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American Indians at the Table

American Indians at the Table

On Thanksgiving Day, Americans remember the story of one of the first feasts of thanksgiving observed by Europeans who migrated to this new land. The Pilgrims planned a feast in Massachusetts, and they invited the native people to join them. Both Europeans and natives brought food and feasted at the same table.

This would be a good time for us to ask ourselves if the American Indians today are being given their place at the table. I was provoked into thinking about this as I heard the news that the Supreme Court has declined to hear a case in which some American Indians sued the Washington Redskins to try to force this NFL team to change its name. I do not know anything about the law suit, and I do not know if a law suit is the right way to address the issue. I do think it is a shame that there is a team known as the Washington Redskins. Obviously, this is a racist tag and I can fully understand why many American Indians consider it demeaning and offensive.

Naming sports teams by terms associated with American Indians may seem to be much ado about nothing. I do think that this practice of naming teams this way is an indicator that we Americans have a long way to go in treating our fellow native citizens with the respect they should receive. This practice is a sign that we have not yet made a full place at the table for our American Indian citizens.

There is much shame in the way Americans treated the Indians when the United States came into being and spread across the land to the Mississippi River. This is a story of broken treaties, betrayals, massacres and forcible relocations of whole tribes from their ancestral homes.

I realize that one can be simplistic in reading the history of American relations with native peoples. The struggle between the Americans and Indians was in the context of the war between Great Britain and the United States, a war that continued in the Northwest Territory of what are now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois following the surrender at Yorktown. The shifting confederacy of tribes constituted a power among the British, American, Spanish, and French, and the Indians chose to fight with the British against the Americans. Nevertheless, the American war with the Indians was never purely a political struggle. It was an effort to conquer them so that Americans could settle their rich lands. The historical documents from President Washington to President Jackson make it clear that the Americans' aim was displacement of the native peoples.
That tragic past is done, and it cannot be changed. But it seems to me that there is still some unfinished business. Where is the honor that should be given to the American Indians? After the Civil War was over, President Abraham Lincoln requested that the Quartermaster band play both Dixie and Yankee Doodle. In the late 19th century, Northerners assuaged the wounded honor of Southerners by giving testimony to the Rebels' valor in battle during the Civil War. Yet, how far have we Americans gone to recognize the dignity and honor of our fellow citizens with whom we have a complex history, the American Indians? We won't even take seriously their objections to the names of our sports teams!

Let's not forget that the American Indians do their part to honor their nation. One of the most moving experiences I ever had was attending a Black Leggings ceremony in Oklahoma, when native peoples gather to pay tribute to the soldiers who have served our country. Proudly they carried the American flag in solemn procession. When I visited United Methodist churches in Indian communities, I noticed that they all have photographs of members who have served in the American wars.

Moreover, we should not forget that, although many native peoples have preserved their blood, culture and tribes, there are many of us who are not considered American Indians who have the blood of native people in us. I doubt that my heritage is very different from that of anyone whose family goes back ten or more generations in this land. My French Canadian ancestry from both of my maternal grandmothers surely includes the blood of Indians since it was the policy of Canadians for the French to marry Indians.
Also, one of my mother's ancestors was a Cherokee who came off the Trail of Tears in Missouri. My fourth great grandfather, Aquilla Whitaker, was a well-known militia officer in Kentucky who fought in many dangerous battles with the Indians and whose own brother John was killed and scalped near Aquilla's plantation. When he served as a major in the Kentucky militia with General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, one of the whites fighting with the Indians was his first cousin, James, who had been adopted by the Shawnee when he and Aquilla were attacked while hunting in the region near Ft. Pitt in the early 1770's. James married a white captive woman and was given 1200 acres by the Wyandot Indians in Ohio. How tangled are the relationships between European and Native Americans!

All of us Americans are bound by ties of blood and honor. The dignity and well-being of American Indians should be a concern of all of us, for some of us are their relatives and all of us are their fellow citizens. We share a complex history which, despite its history of past enmity, binds us together.

Let us do what is necessary to make more room at the table for the American Indians.