For Native Americans, Fall Can Be a Painful Reminder of the Past and Struggles of Today

Illustration by Jean-Luc Bonifay

Fall traditions like Columbus Day, headdress Halloween costumes, and sports mascots like the Redskins can bring out strong feelings, and harsh reminders.

For many Native Americans, autumn brings a unique pain – it’s the season of Columbus Day, Football, Halloween and Thanksgiving. For many Americans, these words are not loaded. But these traditions feel like salt in a wound to many Native people who continue to grapple with harsh realities on issues like domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment. 27 percent of all Native Americans live in poverty.

“These commodities, like wearing headdresses on Halloween, or football mascots like the Redskins: that comes from institutionalized colonialism,” said Shane Weeks, 27, who grew up on the Shinnecock Reservation on Long Island. “They envision us as a myth. That we don’t exist. It’s hard to watch ourselves being portrayed as a figment of the imagination, and they don’t acknowledge us even though we’re sitting right here.”

About 80 people sat at round tables to discuss four major issues that Native Americans grapple with this time of year: Columbus Day, Mascots, Halloween, and Thanksgiving.

Weeks was speaking to a group of people gathered for the People’s Potluck at the Shinnecock Cultural Center. Organized by Kelly Dennis and Lisa Votino-Tarrant, co-chairs of the Defend the Sacred Subcommittee of the Progressive East End Reformers (PEER), the event was a rare opportunity for the public to be invited onto the grounds of the Shinnecock Nation. Dennis, a Shinnecock woman, and Votino-Tarrant, a white woman who married into the tribe, saw this as an opportunity to answer questions.

The People’s Supper Potluck. (Photos via Jeremy Dennis)

“Lisa’s from the outside community,” said Dennis, “so she has a lot of friends who are curious and ask things like ‘Is it okay to wear a headdress?’ and then she asks me, and I give my perspective. This is a collaboration between myself and Lisa to bridge the communities.”

About 80 people sat at round tables to discuss four major issues that Native Americans grapple with this time of year: Columbus Day, Mascots, Halloween, and Thanksgiving.

Angela Coard, 45, finds Columbus Day particularly insulting. “It’s like being Jewish and having to celebrate Hitler’s birthday,” she said.

And on Halloween, when girls and women are dressed up in cheap costumes made to look like their Regalia clothing, Coard thinks of the hundreds of hours women put into making their own dresses for the annual Shinnecock powwow. She thinks of the traditional buckskin, the wampum detailing, the sashes that might represent generations of families.

Other tribes who have more recently been exposed to the outside world are still dealing with the direct ramifications of being physically forced to give up their culture.

“It’s not a costume,” said Coard. But another Shinnecock woman in her 60s, who preferred her name not be used to remain private, argued. “They see it as a costume,” she said with an air of resignation. “If companies are going to make the costumes, people are going to wear them.”

“No,” said Coard, “It’s supply and demand. If there’s no demand, the companies won’t make money. So people need to be educated to it.”

The Shinnecock were first forcibly restricted from practicing their culture in the 1600s. Over the years, they learned to hide traditions in the framework of the church.

Tthe event was a rare opportunity for the public to be invited onto the grounds of the Shinnecock Nation. (Photo via Jeremy Dennis)

“It was illegal to practice our traditional ways,” said Weeks. “For instance, a lot of people say that our strawberry festival comes from the church but it really comes from our creation story, [which tells that] the first time the earth nourished a human body, it was with a strawberry. That story was hidden in the church.”

The Presbyterian Church on the Shinnecock Reservation is the oldest in the country, said Dennis, and the only reason any Shinnecocks are around today is because of it. “Either you got sold into slavery or you went into the Presbyterian Church,” said Dennis.

Other tribes who have more recently been exposed to the outside world are still dealing with the direct ramifications of being physically forced to give up their culture. Weeks went to visit the Innu tribe in northern Canada in 2011, and it had only been 70 years since their first contact with the outside world.

“They remembered being brought out of the bushes, forced into churches, forced to learn English, forced to cut their hair,” said Weeks. “In 2011 they were still hesitant to practice their culture.”

Many were thrilled to have people from the outside community sit down with them, ready to listen.

“It’s a hard thing to do, to listen,” said Jennifer Cuffee Wilson, 58. “But there’s nothing better than the sound of silence. Our young people are actually saying something and guess what, we are listening.”

Southampton was colonized in 1649, and the Shinnecock finally gained tribal status in 2010.

For Autumn Rose Williams, a young Shinnecock woman and current Miss Native American USA, feeling heard is of particular importance to her people.

“There’s a history of muting the indigenous voice,” she said. “Our history is either not taught at all or it’s taught in the past tense. Even in college, I had to raise my hand and say, ‘Hey I’ve done that ceremony and I still do it to this day.’ We’re taught that it’s dead. We’re still not being heard. This is a battle for indigenous people.”

Thanksgiving is often taught to American children like a fairy tale, a day when all people came together around the table harmoniously to share a meal and a sense of gratitude. But, according to a book by the National Geographic Society entitled 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, the first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was a celebration of a massacre of 600 Pequot Indians. The Pequots of Connecticut numbered 8,000 when colonists first arrived in New England, and had already been diminished to 1500 by the first “Thanksgiving”. For many tribes, this has become a “Day of Mourning” instead of a day of “Thanksgiving”. The Shinnecock and other tribes celebrate Nunnowa instead, about a week before American Thanksgiving.

“Nunnowa means dry,” explained Dennis, “referring to the corn being dry, so it’s time for harvest. During this time we offer prayers of thanks to the creator before winter sets in.”

For the Shinnecock, it took almost 400 years for the United States to recognize them. Southampton was colonized in 1649, and the Shinnecock finally gained tribal status in 2010.

“We weren’t even allowed in the court until the 1970s,” explained Weeks. That’s when they first started filing claims for tribal status. “That was a long time for us to have to prove who we are and who we’ve always been. It’s great that people are here now to listen. We just want to be able to tell our own story, to give our own voice, and to be able to tell who we are instead of someone else telling us who we are.”

VIA: ViceImpact

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