Landscapes of Identity: Thanksgiving

After a day of rain the morning greeted us with a golden sunrise. Jennie, who awoke in the night, said the moonless sky had been awash in stars. Now the wind, blowing briskly from the north, rustles the leaves that remain on the oaks and pushes choppy waves across the water.

I had intended to grab my camera and go out early while the sunlight retained a warm glow, even going so far as to ask whether others might wish to go with me. Now the light has turned a winter white, washing the color from the landscape. Between the flat light and the cold breeze I’ve lost the drive to actually be outside.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., a calendar marker rife with complexity; I am, predictably, a bit grumpy. This day is challenging for many people who identify as Native. After all, the generosity of our ancestors, largess that this holiday ostensibly acknowledges, was met with genocide.

Right now, the Macy’s parade, loaded with subtle, and not so subtle, advertising is on TV, and a few family members are firmly attached to watching it as they journey briefly back into childhood.

At breakfast there was a brief discussion about the mistreatment of turkeys during their slaughter which ended in the somewhat irrational relief posed by the simple fact that rather than having a turkey as part of our celebratory meal, the chefs are preparing several small chickens.

Thanksgiving when I was growing up was always a major family holiday, often marked as much by interpersonal conflict as by an exhausting day of cooking resulting in all too brief meal followed by hours of cleanup.  I did not cook, or often clean, but watched my parents do so.

Surprisingly often the pastor of the church we attended would stop by in the afternoon, sans wife, perhaps staying long enough to say grace over the meal and eat a few bites before departing to visit another parishioner’s feast, then yet another, and presumably others. I wonder how he survived those endless Thanksgiving afternoons and whether he enjoyed a feast with his wife at the end of the day.

Although there were clues scattered among the debris, I could not fathom why there was always a deep vein of suffering running through the festivities. Inevitably I would bring home turkey table decorations made at school. Occasionally said turkeys might be joined by a pilgrim complete with musket or an Indian in full headdress.

My mother seemed to welcome these additions to the table; my father less so. I wonder now whether, although they loved each other, my parents’ conflicting identities might have clashed over the territory marked by the landscape of table top and meal. My father passed as white and identified as Native. My mother identified, in the face of rumors of Native and African heritage, as white and settler, and saw contemporary Natives as the poor, dispossessed remnants of a fallen people.

Looking back, I wonder if even then I had developed a keenly sensed awareness of the conflict inherent in these two, still warring, narratives. My sister recently recalled my father’s mother, who seldom spoke, wringing her hands and repeatedly saying the family must protect the children, and by implication, the future.

I wonder whether she could see that life under the influence of my mother’s frequent violence and the less often enacted rage of my father (to say nothing of the relentless imperative to pass) was harsh. Surely my parents loved me even as they were terrified by my disability and affronted by my awkward, twisted body. I imagine my father watched in horror as his efforts to quietly pass  were subverted by Polio’s relentless presence.

Here in the eastern US, hiding and passing became a way of life for Native people as they would for Polio survivors. Sometimes, especially on days such as this, I find that these hidden worlds overlap and I watch the ways the resulting interference patterns ripple through my life.


10 thoughts on “Landscapes of Identity: Thanksgiving

  1. It might have been difficult to grow up for you, while you could only watch your parents disagree about such events like Thanksgiving.
    I have only read a little about it, but enough to understand, why Native Americans don’t love this party.
    Lovely autumn photo, Michael 🙂

    1. Irene, I suspect that growing up is difficult for many people. And yes, Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday for many of us. It seems strange to have a national holiday that is based on genocide, but then the US is a bizarre place right now,

  2. Families – those individuals related in species and often little else – are a complex jungle, aren’t they? Who is angry, sad, glad or afraid? We all are, but about different things. No wonder we clash. Grace is in looking the members in the eye and being present with their pain. Michael, I appreciate your observations and your compassion for all we are, all of us, and I wish you grounded peace and gratitude – for the sun, for the earth, for the waves on the water, for your breath.

  3. In a comment you say it seems strange to have a holiday based on genocide (Thanksgiving). We have yet to acknowledge that the “making of the country” was based on genocide. I am appalled every time I see the current advertisement for the special coming up on TV about the “men who made the country” – with leaders depicting war between settlers and natives. I have been spending some time deleting old e-mails and found this post I hadn’t read. I appreciate your posts that make me think about this important topic that isn’t usually picked up by my radar. I have also really appreciated the Native authors who are producing some good fiction.

    1. Pat, genocide and slavery are as American as apple pie, which was, incidentally, British. The entire British colonial endeavor is filled with the ignoble. Actually, I guess one can generalize that to all of Europe.

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