I want you to think and remember the first Thanksgiving: know what it was really about. I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving, I think of the official U.S. Celebration as not the survival of the Europeans that invaded America, culminating in the death of 10 to 30 million natives, but as the survival of the Native peoples. When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, they were poor and hungry — half of them died within a few months from disease and hunger.
When Squanto found them, they were pitiful. Squanto spoke English, having traveled to Europe, and took pity on them. Their English crops had failed. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow Native food. These were not merely “friendly Indians.” They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so. But, it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing.
Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples. The “first Thanksgiving” the Wampanoags provided most of the food — and signed a treaty granting Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the first Thanksgiving.
What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years, European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoags. Most diseases then came from animals that Europeans had domesticated. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of our people, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. Can you say biological warfare?
This past September, while in North Dakota filming my documentary, “We The People,” it was cold. I had worked all day sorting donations, serving meals, and laying the foundation for the new permanent building in Sacred Stone Camp, and I was tired. I was cold. I was hungry. The Sioux of the camp made sure I was fed, gave me a blanket, and helped me pitch my tent. It was the Native American way on the first Thanksgiving, and it still is today.
Upon opening the bag that my quilt was in, this Cherokee noticed a note inside. “Hello, My name is Michael, I wanted to include this note so whoever received (the quilt) it would be aware of its origin. My grandparents Hooley and Ollie Redbird were Cherokee and owned a small farm in Ashland, Oregon. They raised 3 daughters and a son, my father, on it and sent them to college. It was through them I learned to Be proud of my heritage. The quilt was made from the clothes from my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my 3 aunts. I received it when graduating high school and I’ve slept with it for nearly 50 years. I think my grandmother would like that it survived and is being passed on. I wish you luck, health, and happiness.
Mike Redbird and the Sioux Camp took care of me. They fed me, they gave me a blanket to stay warm. This blanket wasn’t a disease-ridden death trap. It was a treasured family heirloom that I will keep for the remainder of my days. It is on display at The Grove Oak Store.
Keep your head held high on Thanksgiving. We are the survivors.