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American Indian family discusses Thanksgiving.
Tribune Staff Writer
At home in Niles on Wednesday evening, Jim Topash, 75, center, and his daughters, Jane Olsen, left, and Monica Topash, talk about how they spend Thanksgiving and what it means to them. They are all members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.
NILES -- Jim Topash, his wife, Mariann, and their family will enjoy a feast today.
"Thanksgiving is an American tradition," said the 75-year-old Topash, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. "Thanksgiving was a native tradition long before the Pilgrim feast."
The Topash family will gather for a traditional Indian dinner that includes deer or squirrel.
His daughters, Jane Olsen and Monica Topash, will join the family, but they will not celebrate Thanksgiving.
Their view of Thanksgiving is quite different from the fable of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a friendly feast in 1621.It's a day for them to remember how Indians suffered as North America was colonized, and it is also a day to be thankful.
"When I was young," Olsen said, "whenever my sister and I heard the words 'land of the Pilgrim's pride' in 'America the Beautiful,' we just hummed through it instead of saying the words."
For them, it's a reminder that the European invasion led to the death of some 10 million to 30 million people.
"Most people think of the first Thanksgiving and the Indians and the Pilgrims sitting down to eat together, all eating happily together," Monica Topash said. "That was not how it was at all. These were not merely 'friendly Indians.'
"They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary -- but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing."It wasn't until more than 200 years after the popularized "first" Thanksgiving that the day was given special recognition.
Thanksgiving was first established nationally by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 as a way of mending a war-torn country. Congress did not sanction it as a national holiday until 1941.
The sisters would prefer that Thanksgiving be an opportunity to educate and to honor the contributions American Indians have made to this nation and the Michiana area that they have been a part of all of their life."When my sister and I go to do presentations at school, we try to wear our regalia (traditional outfits)," Olsen said. Olsen is a teacher at St. Bavo School in Mishawaka
"It allows us to explain that this is what we wear on special occasions, not all the time. Sometimes, children think of Indians with the feathers, and that's just not who we are."
"Most people don't understand our culture," Monica Topash said. "Our family is very religious, and we are not like the Indians seen on television.
"Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. It is about family getting together and enjoying each other."
"As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors," Monica Topash said. "And I learned that my family possessed some 'inside' knowledge of what really happened to those poor, tired masses."So, let's get educated and the healing can begin."
Staff writer May Lee Johnson:
(574) 235-6326
Oakland Tribune
 Blessings counted by Native Americans, despite misgivings 
Many remember horror stories
By Julissa McKinnon STAFF WRITER
 Thursday, November 28, 2002 - As many schoolchildren around the Bay Area impersonate Pilgrims and talking turkeys, some Native Americans can't recall the first legendary Plymouth encounter without also remembering the horror stories of the past 500 years.
 Eighth-grade teacher Barbara Potter at Archway School in Oakland sets time aside every year to share the less-often-heard side of the Thanksgiving story.
 On the one holiday when mainstream America reflects on relations between white settlers and native inhabitants, there is no mention of the violence, disease, smallpox, boarding schools or any struggle, she said. Instead, there are idyllic scenes of Pilgrim-Indian harmony emblazoned on greeting cards, cartoons, coloring books, house decorations and dish towels.
 Potter says she tries to balance out the myth with a grain of truth.
 On Tuesday, Potter gave her eighth-grade class a history lesson about the origin of the word "thanksgiving." With 13 pairs of eyes fixed on her, Potter opened the National Geographic book titled "1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving," and relayed the following:
 In July 1637, 16 years after the Pilgrims shared a feast with members of the Wampanoag tribe, Captain John Mason ordered the burning of the Pequot fort, killing 700 men, women and children. The survivors were then sold into slavery. Mason then declared a day of "thanksgiving to God for subduing the Pequots," Potter read.
 When she opened the floor for class comments, a few students asked why they had never before been taught about the origin of the word "thanksgiving."
 Grace Anderson, 14, sat back with crossed arms as she shared her soft-spoken response:
 "I think it's really awful what happened to the people when the Europeans came," she said. "But it's almost more awful how it's still being covered up, and most kids don't know the real story."
 Potter knows the story may shock and disturb some students. But she says the history lesson also teaches her kids to question everything they are told and to check sources.
 But the irony of "Thanksgiving" for some native people is that in indigenous culture, thanksgiving is every day, said Bill "Jimbo" Simmons, an organizer of the 26-year-old Thanksgiving sunrise ceremony on Alcatraz Island. But all of America joins them in this ritual now, said Simmons, of the Choctaw tribe, who now lives in San Francisco.
 But while the Alcatraz gathering is a thanking to the creator for air, water, plants, animals and all life, the event also takes stock of everything native people have to be unthankful for.
 "All the promises the government gave to us, they broke from Day 1. We're thankful every day, so what makes this day different is America calls it Thanksgiving," he said. "After what was done to our people and other people in the world, they use this day to say it's a holy day. But we are here to remember what we have to be unthankful about -- the hundreds of thousands of acres of land that were stolen, the economic and social conditions faced on reservations."
 But by no means is there a Native American consensus on how to interpret Thanksgiving -- responses are as diverse as the tribes, traditions and languages found throughout native America.
 "The Pilgrims came here because of religious persecution, and I see myself all these centuries later benefiting from the coming of Christianity to America," she said. "I don't approve of the methods used by missionaries of various religions, but being Christian has made a difference in my life."
 Others such as Larry Swimmer, a Lakota father of eight who lives in Hayward, see Thanksgiving as an opportunity to feast, drum, sing, and most importantly laugh with family and friends. And Swimmer said that although the story told on Thanksgiving is mythical, it holds a worthwhile message.
 "In the mythical celebration of sharing the bounty with Pilgrims, we recognize they were guests in our land, and from a spiritual standpoint sharing and helping each other is something we should always aspire to do," he said.
 "We are here for a short time, and we should learn to enjoy to appreciate each other as human beings, not because we're white or native but for the specific unique qualities each human being has. It's the protocol for respect."
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