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Stateside With Rosalea - Hale and hearty

Stateside With Rosalea - Hale and hearty

Last Thursday was the fourth Thursday in November, so it was the national holiday known as Thanksgiving Day. According to my trusty Readers Digest 'America A to Z', the original celebration at Plymouth in the autumn of 1621 was a three-day celebration to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. George Washington proclaimed the first two national days of thanksgiving, but those were once-only events.

The nationwide celebration dates from 1863 when President Lincoln finally gave in to a 40-year campaign by one Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a writer and editor of two ladies magazines that were influential in forming the tastes and attitudes of women for fifty years from the late 1820s. You invoke Hale's spirit every time you recite her 1830 poem 'Mary had a little lamb'.

It's not lamb you eat at Thanksgiving, of course. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner consists of the New World foods eaten by the Pilgrims and the American Indians, who had shown the newcomers how to grow the crops in the first place (in order to stop them stealing food instead). So turkey, sweet potatoes, squash, beans, and corn are on the menu. And pumpkin pie for dessert.

Yum! Of course, although the turkey is the centrepiece, the real driving force of Thanksgiving is the opportunity it provides for the family to get together. However, the traditional dinner involves an enormous amount of work and the likelihood of frayed tempers and family feuds, so many people opt to have a smaller celebration, ignore it completely, buy a takeaway Thanksgiving dinner from a supermarket, or go to a restaurant.

This year I was invited to a family Thanksgiving, along with a couple of other newcomers to the US. One of the ways the celebration is perpetuated is this passing on of the tradition to new immigrants. It's with this kind of hospitality that each new little chink of brightly coloured glass is added to the kaleidoscope that is the USA, and - as families grow bigger and stretch across more generations - it's also one of the ways that the long-term diversity of the country is made visible and viable.

Four generations were present - from an 11-month-old girl to the 92-year-old matriarch at whose home the celebration was held. I'd be happy to hazard a guess that people who could speak only one language were in the minority, even though the majority had been born in the US. To my certain knowledge, Italy, Mexico, Africa and the Philippines were represented in the lineage of the family members, and if I'd asked directly about people's heritage, I'm sure I would have found even more diverse backgrounds.

It was a wonderful, warm, funny gathering and I'm honoured to have been invited.

But there is another image in my mind, besides the Norman Rockwell one, of Thanksgiving. It is a photo I have of an American Indian I know whose family was originally from Louisiana. He is standing looking out over the Pacific Ocean, at the furthest edge of a continent whose Eastern settlers pushed the Indians ever westward even as late as the 1945-1960, when hundreds of Indian families moved to San Francisco and Oakland as part of a federal relocation plan aimed at terminating tribes and assimilating Indians into the dominant white society.

If you'll bear with a couple of paragraphs of history you'll learn that assimilation wasn't always the goal. Much earlier - in fact, the same year that Mary's little lamb started following her around - Congress gave President Andrew Jackson authority, under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, to negotiate with the tribes for their removal to "Indian Territory", which comprised most of what's now known as Oklahoma and Kansas, and the southeastern part of Nebraska. Voluntary removal had been taking place for a couple of decades already. Today, Oklahoma is the headquarters of 25 American Indian tribes.

Then, in 1887, came the General Allotment Act, which attempted to establish private ownership of Indian lands by initiating government partitions of reservations - a process that deprived Indian people of more than 90 million acres of land - or around two-thirds of their land base. Prior to that, in 1871, Congress had forbidden treaty making between Native Nations and the United States, which had been the usual way of doing business because, for the first one hundred years of its existence, the US deemed Native communities to be sovereign nations.

So, between 1871 and 1924 when all Native peoples were declared citizens of the United States, "most Native peoples, neither sovereign nor citizen, had no clear path to the enjoyment of inalienable rights... children were taken from their parents and shipped to boarding schools with or without parental consent; freedom of religion for Native peoples was not made law until 1978."

So says the writer of the afterword to 'Always a People', a collection published in 1997 of oral histories recorded by members of tribes that make up the Great Lakes-Riverine Group of the Woodland Nations of the Northeast. The introduction gives a brief history of each tribal group, many of which had original contact with the French and Spanish rather than with the British, and each history is a dizzying catalogue of alliances formed and lost, treaties made and ignored, constant relocation, and a neverending battle to retrieve what was lost, particularly the language.

There is, of course, no one American Indian language any more than there is only one language spoken on the continents of Europe or Asia. It's estimated that 300 languages existed before European contact, and that now just 150 of them survive, with 89 percent of those on the endangered list. Here in California 57 languages were exterminated along with the people who spoke them from the time of first contact with the Spanish.

And it was here in California that the November 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island brought Indians to the forefront of public consciousness once again. Although the occasion is "becoming gossiped as Ceremony 101", according to one speaker at the Indigenous Peoples Thanksgiving Day held on Alcatraz last Thursday - he also lamented that cameras and videos are now allowed there - one of the original occupiers of the island in 1969 felt that "having people come out here promotes a level of education about Native American people."

The flyer from the organisers of the event, the International Indian Treaty Council, says that by "remembering and rejoicing this day offers American Indians and non-Indians alike a unique opportunity to gather strength from one another for the future struggle to protect and preserve the land, resources and spiritual awareness for future generations."

To see how the interplay between the various Indian and the various non-Indian aspirations play out in the modern day, you should follow the developing story that begins at or do a web search on Medicine Lake CA.

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