SHERIDAN — Sheridan College student and Northern Arapaho tribe member Whisper SunRhodes celebrates Thanksgiving like most people — with family and food.
She goes to her 87-year-old grandfather’s house for a meal of turkey, ham and stuffing. Her grandfather says a prayer before the meal in his native Arapaho language. Along with the usual Thanksgiving foods, SunRhodes’ family members, most of whom live on the Wind River Reservation, also eat dry meat soup and frybread. The soup usually consists of dried elk or deer meat, which is then boiled with salted pork or bacon and topped off with potatoes.
SunRhodes’ Thanksgiving tradition is common, but she has an uncommon understanding of the holiday. She attended a school on a reservation, where she learned about the killing of Native Americans by European settlers and numerous wars between the groups. Lynelle Shakespeare, SunRhodes’ mother, mentioned the history of the man for whom this town and college are named after, Gen. Philip Sheridan. He was a U.S. Army general who waged several wars against Native Americans after the Civil War. Most people don’t think about that ugly history during Thanksgiving, but it deeply affects some Native Americans.
The United American Indians of New England established Thanksgiving as its National Day of Mourning in 1970 after Wamsutta, an Aquinnah Wampanoag man, was told he couldn’t give his planned speech at a Commonwealth of Massachusetts banquet for the 350th anniversary of the European pilgrims’ arrival. Wamsutta intended to talk about the settlers selling Native Americans as slaves and stealing Native Americans’ food.
Shakespeare said there are a few people on the reservation who don’t acknowledge the holiday because of its history. Most people celebrate it, though, or at least use it as an opportunity to get together with loved ones.
“It is a white man’s holiday, but we give thanks for our family for us being there,” Shakespeare said. “That’s why we celebrate it.”
Similarly, Alma McCormick, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, said Thanksgiving means “nurturing and being there for each other.”
McCormick is executive director of Messengers for Health, a nonprofit in southern Montana focused on improving health and health education for Crow members. The tribe has a unique annual tradition around Thanksgiving: a meal in honor of its elder members, who provide wisdom and advice.
The meal is held in a community center in Crow Agency, Montana, and opens with a prayer, followed by a meal served by younger members of the tribe. Elders receive awards and small gifts as well. The festivities continue with games and celebrations, including a table decorating contest and push dancing, similar to a two-step dance. Some people dress in traditional Native American attire for a mini-powwow toward the end.
“What’s done for the elders during this time is probably what’s very different from the dominant society and to me is a highlight,” McCormick said.
Culinary differences exist, too. Like SunRhodes, McCormick said her family eats staples such as turkey, ham and stuffing but also have dry meat soup, pemmican and berry pudding.
Pemmican, an ancient Native American sweet and savory snack, contains dried meat and berries ground up and made into a sphere or bar shape. Chokecherries and juneberries usually provide the inner portion of the berry pudding. Some Crow families also eat tripe soup and frybread with a Thanksgiving meal.
Thanksgiving also provides an opportunity for family prayer. Spirituality is one of the Crow Tribe’s greatest values and part of nearly every aspect of its culture. When McCormick’s family gets together a day or two before Thanksgiving for a large potluck, it prays for personal concerns but also for wisdom and strong leadership from tribal officials.
“We strongly believe that when there is that righteous leadership that blessings will come upon the people as a whole,” McCormick said.
McCormick carries with her the legacy of the grandmother who raised her. Her grandmother served as the family matriarch and cooked nearly all of the Thanksgiving meals. McCormick fondly remembered helping her chop fruit and vegetables, learning some recipes in the process.
Now, McCormick is the matriarch of her family, cooking most of the food on Thanksgiving as family members come and go, bringing desserts and drinks. Uncertain of the exact number of mouths to feed, she always cooks extra.
“It’s that hospitality that my grandmother imparted to me,” she said. “I guess I behave just like her. I want to cook the whole meal. I know we need help, but I pretty much can cook the turkey and all the fixings by myself and I enjoy doing that.”
McCormick said everyone she knows celebrates the holiday. They do not ignore Thanksgiving’s history. Rather, they repurpose it for the tribe’s way of life.
“We forgive because we don’t relate it so much as back to how it originated, but more so we’ve incorporated it into the strength of our culture of being together, giving thanks to the Creator and just having that time that we spend with each other,” McCormick said. “We have to forgive. Forgiveness is freedom.”