Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Once again, Thanksgiving is upon us. And, once again, it raises thoughts of our relationship with our Native American brothers and sisters. You know, the good people whom we slaughtered in order to steal their homeland away from them?
Perhaps as you are enjoying your feast and unbuttoning your pants to watch the game more comfortably as the women in your house feed and clean up after you, this strikes you as rather pessimistic. No doubt, the feast has come to represent the bountiful year we have had, culminating in a single feast of excess. I was always taught that it was a celebration of friendship with the Native Americans, but to me that would be too hypocritical. Like any group of people there are exceptions, but the native people did welcome us. These gentle and generally peaceful people had more than enough people to force us off of the land had this been their desire, and yet, they welcomed us and allowed us to settle and even helped us to tame the land.
One of my favorite stories of the native people was how they taught us to get better crop yields by fertilizing. Of course, they didn’t call it as such. With the Native people’s connection to “Mother Earth”, the way that I learned it was that by taking crops out of her womb, you needed to respectfully replace something to her. What they taught the settlers was to plant fish heads in the field along with the seeds. Perhaps unbeknownst to them, the decaying fish heads released nitrogen and other fertilizing chemicals into the ground that resulted in greater crop yields.
That’s not all that the Native people did for the settlers. When suffering from a headache, the native people taught the settlers what to chew (I heard it was a leaf, I have also seen that it’s bark) to resolve it. Whichever it might have been (perhaps even both), that tree naturally produces 2-acetoxybenzoic acid, or more commonly called acetyl salicylic acid, but better known as aspirin. This plant is how aspirin was discovered, and later synthesized for that bottle in your bathroom.
The Native American wars began early in the seventeenth century, before we even had a nation. I think most of us know of Cortez and his war against the Aztecs (Mexico, 1519). It became reminiscent of the wars in the north as the Aztecs tried to give Cortez gold to satiate his greed sufficiently for him to go home, yet his greed was bigger than their treasury. Instead of leaving, he wanted to push on and eventually wiped out the entire noble Aztec nation. Up north, the wars began around 1605 between the Native people and the French, but as the settlers began pushing westward to expand their nation, the wars with the Native people heated up, culminating in the war of 1812.
The settlers were in a rush to find and settle all the way to the west coast to create one massive nation, but they weren’t the only ones with eyes on this goal. Other nations wanted to settle portions of the land as well, and some wanted to start on the west coast. Had they succeeded, this would have been a divided nation (although we would not be writing about it as such). Stuck in the middle, the practice of “scalping” was actually not a Native invention. The French army taught Native Americans how to scalp white settlers from the East and paid a bounty for each scalp brought to them. Much of the savagery that we learn of with the Native people has been in response to violent encroachment into their territories, and the war of 1812 was when the Native nations banded together to fight back. Their loss resulted in treaties and restrictions to reservations, which were typically on lands the US didn’t deem valuable such as the badlands where crops could never grow.
The wars continued on into the 1950’s where, even in my parent’s time, Native children were being abducted from the Native reservations and put into “white” boarding schools in an effort to indoctrinate them into our culture. The treaties guaranteeing their rights as independent nations have been violated routinely, and continue to be today, with one of the most publicly violations being the oil pipeline that was driven through the heart of Native holy land. Today that pipeline has been leaking oil and associated toxins into Native land and water sources despite promises that it never would. Ironically, aside from the labor to initially build it, this pipeline does nothing for the US as it was built by Canada through US and Native land to feed ships headed to other nations.
Maybe, this year, rather than the hypocrisy of thinking of Thanksgiving as a time of friendship with the Native people, we should make it more about them than us. How about if we think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of the gentle spirit of the Native people who sacrificed to let us build our nation?