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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 23, 2006

Beyond bitterness: The roots of Thanksgiving

Who are we" How do we define ourselves as a people"

One way we define our society is through our shared rituals, our festivals. Another is through our common identity — the name we give ourselves.

We call ourselves Americans. We celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday that cuts across all the elements of our society — the rich and the poor, the varying religions, the different races — as we each gather together with those whom we love to give thanks.

Or does it"

We talked this week with a Native American who taught us a great deal in a short time. Mike Tarbell is a Mohawk Indian. "Indian" is a term most of us can now recognize as a misnomer. Columbus thought he was finding a passage to India and so called the natives he "discovered" in the New World Indians.

"Mohawk," we learned from Tarbell, is also a misnomer, a name given by an enemy tribe, the Algonquin, meaning man-eater, a derogatory description of ferocity.

Even the name that Tarbell’s people call themselves, Kanienkehaka, has been mistranslated as "the people of the flint." Really, he said, it means "the people of the crystals, the people of the shards of light." This is because a name is given to distinguish one people from any other, and Herkimer diamonds are found in the lands where his tribe lived and nowhere else on earth, he said.

As Tarbell spoke, we remembered, years ago, finding those wonderful crystals, flashing bright in a Herkimer stream. They seemed magical to us, perfect crystals with pointed ends, there for the finding.

"The crystal went in the medicine pouch — it cannot be pierced," said Tarbell. "It was carried that way around the neck, near the heart."

We asked Tarbell then about Thanksgiving, expecting he would sound bitter. After all, the same European settlers, and their descendants who followed, had misunderstood more than the name, the very identity, of his people.

Tarbell shrugged and made an offhand quip about Squanto, the Patuxet who famously helped the Pilgrims, teaching them how to grow corn and other crops, how to hunt and fish and survive in the New World.

"Squanto came out of the woods speaking good English," said Tarbell.

We knew Squanto could do this because he had been captured — twice — by Europeans before finally returning to a village that was wiped out by disease brought by Europeans. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims and, at least according to William Bradford’s diary, he died, asking Bradford to "pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s god in heaven."

It struck us that Tarbell, like Squanto, had straddled two worlds. Tarbell describes his mother, the daughter of a medicine woman, as traditional, and his father, an ironworker, as progressive. "On Saturdays, I’d be with my mother, dancing to the drums. On Sunday, I’d be with my father, an altar boy in the Catholic church," he said.

But Tarbell made a different choice than Squanto. He chose to be traditional.

This choice was forged during his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he was stationed in the mountains on the Cambodian border as a pathfinder. A native Montegnard woman recognized him as "an American aborigine." "You’re one of us," she said. He was taken into the village where he felt completely at home. "I was living in a longhouse — a longhouse on eight-foot stilts with teak floors...It was the most serene, nurturing time of my life in the middle of a war," said Tarbell.

He works now, sharing his culture. Tarbell teaches respect of his heritage through song and dance, and the history of his people through story.

Squanto’s knowledge arguably saved a colony where half the members perished that first horrible winter. Can learning now about the Great Law of Peace or how to live without destroying nature save us from our own destruction"

It would be disingenuous not to recognize the advances made by our industrialized society and it would be naive to think we could turn back the clock. But, still, we can learn from those who were here before us, before the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving, before we gave our names to the peoples who inhabited what we now call America. We can make some amends.

Tarbell doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving the way most Americans do. He gives his thanks every day. "They are the words that come before all else," he says. "When I wake in the morning, I give thanks to all of creation...And those are the words I say before I close my eyes at night."

The man who describes himself as "an unintentional student," listening, as a child, to his grandparents’ stories, has become an intentional teacher, and a superb one at that.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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