These weeks of November, brimming with frenzied preparations for family gatherings around plump turkeys and traditional American fixings, also mark National Native American Heritage Month. And interestingly, the day after the Thanksgiving bird has been relegated to leftovers is designated Native American Heritage Day.
The juxtaposition of Thanksgiving with a nod to this nation’s indigenous people is not without conflict.
Dr. Tink Tinker, a citizen of the Osage Nation (wazhazhe), doesn’t think much of the proclaimed month and day to celebrate and honor Native Americans.
To start with, the Native American designation is “white PC language,” he says. His preference is American Indian, reflecting the American Indian Movement that took form in the 1960s.
Tinker, Baldridge Emeritus Professor of American Indian Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, is known for his forthright and scholarly opinions. He didn’t disappoint during a recent seminar hosted by the anti-racism team of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nor did he during an interview this week.
He believes few people are paying attention to Native American Heritage Month, anyway. The exception is “this colonial arrogance of a holiday they call Thanksgiving, which really means thanks-taking,” he said.
“What’s important to Indian Peoples is the freedom to live our lives on our land. It’s not about a heritage month. It’s about everyday life and even for those of us who live in the city, the important thing is the land. We are in a deep, deep relationship with the land.”
Euro-Christianity intentionally tried to destroy that relationship, “in order to turn (the land) into property and use that property to create their wealth,” he said.
There’s now a “land back” movement involving indigenous people from Canada to Mexico. “We don’t mean transfer property back to Indians. We never had property. We don’t have that word in our language,” Tinker said, explaining that American Indians simply want the return of their grandmother – the earth – healthy and whole.
There’s more. “We want our language back. We want our ceremonies back. We want our what white people call sacred sites back. We think our white relatives should remember that the earth that they walk on, the homes which they own, the property they own, is Indian land … And yet Indians are the poorest ethnic community in North America to this day, when our land has generated such wealth.”
Native Americans suffer from disparities in healthcare, high suicide rates and ongoing trauma from a boarding school system that forcibly and cruelly “re-educated” children. Many died. In recent days, it’s been reported that researchers identified 102 students who died at a residential school in Genoa, Nebraska. It had been run by the federal government.
This weekend, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition will hold a virtual healing summit. Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the country’s first native American Cabinet secretary, announced a comprehensive review of “the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”
“I pity her,” Tinker said of Haaland’s historic appointment. “She’s in a tough position where she has to try to do the best for the Indian People, but she’s got to do the colonizer’s work for the colonizer.”
It’s easy to understand his skepticism. The very school of theology at which he taught for 33 years owns and, for many years, displayed a book bound with the skin of an indigenous man. Tinker has written an essay about the atrocity, Redskin, Tanned Hide: A Book of Christian History Bound in the Flayed Skin of an American Indian.
“That book was held at Iliff and was on display for 80 years as a trophy until 1974, when the American Indian Movement forced them to cut it off,” he told me. “The book is still in Iliff. It is down in a basement in a safe and it still has that energy of that person attached to it.”
Tinker has resolved not to see it.
The Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, and Tinker are friends. They met at a United Methodist conference in Tampa, during which Tinker spoke at a service of repentance for the wrongs the denomination had committed against indigenous people around the world.
Last month, Meyer introduced his friend at a seminar put on by the Florida-Bahamas Synod’s Just Love anti-racism team. Meyer is co-chair of the team with the Rev. Reginald Hansome.
Meyer told me that the Lutheran church has had “a robust relationship” with American Indians. He noted, though, that the largest mass execution of Native Americans occurred in Minnesota, a state settled by Lutherans from Scandinavia.
“There’s blood on our hands, along with all the white churches, because we all believed that we were better than the ‘savages,’” he said.
“I work very closely with Native Americans. There is a lot we try to suppress in Native American culture, heritage. I have learned from American Indians that humanity’s core responsibility is being able to leave the earth to the next generation.”
The October seminar at which Tinker spoke had intentionally been scheduled in advance of Indigenous Peoples Day, a growing alternative to Columbus Day.
In St. Petersburg, Sharon Joy Kleitsch, founding partner of Connection Partners, Inc., has championed the recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October. She said the late Bobby C. Billie, a clan and spiritual leader with the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples, was key to crafting the original wording for the proclamation that “continues to be our model with slight modifications from indigenous leaders from around the country.”
The first proclamation was in 2017. “We celebrated Original Peoples Day on Oct. 9, with Council Member Charlie Gerdes reading the proclamation. In 2019, it was read by Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin at Sacred Lands,” Kleitsch said.
This year, Mayor Rick Kriseman read the proclamation declaring Oct. 11 Original Nations Day in St. Petersburg at City Hall.
With the approach of Thanksgiving, Tinker spoke about the traditions of American Indians in a video for Denver Public Schools. Standing before a display of corn, beans and squash, he explained they are important foods for American Indians and are referred to as “the three sisters.” They’ve been grown by American Indians for thousands of years, he said.
Tinker spoke of giving thanks for water, known to American Indians as grandfather, and for the earth, grandmother. The earth and water “nourish these three sisters and give us life, in turn,” he said.
“I know that many of you are getting ready for a big feast later this month, called Thanksgiving. What you need to know about Indian people is it’s not such a big deal for us, because every day is Thanksgiving.“
The website of the National Museum of the American Indian reiterates that concept and notes that the first Thanksgiving is “often portrayed as a friendly harvest festival where Pilgrims and generic, nameless ‘Indians’ came together to eat and give thanks.”
“In reality, the assembly of the Wampanoag Peoples and the English settlers in 1621 had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and a pursuit of peace. Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving.”
Meyers believes that Thanksgiving should be a time when Americans feel gratitude “for the multitude histories that make up this country” and for learning about those histories.
“Because, really up until now, American history has tended to be told only from one perspective. There is a greater willingness to learn the histories of people who are different from ourselves and we should celebrate that,” he said.
“If America has a true genius, it is in bringing together people from very different cultural heritages in democracy to create the humanity that is going to show the world how to survive.”
His is an important and optimistic view, especially at a time when the harsh truths of America’s history are being discounted by some and mandated to be hidden from our children. While Thanksgiving for most Americans may be a warm and celebratory time, there’s nothing wrong with reflecting about the diverse people and history involved.