Tim Giago: Giving thanks is part of the Native American tradition
By now I believe most Americans understand that the creative stories surrounding the first Thanksgiving are, for the most part, a myth.

There are few Native Americans who believe this day meant that peace and harmony had become a reality between the Indians and the Pilgrims. Most Natives know that this was just the beginning of an onslaught that would reduce the number of Indians from more than one million to about 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th Century.

Over the years I have heard many stories about the psychological impact of Thanksgiving celebrations at schools where a few Native Americans attended classes with predominantly white students. Recalling her school days in Kansas, one Caddo Indian lady said, “All of the kids, except me and two other Native Americans, showed up in class wearing cardboard feathers with their faces painted in various colors. The white kids put their hands over their mouths and whooped and ran around the classroom making these awful sounds. We Indian kids were mortified and embarrassed by all of this.”

She continued, “What if on Black History Day or on Martin Luther King’s birthday all of the white kids came to school with their faces colored black: wouldn’t that be an insult to the African American students?”

But the day known as Thanksgiving has been accepted as a legal holiday by most Native Americans because the idea of a day to give thanks is such a strong part of their traditions and culture. There are “wopila” (giving thanks) celebrations all of the time among the Indian people of the Great Plains. A son or daughter returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan is an occasion for a “wopila” celebration. A “wopila” to celebrate a high school or college graduation is typical. When someone recovers from an accident or a serious illness, a wopila celebration or ceremony is held.

So the idea of a day of Thanksgiving has been a part of the Native American landscape for centuries. The fact that it is also a national holiday for all Americans blends in perfectly with Native American traditions.

According to my research most of the credit for the establishment of an annual Thanksgiving holiday may be given to Sarah Josepha Hale. She was the editor of Ladies Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book and she began to clamor for such a day in 1827 by printing articles in the magazines. She also published stories and recipes, and wrote scores of letters to governors, senators, and presidents. After 36 years of crusading, she won her battle.

On October 3, 1863, buoyed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln proclaimed that November 26, would be a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

Only twice has a president changed the day of observation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in order to give depression-era merchants more selling days before Christmas, assigned the third Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day in 1939 and 1940. But he was met with popular resistance, largely because the change required rescheduling Thanksgiving Day events such as football games and parades. In 1941, a Congressional Joint Resolution officially set the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday for Thanksgiving.

Each passing year has brought a little more sensitivity to the way Thanksgiving is celebrated in the schools and in the public arena. History is written by the victor and no victorious people want to put their warts on display before the world.

No doubt there was a time when the Indians and Pilgrims tried to find a peaceful solution to their differences and maybe they did gather together to share a meal and perhaps the idea of a day when they gave thanks for their existence blossomed at that time, but the possibilities of eternal peace and love soon vanished from the American scene and bloodshed, genocide and war were the aftermath of that day.

On the remote Indian reservations families come together and share a meal. I vividly remember one Thanksgiving many years ago when my close friend Timothy Wetstone stopped by my house to play. He said, “Boy am I full. We had a big dinner of hot dogs and beans.” Well, to Tim that meal was probably an exceptionally good meal compared to his usual fare. I’m afraid that our meal that day didn’t exactly have all of the trimmings of a typical Thanksgiving dinner either because most of the time we survived on red beans and rice. We were thankful to have that.

For families around this great country celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope your day of “Wopila” is a good one.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: What future awaits the world on December 21, 2012? (11/15)
Tim Giago: Obama's point man on health reform thrown under bus (11/8)
Tim Giago: The more things change the more they stay the same (11/1)
Tim Giago: More to the Aquash murder case than meets the eye (10/25)
Tim Giago: Native Americans remain at the bottom of the heap (10/18)
Tim Giago: Reconciling by dancing to the beat of many drums (10/11)
Tim Giago: The 'disguised patriots' of the Tea Party movement (10/4)
Tim Giago: The choice between Stephanie and Kristi is quite clear (9/27)
Tim Giago: South Dakota justice system destroys young Natives (9/20)
Tim Giago: There are still active missile silos on Highway 71 South (9/13)
Tim Giago: Indian journalist group owes big debt to one professor (9/6)
Tim Giago: Some positive change in race relations in South Dakota (8/30)
Tim Giago: Out on the plains they sure don't call the wind Mariah (8/23)
Tim Giago: How Indian Country never got its own 'Roots' version (8/16)
Tim Giago: Remembering the lives of great Native news reporters (8/9)
Tim Giago: New generation changes minds about race in Rapid City (8/2)
Tim Giago: Mount Rushmore Memorial gets a new superintendent (7/26)
Tim Giago: Oglala Sioux Tribe should consider a wet reservation (7/12)
Tim Giago: Speaking on unity at the Mount Rushmore Memorial (7/6)
Tim Giago: A Native American newspaper born on July 1, 1981 (6/28)
Tim Giago: Science getting closer to solving multiple sclerosis (6/22)
Tim Giago: June 25 marks the 134th anniversary of Bighorn (6/7)
Tim Giago: Indian youth suicide nears epidemic proportions (5/31)
Tim Giago: Indian trust fund settlement insults land holders (5/24)
Tim Giago: Innocence lost at boarding school on reservation (5/17)
Tim Giago: Students in Wisconsin win victory on mascot bill (5/10)
Tim Giago: Political and religious fanaticism turning deadly (5/3)
Tim Giago: Democrat reaches out to South Dakota tribes (4/26)
Tim Giago: Mount Rushmore loses a man of great vision (4/19)
Tim Giago: Black Hills land claim settlement fund tops $1B (4/12)
Tim Giago: His ancestor was Crazy Horse's sole interpreter (4/5)
Tim Giago: Look into Native veteran discrimination claims (3/29)
Tim Giago: Inadequate funds crippling Indian health care (3/22)
Tim Giago: Urban relocation another failed Indian policy (3/15)
Tim Giago: Statistics and health care in Indian Country (3/8)
Tim Giago: Indigenous in America, Australia share paths (3/1)
Tim Giago: Sunday night movies at boarding school (2/22)
Tim Giago: Support the Year of Unity in South Dakota (2/15)
Tim Giago: Cherokee Nation fights termination effort (2/8)
Tim Giago: Natives finding true voice as Independents (2/1)
Tim Giago: Obama's vision might not please everyone (1/25)
Tim Giago: No honor in 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee (1/18)
Tim Giago: Support for Oglala Sioux President Two Bulls (1/11)
Tim Giago: Addressing misconceptions about Indians (1/6)