Dakota Datebook


Thursday, November 27, 2003

On the 350th anniversary of the original Thanksgiving feast at Plymouth Rock, the Massachusetts Department of Commerce wanted to hire a speaker for the celebration. Frank (Wamsutta) James, a Native American elder and activist, was chosen. Unfortunately, when the committee heard the speech he intended to give, they turned it down.

“Today is a time of celebrating for you,” James had written. “But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back to People. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stole their corn, wheat and beans. Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers, little knowing that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.

“Although our way of life is almost gone, and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important,” he wrote.

Many Native Americans consider Thanksgiving a national day of mourning, yet many people – both Native and non-Native – are making efforts to reconcile the present with the past. For example, a number of American Indians made history when they participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1999 – it was the first time American Indians were ever invited to participate. Macy’s wanted to showcase American Indian culture in the parade, and they placed the Native American float – called the Soaring Spirit Canoe – at the head of the parade.

The American Indian College Fund was kicking off its 10-year anniversary that year; they sponsored the float and paid travel costs for 23 participants to get to New York. The Native Americans chosen for the honor were all students from tribal colleges, an educational system established in 1968 to fight high poverty and unemployment rates on reservations. These colleges were a major development in the history of education, called by the Carnegie Foundation “the most significant development in American Indian communities since World War II.”

One of the students who participated in the historic parade was from the Fort Berthold Community College in New Town… Vonnie Jo Alberts, of Dakota/Arikira descent. Vonnie Jo had also won the honor of being crowned the eighth Miss Indian Nations that year, and her involvement in the parade was very important to her friends, family and fellow college students.

A fellow parade participant, Monroe Weso, from the College of the Menominee Nation said, “For all Indian people of this country, it will be a wonderful way to help celebrate Thanksgiving in a sacred way.” Hugh Big Knife, a student working on a double degree at Stone Child College in Montana said, “Not only will we be proudly representing our own traditional dance styles, but we’ll also celebrate Thanksgiving, a uniquely American tradition that we all share.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody… may we all find peace today.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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