November 23, 2016

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

ThanksgivingCircleSlashCrop2
Five years ago, Dennis Zotigh wrote a short essay for the museum on the Thanksgiving story and how he observes the holiday. Since then, Dennis has asked Native friends to talk about how their families spend Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of the responses people gave him this year. Dennis's essay, including people's earlier answers to his question, appears below: 

Wellington, Kansas: Thanksgiving was a blending of two different cultures, one culture helping another to survive. The historical knowledge we have now of what was actually taking place may not be the same as what was being experienced in those days. Our assessment now may not be fair because of all that the Native people have endured. 

Exeter, California: Being the only Native American classroom teacher at a public school, raised mostly in an urban setting steeped heavy in traditional American holidays, and around many other native people on weekends while traveling to dance, this has always been a challenging question for me that I cannot claim to know the answer for. I see many other teachers I work with who are not native struggle with knowing how to address the issue comfortably. I have to say, I have fear that if we avoid the issue altogether, Native people will be forgotten about. I have seen some teachers decide to stop teaching about Native Americans for fear of offending. I personally get sad when I see that happen. I know Thanksgiving is a controversial subject, and there are so many viewpoints. I share the modern theme of Thanksgiving, which I think has good intentions—family and community. I have also chosen to teach about Native American culture, even more heavily in November because of Thanksgiving, even though it is no longer a part of the curriculum. I have found ways to integrate it while teaching something that I think is important. I do an assembly for the students in which we dance, and I emphasize how it is not possible to teach everything there is to know about Native Americans in just one assembly. I emphasize the diversity among native people. 

San Antonio, Texas: Except for the last four years, the twenty years before that I spent almost all of my Thanksgivings at the table of my brother-in-law. Our gatherings were about giving thanks for what we had. As for Native American history being left out of teaching, it is an outrage. Educate our fellow educators on how to teach it. It would be a great way to help others teach courses and show how to respect the culture.

Edmonton, Alberta: We have family members with addiction issues. The kids get to eat, which my mom loves. And we are thankful not only to survive colonization, but also grateful to feed family.

Norman, Oklahoma: We celebrate and give thanks for our loved ones' being able to be together again. But when my daughter was young and the realization hit, as it does all young American Indians, she said to me , "Do you think we should have helped them?" There will be extra prayers for Standing Rock at our table. 

Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers
The Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers, 2011. Salt Pond, Cape Cod National Seashore. Courtesy of the Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers. 

In thinking about my earliest memories of elementary school, I remember being asked to bring a brown paper sack to class so that it could be decorated and worn as part of the Indian costume used to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was also instructed to make a less-than-authentic headband with Indian designs and feathers to complete this outfit. Looking back, I now know this was wrong.

The Thanksgiving Indian costume that all the other children and I made in my elementary classroom trivialized and degraded the descendants of the proud Wampanoags, whose ancestors attended the first Thanksgiving popularized in American culture. The costumes we wore bore no resemblance to Wampanoag clothing of that time period. Among the Wampanoag, and other American Indians, the wearing of feathers has significance. The feathers we wore were simply mockery, an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.

The Thanksgiving myth has done so much damage and harm to the cultural self-esteem of generations of Indian people, including myself, by perpetuating negative and harmful images to both young Indian and non-Indian minds. There are so many things wrong with the happy celebration that takes place in elementary schools and its association to American Indian culture; compromised integrity, stereotyping, and cultural misappropriation are three examples. 

Thanksgiving-Ferris
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930), The First Thanksgiving 1621. Color halftone of an oil painting from the series The Pageant of a Nation. Library of Congress. (LC-USZC4-4961

When children are young, they are often exposed to antiquated images of American Indians through cartoons, books, and movies. But Thanksgiving re-enactments may be their most active personal encounter with Indian America, however poorly imagined, and many American children associate Thanksgiving actions and images with Indian culture for the rest of their lives. These cultural misunderstandings and stereotypical images perpetuate historical inaccuracy.

Tolerance of mockery by teachers is a great concern to Native parents. Much harm has been done to generations of Indian people by perpetuating negative and harmful images in young minds. Presenting Thanksgiving to children as primarily a happy time trivializes our shared history and teaches a half-truth. And while I agree that elementary-school children who celebrate the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms are too young to hear the truth, educators need to share Thanksgiving facts in all American schools sometime before high school graduation.

Thanksgiving-Brownscombe
Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914). Oil paint on canvas. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Let’s begin with Squanto (aka Tisquantum), a Patuxet, one of more than 50 tribes who formed the Wampanoag Confederacy. Around 1614, when he was perhaps 30, Squanto was kidnapped along with others of his people and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to Malaga, Spain, where they were sold into slavery. Monks in Spain bought Squanto, shared their faith with him, and made it possible for him to find his way to England in 1615. In England he worked for shipbuilder John Slany and became proficient in English. In 1619 Squanto returned to his homeland by joining an exploring expedition along the New England coast. When he arrived at the village where he has been raised, all his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a devastating plague.

What about the Pilgrims? Separatists who fled from England to Holland seeking to escape religious persecution by English authorities, and who later booked passage to North America, are now called "Pilgrims," though Americans did not widely use the term until the 1870s. In November, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor in present-day Provincetown Harbor. After exploring the coast for a few weeks, the Pilgrims landed and began building a permanent settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s Patuxet village, now renamed New Plymouth. Within the first year, half of the 102 Pilgrims who set out from Europe on the Mayflower had perished. In desperation the Pilgrims initially survived by eating corn from abandoned fields, raiding villages for stored food and seed, and robbing graves at Corn Hill.

Squanto was introduced to the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621, became friends with them, and taught them how to hunt and fish in order to survive in New England. He taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and how to plant gourds around the corn so that the vines could climb the cornstalks. Due to his knowledge of English, the Pilgrims made Squanto an interpreter and emissary between the English and Wampanoag Confederacy.

What really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621? The Pilgrims did not introduce the concept of thanksgiving; the New England tribes already had autumn harvest feasts of thanksgiving. To the original people of this continent, each day is a day of thanksgiving to the Creator.  In the fall of 1621, William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, decided to have a Plymouth harvest feast of thanksgiving and invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims. Massasoit came with approximately 90 warriors and brought food to add to the feast, including venison, lobster, fish, wild fowl, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. Massasoit and the ninety warriors stayed in Plymouth for three days. These original Thanksgiving foods are far different from the meals prepared in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Squanto died in 1622, but Massasoit outlived the era of relative peace in colonial New England. On May 26, 1637, near the present-day Mystic River in Connecticut, while their warriors were away, an estimated 400 to 700 Pequot women, children, and old men were massacred and burned by combined forces of the Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Saybrook (Connecticut) colonies and Narragansett and Mohegan allies. Colonial authorities found justification to kill most of the Pequot men and enslave the captured women and their children. Pequot slaves were sent to Bermuda and the West Indies. In 1975 the official number of Pequot people living in Connecticut was 21. Similar declines in Native population took place throughout New England as an estimated three hundred thousand Indians died by violence, and even more were displaced, in New England over the next few decades.

Looking at this history raises a question: Why should Native peoples celebrate Thanksgiving? Many Natives particularly in the New England area remember this attempted genocide as a factual part of their history and are reminded each year during the modern Thanksgiving. The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

I turn to friends on the Internet to find out what Native people think of Thanksgiving. A few of the responses I have received over the years:

Hydro, Oklahoma: Could we just start over and go forward? We can't change the past, but we can work for peace and unity in the future. History needs to be taught correctly in our schools—that is what needs to happen. My daughter had to write a paper about Big Tree, Satank, and Satanta. She interviewed Satanta's great-grandson, who was in his 90s, and told the story as he told it to her, including their transport from Fort Sill and how the feather was turned into a knife as they passed the giant tree, causing the soldiers to shoot and kill Satank. She got an AAA+ from her teacher.

Ecuador via Bozeman, Montana: It's important to share the whole, true story of the first Thanksgiving. Many of us were told a fairytale lie that led us to believe the same old story: Colonization was good for everyone and colonization was relatively peaceful (the violence was necessary, the ends justify the means). Now, a lot of us are learning more, and that comes from educating ourselves with the help from those who do know. I will say this, the generic idea of thanksgiving, or taking the time to be with family and friends and give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, the big and small, is a great practice and should happen more often. I wonder how we can turn a negative into a positive? Can we have an honest Thanksgiving? Can we move forward and, if so, where do we begin?

Santa Fe, New Mexico: My family and I celebrate Thanksgiving, not so much in the way that the "Pilgrims" may have done with the Indians. We give pause, and acknowledge all of the blessings that we received in the past year. We think of family and friends; of the homeless; of those away from family in hospitals, elders in nursing homes, those incarcerated, the soldier men and women overseas, around the world, standing watch and guarding our freedom. We think of those in mourning, whose family have gone ahead of them. We also think of those in school, no matter what age. And, finally, we pray for traveling mercies said for folks traveling home. We are thankful each day for Creator's gifts but on Thanksgiving, it seems we focus and are concentrated in our thoughts about these blessings.

Fairfax, Oklahoma: Our folks and ancestors left a good road to follow and prayed for gifts or successes for us that they may not have achieved. We have opportunities even more than them in these days and days to come. Long time ago we sat down in thanksgiving and had a great day. That's what Thanksgiving is to me, to enjoy and continue to achieve for yourself and them. They are smiling when we achieve. Aho.

Sevierville, Tennessee: Yes, I celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a thankful heart and feel blessed, so I give thanks.

Lawton, Oklahoma, with gentle humor: Do we have to feed the Pilgrims? Again?

And here are a few people's thoughts in 2013: 

Aylett, Virginia: It is good to celebrate the concept of gratitude and thankfulness. When the holiday story is based on a lie that covers up the national moral atrocity of genocide, the statement about the people who celebrate is not good. Shining light on the truth will always bring about healing. 

Montville, Connecticut: Thanksgiving was celebrated for murder and slavery rather than friendship and harvest. 

Greenbelt, Maryland: I don't necessarily look at the holiday as pilgrims-meet-Indians-and-chow-down. I celebrate it as the time the cycle of alcoholism was broken in our family, and we have a feast to celebrate that. 

Norman, Oklahoma: It's pretty much a family reunion for me, and there is eating, visiting, being thankful, and having a good time. Because of that, there is no reason to worry about the history. Similar to the idea that our dances fall on the 4th of July and instead of celebrating independence, it is more like a homecoming to our Kiowa people. 

California: When I went to school there was two Indians in our class—me and a Hopi girl. Neither one of us had to endure any of this because her mother and my mother both raised hell with the principal. No fake headbands or feathers for us. 

Pala, California: When my kids were in pre-school is when I decided I needed to represent our people at this time of year more than any other. I would be damned if my kids were gonna wear paper bags like the other students. I wasn't having that. I learned to get the story across at their age level and show them the beauty and generosity of our people. I remember growing up and my mom getn upset with me because on Thanksgiving day I would come to the dinner table in my PJs and hair unbrushed, knowing the day was not a celebration. But now that I'm a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 1, I understand as Native people we give thanks to the Creator every day. On Thanksgiving Day I'm just grateful our people are still here and still stand strong. 

Salt Lake City, Utah: Thanksgiving, to me, is to be grateful for all the good blessings that came my way. Good health. Gift of family. Regardless of history, there are still many Natives in the land, and that shows how resilient we are. To honor those who went before us, let us share our culture and stories, teach the youth to learn from the past and to make our lives so our ancestors are proud of us. Example is a great educator. 

Alberta, Canada: It is an opportunity for those who do take note . . . . There will be those who roll their eyes, and others who may gain deeper appreciation, to honor (maybe even emulate) a more giving nature . . . , that of their Creator. 

Crow Agency, Montana: My Dad used to say, "We give thanks everyday, so if they want to give us a holiday to give thanks, I'll take it." 

Unfortunately, I didn't include where people were writing from in the essay when it first appeared in 2011:

I was infuriated when my daughter’s school had a mock feast complete with paper mache headdresses and Pilgrim hats!

When they did that to my kids in elementary, I TORE those items up and signed my kids out of school for that day.

For Thanksgiving I was the Indian. Umm Go figure . . . .

Someone took a picture of me in front of the class, and to this day . . . it bothers me. Don't get the whole making a fest in school.   

Tonight I have to lead a children's Bible class, and they want me to theme it around Thanksgiving. I will, but it's not going to be about the happy pilgrims and all that stuff. Thankfulness to God is one thing, but elevating pilgrims to hero status is out of the question.  

When my daughter Victoria was in grade school she had a teacher give them the assignment to write a report on Thanksgiving dinner, and Victoria wrote hers as to why our family doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving. Victoria got an F on the paper, and I threatened to go to the school board if the principal didn't get it changed. Victoria got an A, and the class got a lesson on Native American heritage. 

Ignorance and not near enough education in the school systems! It is very sad that a majority of what is taught is very superficial and the dark aspects of our history are neatly tucked away.Very sad!

Considered a day of mourning in our house.

For skins [American Indians], Thanksgiving should be the Last Supper. 


The United American Indians of New England meet each year at Plymouth Rock on Cole's Hill for a Day of Mourning. They gather at the feet of a statue of Grand Sachem Massasoit of the Wampanoag to remember and reflect in the hope that America will never forget.

Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? No, I don’t celebrate. But I do take advantage of the holiday and get together with family and friends to share a large meal without once thinking of the Thanksgiving in 1621. I think it is the same in many Native households. It is ironic that Thanksgiving takes place during American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month. An even greater irony is that more Americans today identify the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday than as National American Indian Heritage Day.  

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The original version of this essay was published on November 23, 2011.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

November 01, 2016

Meet Native America: Vinton Hawley, Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, President of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, and Vice-Chairman of the National Indian Health Board

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Chmn Hawley US Capitol
Vinton Hawley, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, president of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, and vice chairman of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB). NIHB Board of Directors meeting, January 2016, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Chairman Hawley.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Vinton Hawley. I'm chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, or Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters); president of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada; and vice-chairman of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB). I am an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and also Hopi–Tewa (Tobacco Clan). 

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

Two Native names I've been given are Sahkoo Penge (Black Pipe) and Saah Ehnoo (Tobacco Boy). There are many other names that were given, as well. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

Pyramid Lake is located 27 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada. We have three towns that comprise our reservation—Wadsworth, Nixon, and Sutcliffe—and a huge water base in rural Nevada. On the Hopi–Tewa side of my family, I come from the Tewa Village First Mesa, Polacca, Arizona. 

Where is your tribe originally from? 

Pyramid Lake is the traditional homeland of the Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters). The arid desert and mesas in Arizona are the traditional homeland for the Hopi–Tewa people. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share? 

Pyramid Lake has been at the forefront with water rights. The tribe recently finalized the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA), a 20-plus-year water negotiation between the tribe, local governments, the City of Reno, and the City of Sparks that will provide economic development opportunities and funding to the tribe. We are working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Department of the Interior Office of the Special Trustee to gain access to the economic development funds that are attached to the finalization and implementation of TROA. 

The tribe’s Section 17 Corporate Charter was also recently approved by the BIA. 

In somewhat older history, the tribe recognizes battles that took place on the reservation against settlers and the U.S. Army. 

O'Sullivan, 1867, Pyramid LakeThe Pyramid and Domes, 1867. Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. Collections of the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98503891/.


How is your tribal government set up? 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is governed by ten Tribal Council members who are elected biannually in December to staggered two-year terms. The officers, including the chairman and vice-chairman, are part of the ten-member council. The tribe operates under the Indian Reorganization Act Constitution and By-Laws approved in January 1936 by the Department of Interior. 

How often does your Tribal Council meet? 

The Pyramid Lake Tribal Council meets three times a month. Council meetings are held every first and third Friday of every month, and we have a Water Team meeting on the third Wednesday of every month. The Water Team meeting is held with the tribe’s water attorney and addresses only water issues. 

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

Unfortunately, we have lost a large portion of our people who have this kind of traditional knowledge. The majority of our members are now involved in Native religions outside of our own Paiute culture. They are mostly involved in the Native American Church and Sundance religions. There are a few families who continue to practice our old way, but Paiute life is simple and I think that is why it can’t compete with the more popular and glamorous Native cultures. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? 

I was raised in most part by my great-grandmother Gussie Dunn Williams, who lived the old ways. We would get up in the morning and eat breakfast and then go visiting our relatives on our reservation. We didn’t own a car and we walked all over. Each visit involved conversations in Paiute about everyday happenings, dropping off food for those who needed help, checking on others who might not be able to leave their homes, and just plain old visiting. 

I learned traditional activities such as weaving, gathering, doctoring, etc. It wasn’t the show that it seems to have become today; it was just day-to-day living. I learned the priorities of our old people and I was taught what is really important to our tribe to ensure our survival. My life was simple, and our life is simple, but what is most important is that our people survive, that our environment is protected, and that water is life. I learned to understand the language at an early age and began speaking. I learned the survival arts of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. I also learned a lot from my Hopi–Tewa grandparents, who were very hard workers and have instilled in me what exactly a simple life is. 

Lower Truckee River at Nixon—Paiute ReservationThe Truckee River shortly before it drains into Pyramid Lake. Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation near Nixon, Nevada. Photo courtesy of truckeeriver.org. 


What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

It is my responsibility to make decisions that ensure our way of life continues. So many people associate money with success, but that isn’t our way. The level of our lake is our success. To ensure that our tribal language and traditions are sustained is my priority. My people are my responsibility. It is my commitment to this that I carry each day. 

Decisions made must ensure that the future membership is cared for and protected, our lake is sustained, and our land and its boundaries remain as close to their original state as possible. 

I continue to advocate for the sustainability of the Paiute culture. However, despite my position, culture is not funded by the tribe, nor do we have a grant to assist cultural sustainability. Tribal members in our community volunteer to maintain the culture and have classes on a weekly basis. I have to give high praise to those individuals who are as passionate about cultural preservation as I am. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I am inspired by my elders, by our old people who have lived a simple life filled with our beautiful language and traditions. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who? 

All Natives are historical leaders. Without their leadership and courage, none of us would be where we are today as Native peoples. We are still here! 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

Currently our tribe has increased to 2,803 enrolled members. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

All persons of Indian blood whose names appear on the official, certified Constructed Base Roll of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation as of January 1, 1935; or all children born to any enrolled regular member of the tribe who is a resident of the reservation at the time of the birth of said children, provided it is proven that said children are direct lineal descendants of a Base Enrollee as identified above.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

A handful of tribal members still speak Paiute. The number of tribal members who understand Paiute is a lot higher, but they do not speak. Our language is going to become extinct if we do not take measures to sustain and teach our people! 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own? 

Currently our Tribal Enterprises comprise three stores on our reservation. We are in the process of increasing our economic development and are looking at a multitude of business opportunities that will generate revenue for the tribe. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

We have an annual powwow and handgame tournament in the summer and a rodeo in the fall. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

Pyramid Lake is widely acclaimed as North America’s most beautiful desert lake, but it’s actually the world-class fishery that has brought Pyramid Lake worldwide fame. Pyramid Lake is the only habitat in the world for the kooyooe (cui-ui) fish that has been around for over two million years. 

The Pyramid Lake fishery also includes the famous Lahontan cutthroat trout that have grown to record sizes and have lured fishermen from all over the world for several decades. Celebrities, foreign royalty, and even a U.S. president have come here in hopes of catching trophy fish at Pyramid Lake. 

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation? 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The tribe contracts with or receives grants directly from federal agencies or the State of Nevada, to provide services to tribal members and residents of the reservation addressing issues that will impact the tribe. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe? 

To learn your language and your traditions; to commit yourself to higher education and to bringing back your knowledge to sustain our tribe; and to see what you have been blessed with, which is to be Numu, and to always be proud of who you are and where you come from! 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

September 30, 2016

National Native American Veterans Memorial to Be Created in Washington, D.C.

Kiowa Ton-Kon-GahMembers of the Ton-Kon-Gah, or Kiowa Black Leggings Society, discuss what it means to be a veteran before the start of a ceremony in memory of those who fought. The tipi depicts battles in which Kiowas participated and lists the names of all Kiowas killed in combat since World War II. Near Anadarko, Oklahoma, 2014. Photo by Nicole Tung.

 

In December 2013 the U.S. Congress charged the National Museum of the American with creating a memorial on its grounds to give all Americans the opportunity “to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans” in our nation’s Armed Forces. “The significance of such a memorial on the National Mall is obvious,” declares museum director Kevin Gover, “and we welcome the opportunity to accord these veterans the honor they have earned. The project will give affirmation to the patriotic contributions of Native American veterans by the federal government as a whole and by the Smithsonian Institution in particular. For these reasons the National Museum of the American Indian will do as good a job on the National Native American Veterans Memorial as it deserves.”

Another key question, then, is why would American Indians serve a nation that suppressed their cultures and took away their own freedoms and homelands? The response by Jeffrey Begay, a Navajo veteran, reflects the sentiments of all Native veterans: “We serve this country because it’s our land. We have a sacred purpose to protect this place.”

For whatever reason, Native Americans not only serve, they do so at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group. They served in high numbers even before the United States passed the American Indian Citizenship Act in 1924: According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, during World War I 10,000 Native Americans served in the Army and 2,000 in the Navy; three out of four were volunteers. 

Choctaw squad upon return from WWI Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture 1919
Left: Choctaw telephone squad, returned from fighting in World War I. Camp Merritt, New Jersey, June 7, 1919. From left: Corporal Solomon B. Louis, Private Mitchell Bobb, Corporal Calvin Wilson, Corporal James Edwards, Private George Davenport, Captain E. H. Horner. Photo by Dr. Joseph K. Dixon. Courtesy Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Indiana University. 
Right: Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture, 1919. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture (Six Nations of the Grand River, 1890–1996) was the first Native Canadian registered nurse. Rejected from Canadian nursing schools because of her Native heritage, she sought training in the United States. In 1917, she volunteered for the U.S. Medical Corps and served in a hospital in France. She was one of 14 Native Canadian women who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I. Courtesy John Moses.

World War II witnessed an even more astonishing wave of American Indian patriotism. In fact, had all eligible non-Indian males in the United States enlisted in the same proportion as tribal people, there would have been no need for the Selective Service System. The Department of Defense later reported that, exclusive of officers, 24,521 reservation and 20,000 non-reservation Indians saw military service during the war. Native Hawaiians also responded in overwhelming numbers after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as did Alaska Natives, who were the first ashore on each island that Allied forces occupied during the Aleutian Campaign. All told, ten percent of the country’s American Indian and Alaska Native population of 350,000—including nearly 800 women—saw active duty during World War II. This represented one-third of all able-bodied Indian men from 18 to 50 years of age. In some tribes, the percentage of men in the military reached as high as 70 percent. For their service they earned at least 71 Air Medals, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, and 5 Medals of Honor. 


MacArthur with Signal Corpsmen

General Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in the South Pacific, on an inspection trip of American battlefronts, late 1943. From left: Staff Sergeant Virgil Brown (Pima), First Sergeant Virgil F. Howell (Pawnee), Staff Sergeant Alvin J. Vilcan (Chitimacha), General MacArthur, Sergeant Byron L. Tsingine (Diné [Navajo]), Sergeant Larry Dekin (Diné [Navajo]). U.S. Army Signal Corps.


This exemplary record of military service continues to this day. American Indians, both men and women, have served with honor, distinction, and in overwhelming numbers on each of our nation’s battlefields since World War II. Although the United States has given scant heed to their remarkable contribution to our nation’s safety and well-being, Native servicemen and women are among the most honored members of their communities across Indian Country. They are honored for their service by their families and their tribes. They are honored before going into service. They are honored upon their return. Honor songs are composed and sung in their memory. The most visible expression of that honor is at powwows, where veterans are asked to lead the Grand Entry, to carry the tribal and U.S. flags, and to dance.

Native American Women Warriors The Native American Women Warriors lead the grand entry during a powwow in Pueblo, Colorado, June 14, 2014. From left: Sergeant First Class Mitchelene BigMan (Apsáalooke [Crow]/Hidatsa), Sergeant Lisa Marshall (Cheyenne River Sioux), Specialist Krissy Quinones (Apsáalooke [Crow]), and Captain Calley Cloud (Apsáalooke [Crow]), with Tia Cyrus (Apsáalooke [Crow]) behind them. The organization, founded by Mitchelene BigMan in 2012, raises awareness about Native American women veterans and provides support services in health, employment, and education. Photo by Nicole Tung.


Although not all tribes approve of warfare, they all honor their soldiers. For some, especially the Pueblo peoples of the southwest, there is concern about being a soldier and the possibility of taking another human’s life. Nonetheless, as one Hopi leader explained, “The fact that American Indians are fighting for this great country of ours needs to be recognized. We may have been a conquered people, but we were not a defeated people, and our warriors will always rise to the call of battle.” One of those warriors was Private First Class Lori Ann Piestewa, who died in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A member of the Hopi Tribe from Tuba City, Arizona, Private Piestewa is believed to be the first Native American woman to die fighting in our nation’s armed forces.

Another unfortunate distinction for Native American warriors was the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a Cherokee from Roland, Oklahoma. Sergeant Wheeler is the first known U.S. casualty in the fight against ISIS. A member of the Army’s elite Delta Force and the recipient of 11 Bronze Stars during his military career, he died October 22, 2015, while attempting to rescue prisoners near Hawija in Northern Iraq. Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker eloquently stated, “Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country. We are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions. Joshua is a true American hero, and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.”

Veterans at groundbreaking for NMAI

United States senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, at left in regalia, and Daniel K. Inouye stand with members of the Vietnam Era Veterans Inter-Tribal Association during the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington, D.C., September 28, 1999. Campbell (Northern Cheyenne, b. 1933), a Korean War veteran, is one of the few American Indians to ever serve in Congress. For his actions during World War II, Inouye (1924–2012) received more than 15 medals and citations, most notably the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. MARIO TAMA / AFP / Getty Images.


Working together with the National Congress of American Indians and other American Indian groups, the National Museum of the American Indian has begun preliminary plans to construct the National Native American Veterans Memorial in the next five years and has formed an Advisory Committee chaired by Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel and former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of the Northern Cheyenne, who affirms: “I am American and I am Indian and I am a vet. I believe I was compelled to serve to honor the warrior tradition which is inherent to most Native American societies—the pillars of strength, honor, pride, devotion, and wisdom.”

In the months ahead, this blog will feature stories from our Native veterans about their service and provide updates on the progress of the memorial project, including the status of the funding goal of $15 million.

—Herman J. Viola
Senior advisor, National Native American Veterans Memorial


Dr. Herman J. Viola is a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A specialist on the history of the American West, he served as director of the Museum's National Anthropological Archives in addition to organizing the major exhibitions Magnificent Voyagers and Seeds of Change. His many books include 
Warriors in Uniform: The Legacy of American Indian Heroism. Before joining the staff of the Smithsonian, Dr. Viola was an archivist at the National Archives of the United States.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

September 06, 2016

Meet Native America: Mark Gould, Chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh

Chief Mark Gould
Chief Mark Quiet Hawk Gould taking part in A Day of Celebration! Lenapowsi: Nanticoke-Lenape Music, Dance and Craft. Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, Millville, New Jersey, September 2014.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Mark Quiet Hawk Gould. I am the elected chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation and have served in tribal leadership for over four decades. I am also vice president of Native American Advancement Corporation (NAAC), a non-profit agency operated by the tribe that provides weatherization services for homes through an initiative under the Department of Energy. Both the tribal headquarters and NAAC offices are located in Cumberland County, New Jersey. 

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname? 

Like many of my tribal relatives, my English name is a Native name, because Gould is one of the core Lenape families of our tribal base rolls, going back to the time of first contact with the English colonists who came to our homeland. My ceremonially given tribal name is Chitkwesit Mexkaniat, which in English is Quiet Hawk. It describes of my relationship with the Creator; I am quiet before him, but rarely quiet with people. 

Where is your tribal community located? 

Our tribal headquarters is located in Bridgeton, in Cumberland County, New Jersey. Our cultural center is located on 51 acres in Fairton, in Cumberland County. Most of our tribal members live and have always lived in Cumberland and Salem counties. 

Where is your tribe originally from? 

Our tribal families have always resided here around the Delaware Bay in South Jersey and Delaware. The core Lenape families on the New Jersey side of the bay intermarried with core Lenape and Nanticoke families from the two continuing historic communities on the Delaware side of the Bay for at least the past 300 years. The intermarriage has been so prevalent that the people of the three tribal communities are all interrelated. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share? 

In the early 1970s our lives began to change. There was a lack of work, school opportunities were becoming few and far between, and our churches were becoming integrated, leaving our families without the governance that had been centered in our core churches for more than a century and a half. At the same time, the Piscataway and the Nanticoke offered their assistance in reorganizing into an elected tribal government that was independent from the church. 

The enthusiasm of the younger generation around reorganizing in an open public fashion alarmed our elders, who advised us to be still because of the history of abuse our people had suffered and were still experiencing. Thanks to the Creator, we were pushed forward by two very strong elder women, Marion Strong Medicine Gould and Mary Spreading Eagle Wings Ward. That was the new revitalization of our families. We were then visited by Nora Thompson Dean, a spiritual leader of the Lenape Delaware of Oklahoma. She extended an invitation to our council to visit her community. While there, we were introduced to the Moraviantown Lenape Delaware of Ontario, Canada. 

Our community had chosen to isolate itself, and our people did not want to share our culture with those around us. Outsiders did not understand our life ways. Sharing could bring dire consequences and even punishment by outsiders. The very first informal setting in Oklahoma was not only heartwarming but also eye-opening. Our spiritual leader, Chief Lew Gray Squirrel Pierce, and I found ourselves staring at one of the elders from the Oklahoma Delaware, having to explain that our awkward gaze was not meant to be disrespectful, but was because the elder looked exactly like Lew’s sister back home. We found so many who reminded us of our relatives around the Delaware Bay. 

Reviving ancient connections led to another memorable moment in my own life when I was very ill. Sixteen members of the Moraviantown Lenape came 600 miles to have ceremony and pray for my health. After all these years, I know that prayer works! I also know that we survive by the Creator’s blessing and because we care for one another. 

Chief Gould



Chief Gould teaching rattle-making at the tribe's summer youth camp at Cohanzick, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Grounds. Fairton, Fairfield Township, Cumberland County, New Jersey, July 2015. 

How is your tribal government set up? 

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal government has three branches—Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Our Tribal Council is comprised of nine members—four members of the Executive Branch who serve staggered four-year terms and five at-large Legislative Council members who serve staggered two-year terms. The Judicial Branch is headed by a Supreme Court of five justices who also oversee lower Peacekeeping Courts. 

Important government functions are divided among four statutory committees: Citizenship, Cultural Retention, Ceremonial, and Government Affairs and Relations. An Elder’s Council and Youth Council—called “New Dawn”—are chartered under tribal law. 

Other volunteer committees organize our annual powwow, summer camp, biannual gatherings, newsletter, buildings and maintenance, etc. Our tribally chartered community services agency provides for social services to our citizens and our tribally chartered community development agency provides for non-profit economic development initiatives. A tribally owned limited liability company oversees tribal for-profit initiatives. 

Our Council meets twice monthly, with the second meeting also being with the general community. 

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

At the age of 74 and working 40 hours a week, I think my tribal family has been very generous. I conduct all meetings, and I am a voting member of all committees. As chief, I have to think not merely of the present goals and challenges, but also of the future hope of our people. What is unwritten is that I am an ear to those who need to be listened to and a hand for those who need help—all while trying to get others to do the same. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? 

I identify with the saying, “It takes a whole village to raise a child,” because I know that I am that child. I think that almost every elder woman either spanked me, pulled my hair or ear, or sent a message home for my parents to handle me. The men taught by example and life lessons. Some lessons were harsh and very costly, but I realize that it was for my safety and wellbeing. I don’t know if this prepared me for leadership, but it did prepare me to be a man of—and for—my people. My own preparation was to surround myself with well-educated, compassionate people who loved our families and loved and feared God. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

As a young man, I did not realize the reason for so many of our tribal citizens to be involved in my life lessons. Everyone wanted to protect me and make me into a person with compassion and strength. During the years that my father was a POW in WWII, my mother and my grandmother taught me to care about myself and others. They also taught me how to be accepted and respected outside of our community. My Aunt Esther tried to save me academically. 

The adult lessons were not taught but experienced: How to be strong, how not to be afraid, and how to recognize a fraud. When I tell people who my mentors are, they are puzzled. Their teachings have saved us numerous times. Harry (Rusty) Wright, Donald (Duck) Gould, and Jesse (Doobie) Gould—some of their wisdom was passed on with cryptic proverbs like, “Ain’t no hill to a climber.” (There is nothing you cannot do if you put your mind to it.) Or, “All goodbyes ain’t gone.” (There is nothing you can do to stop me. Don’t view my retreat as defeat. I’ll be back). 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

There are about 3,800 tribal citizens. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe? 

To be a tribal citizen, you must be one-quarter blood from our base roll. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

The tribal citizens are involved in reviving the Southern Unami dialect of the Lenape language through a tribally based program of instruction. I’m not sure how I will make out, but the younger ones have surprised everyone. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor? 

We sponsor an annual Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Pow Wow, two spiritual gatherings, a weekly senior lunch, and a summer youth camp. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe? 

Educate yourself about the problems facing your people. Give freely of your time. Always remember that you do not have a clue how many tribal citizens were involved in your safety, your education, and the assurance that you do not have to endure the punishment and discrimination that they suffered. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 

 
Photos courtesy of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation; used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

August 19, 2016

Meet Native America: Theodore Hernandez, Chairman of the Wiyot Tribe

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh

Chmn & Ms. Hernandez
Wiyot Tribal Chairman Theodore Hernandez and his wife, Rose Hernandez. March 2016, Loleta, California.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

I'm Theodore Hernandez, chairman of the Wiyot Tribe, located on the Table Bluff Reservation.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?

My nickname with the youth on the Table Bluff Reservation is Gray Wolf. Most people know me as Ted.

Where is your reservation located?

The Table Bluff Reservation is in Northern California on the outskirts of Loleta, California. Our main office and tribal reservation overlook Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Where is your tribe originally from?

Wiyot people have always lived along the Pacific Ocean and around Humboldt Bay. Before the 1850s and the times of the Gold Rush, the Wiyot people covered 40 miles of coastline, going inland about 10 miles. The tribe’s ancestral territory includes Little River to the north, Bear River Ridge to the south, and from the Pacific Coast out to as far as Berry Summit in the northeast and Chalk Mountain in the southeast.

What is a significant point in history for your tribe that you would like to share?

For the Wiyot people there are a couple points in history that are unquestionably significant. We can never forget about the lives we lost during the massacre in the 1860s on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay, as well as on the banks of the Eel River and Mad River. This major event in history practically brought the Wiyot people to extinction. In fact, in the early 1900s there were only about one hundred tribal members.

Shortly after the early 1900s though, the tribe began to prosper again and grow our membership. Sadly, hardship hit the Wiyot people again, this time in 1961 when the California Rancheria Act terminated the legal status of the tribe and the Wiyot effectively became non-Indian Indians. A major thank-you goes out to Wiyot tribal members Albert and Beverly James and their families who fought to get the tribe's rights back and ultimately succeeded. In 1975 the tribe filed suit against the federal government for unlawful termination, and in 1981 federal recognition and trust status was reinstated.

How is your tribal community government set up?

Our Tribal Council is made up of seven tribal members who are elected by the tribal membership. The Wiyot Tribe has a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer and three members-at-large who assist with representing the tribal membership.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

The Wiyot Tribe has committees that council members and other interested tribal members sit on. These committees represent our membership and tribe throughout the organization. Traditionally we respect our tribal elders and their wisdom, which is often consulted.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Council members of the Wiyot tribe have a staggered four-year term for each position on the Tribal Council.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Our Tribal Council has Business Council meetings twice a month. Tribal membership is also asked to attend these meetings and take part in the public forum. The council also meets at different times throughout the year for committee meetings and economic development meetings. In addition to our Business Council meetings, we also have General Council meetings twice a year.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribal community?

I believe that all my life experiences, both good and bad, helped me to become who I am today and have aided me has a tribal leader. Throughout life I gained experience in everything I did and specifically by taking part in the workforce. I started as a laborer and worked my way up to management, developing business leadership skills. I regained my cultural drive to lead the tribe when I was able to participate in my daughter's coming-of-age dance. This moment in my time brought the tribe's culture back into my life and motivated me to make it my goal to reach tribal leadership and strive to do better for the tribal membership.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

I consider my main responsibility as the tribal chairman to be to provide for and make the best decisions for tribal members. It is especially important to provide for the youth of the tribe and to insure their well-being and success, since they after all will be the future of our tribe.

Chmn Theodore HernandezChairman Hernandez taking part in the unveiling of a mural created by students at Humboldt State University in collaboration with the artist Saba (Randy Sabaque) and the wider community. The mural celebrates the cultures of traditionally underrepresented students at Humboldt State. December 2015, UC Quad, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California.


Who inspired you as a mentor?

My mother was the biggest inspiration in my life. She possessed strong leadership skills and outstanding morals. There have also been numerous elders who have influenced me through their teaching of our culture and their stories.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

There are approximately 640 enrolled members in the Wiyot Tribe.

What are the criteria to become a Wiyot tribal member?

Our membership requirement is through blood quantum. Each member is required to have one-eighth Wiyot blood to be considered for enrollment. Furthermore, if you are a descendant from a base roll member you are automatically qualified to be a Wiyot tribal member.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

There are no remaining fluent Wiyot speakers that we know of at this time. The last known fluent speakers died between the 1940s and 1960s. Some of their descendants know some words or phrases, but there is no one left who could have a full conversation in Wiyot. At this time Dr. Lynnika Butler, the tribe's language specialist, is learning the Wiyot language from audio recordings, written word lists, stories, etc., that were gained from the elders who spoke the Wiyot Language. Dr. Butler then teaches Wiyot to the youth and other tribal membership through language workshops.

What annual events does your tribal community sponsor?

One of the biggest events that the tribe hosts is the annual Wiyot Days. Wiyot Days brings Native American dancers and drummers from across the Northwest to perform during the ceremonies. At Wiyot Days there is also a friendly competition among the men of the Wiyot Tribe in traditional game sticks, a salmon feed, and various things offered by local vendors. In addition to Wiyot Days, in 2014 the Wiyot Tribe started observing our World Renewal Ceremony, which hadn’t been done in over 150 years. The tribe is also proud to support the Boys and Girls Club of the Table Bluff Reservation and local youth sport teams.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Wiyot Tribe on Table Bluff Reservation overlooks Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean, so our scenic views and beach access are like nowhere else. Moreover, the Wiyot Tribe also has an onsite Heritage Center where priceless artifacts and one-of-a-kind paintings can be viewed. If the beach and bay are not your thing, if you visit the Wiyot area you can also hike along the redwood trails and enjoy the towering redwoods above you.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribal community?

I would like to encourage the youth in our tribal community to continue to practice our beliefs, traditions, and language, to keep our cultural alive and to pass it on to future generations. I also would like to encourage our youth to seek higher education, to enrich their lives as individuals and make them able to offer their hand to our community and assist the tribe in growth and development with the wisdom they gain. I also believe our youth should always listen to the elders in the community, to learn from their stories and pass our history on to future generations.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe; used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

 

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment