Thanksgiving always brings to mind those traditional images of Indians and Pilgrims sharing a harvest feast. Our rosy narrative of Indians and settlers communing together doesn’t so much square with the larger picture of what actually happened, but the happy story lingers. At first blush, you may wonder what harm there is in enjoying the romanticized version. The idea of friendly Indians breaking bread with grateful colonists warms the heart and fuels a unifying image of our people. At least, that’s the effect for white Americans.
For our first peoples, the story is so much more complicated. It brings to mind their early assistance to the white colonists who would later force them from their lands and make war on their governments, traditions, and cultures. Because they have a historical knowledge of the rest of the story, the beginning isn’t so heartwarming. For them, instead, it was the start of dark days. Days that brought attacks from encroaching white aliens and civil war within as their citizens struggled to find a response. Had they known what was to come, perhaps they wouldn’t have taught the Pilgrims how to farm the foreign produce of the New World. Maybe they would’ve been tempted to poison that Thanksgiving feast — and who could blame them.
But, they did not. Oh, they fought the encroachment — by gun and by lawsuit. However, they also provided aid, traded with whites, and even welcomed them into their communities at times. They made treaty after treaty despite the fact that the U.S. government repeatedly broke these agreements and they should have reasonably known then when they made them that they would not be honored. When they suffered the final indignity of being forced onto uninviting and often infertile lands, they hoped at last that they would be left alone…but they were not. Even then, there was more that could be taken from them. Eventually, the U.S. government’s policy became to try to take even their Indian-ness from them and teach them to be white. When there seemed to be nothing more to take from them, there was this.
In Oklahoma, the Muscogee Nation regrouped — what number of them that had survived forced relocation — and adopted the land forced on them. They built a capital in Okmulgee and, having constructed their new council house, attempted to resume native self-government. Their headquarters were built in 1878, but the U.S. government soon decided to take that too. In 1919, it sold the council house to the City of Okmulgee and pocketed the proceeds in government coffers. Last weekend, almost one hundred years later, the Muscogee regained ownership of the building. The City sold it back to them for $3.2 million dollars (thirty-two times what it paid the federal government for the property). While you might be inclined to believe that it adds insult to injury to make the Muscogee pay for the return of their stolen property, they believe it was worth every penny. Thompson Gouge, their public relations manager, said that it was like getting their ancestors back. For this, this November, they are especially thankful.
* Day to Give Thanks, or Thanksgiving Day in Mvskoke (Muscogee)