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Pilgrims and Indians

I asked my grandchildren the other day whether they are learning about the first Thanksgiving in school.

My granddaughter, Eliza, is 6-1/2, slender with dark eyes that speak of worldly wisdom beyond her years. My grandson, Grayson, is 4-1/2, an energetic little fireball whose articulate pronunciations speak of a career defending the rights of the dispossessed. At least this is what my grandfatherly pride tells me about both of these precious ones.

Both children are very aware of the pilgrims and Indians and the turkey tradition that began with the first Thanksgiving. And both quickly added with pride, "We’re part Indian." Grayson scratched his head and wondered just which part that was. You see, the great-grandmother on my son-in-law’s side of the family was a full-blooded Chickasaw Indian. (This means our kids, in part, are of Sicilian and American Indian descent. You provide the ethnic punch line.)

The kids had obviously informed their teachers of this heritage, and one wonders whether their reaction was smiling indulgence of a child’s fantasy or whether they pursued it further. It would seem a great opportunity to learn more about our Native Americans, especially in these parts when "Indians," if seen at all, are costumed trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

I confess to a shocking ignorance like most Americans of the first Thanksgiving. The details I learned in school a long time ago are at best a blur now. It’s not that Americans are not taught to give thanks; some of them even adhere to the best spirit of the holiday and go out into the community and help feed those less fortunate.

But what we don’t think of much at this time of year is the plight of Native Americans. In a word association test, "American Indians" would most likely draw the response "casino." But the early settlers very much depended on the kindness and knowledge of the Native Americans they found here. They learned that if they valued the land, the land would reward them. When they hunted and killed, it was for food — not to hang some crazy-ass trophy above the fireplace in their suburban den.

Stories of the first Thanksgiving that were handed down to us were almost Disney-like, and in fact the Disney Studios have mined those stories for our entertainment. But our history turned out quite different. The peace pipe that was smoked on that first Thanksgiving turned out to be an anomaly. The relationship between the increasing number of settlers coming to the New World and the Native Americans whose world they changed forever became a tale of greed, deception and bloodshed.

I understand that we brought the glory of Western civilization to America, but it seems there might have been a better way than to give the Native Americans worthless beads, alcohol and blankets infested with smallpox. There should have been a way to treat them better than to herd them on to the arid wastelands of Indian reservations.

The American Indians who participated in that first Thanksgiving surely must have expected that their history would be different. Surely they must have envisioned a land where there was enough room for both peoples to coexist in peace. If those Native Americans had envisioned a future where their world for all practical purposes would cease to exist, perhaps they would not have been giving thanks.

As the settlers moved west and wantonly slaughtered buffalo, the peaceful Native Americans of that first Thanksgiving gave way to American Indians in war paint savagely defending their way of life. The inevitable result was that civilization won and, as we all have learned, the victors write the history books.

The tales of the first Thanksgiving resemble a biblical Garden of Eden. The pilgrims and the Indians at that feast remind me of the paradise where the lion lay down with the lamb. Unfortunately, the track record of paradise is that it doesn’t last. Paradise was lost. America was settled and the glory and power are ours.

Maybe for even a brief moment on this Thanksgiving, we can pause while we give thanks and, with all due humility, think about those forgotten Americans who still struggle to be part of the American dream. There’s a small part of my grandkids that will be my constant reminder.

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