the reservation.

"It's a time of the year where you share and be thankful for everything," she said. "The meal will be turkey, stuffing, wild rice and, of course, pumpkin pie."

So how do we parse the pride in the pilgrims in Plymouth in founding the nation versus certain atrocities against indigenous peoples?

"Thanksgiving, like other holidays, provides all Americans, indigenous or not, with the opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, and this holiday provides us a special day to reflect on how the Earth sustains us," said the NCAI's Ebarb. "American Indians and Alaska Natives have long given thanks for the world around them, because in many tribal belief systems, all things have a spiritual nature that demand respect. Tribal people respect the reciprocal relationship with nature, that people must maintain a balance of giving and taking."


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