That's not me in your holiday painting
Beyond the painting is my tribe's story of survival
THERE ARE, in the Rockwellian deluge of American holiday art, inconvenient truths that are obscured. I’ve walked on the other side of these depictions my whole life, alongside every other Indigenous person who’s endured the mythos of this time of year. My intention is to give voice to that.
How do you coherently sum up the last 500 years for us? Thousands of nations. Bands. Clans. Stew recipes.
The question has cuffs on me, paralyzes my fingers — except the one that raps impatiently on the table. The cursor winks, mockingly. My mind is stubborn. Something else is in order.
I rummage around my medicine cupboard and pluck out a small sage bundle. Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe, and …
Still nothing. But nothing-y-er? My thoughts drift more fluidly between objects of impermanence.
Kick back and get used to it, squirt. I heard that countless times when I was a kid.
I grew up in Indiana, away from my community, just one of two Indians (that I know of) in my hometown. The other one was named in their peoples’ language. And then there was me. Miles Brady.
The inferiority complex is implicit.
It took me a long time to feel comfortable. Sometimes I still don’t, this far from the tribe. This far from home. Real home, with which I’ve only ever brushed fingertips. Out here, I’ve found a sort of peace, but it’s held together with duct tape and a prayer, hardly resilient to trains of thought like this.
Get off the tracks, kid. I heard that one too.
I find myself driving roads on the city’s outskirts that claw at the edge of the desert; the skeleton of new housing developments and strip malls. My eyes dart around the Las Vegas waste, looking for something to bring me back. Something like water. A pond, a small stream. I’d take a busted pipe in a brutal corporate basement if there was a place to put down tobacco.
Never mind. Pack it in.
The holiday is coming up. You know the one. That one. That’s my tribe in those paintings you’ve seen, all feathers and hat buckles. You saw those Indians that were make-believe to you in some pageant or skit you put on, that time in a room full of squirming classmates and watch-checking parents who were focusing really, really hard on keeping their eyes open.
My people. Real home.
I’m not going back this year. It’s not in the cards. Matter of fact, I have coworkers who’ve been to my people’s land more times than I have in 2022.
Let’s try this again. Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe … Let the smoke drift over my back … Try to let the guilt go.
I talked to Chief Sequan Pijakì last week. He’s been one who has always stepped in and helped me, answered my questions, cleared up my confusion. He reminds me — all of us — who we are.
About the holiday, he told the Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette: “The climate we’re in right now, where we’re talking about changing this country … You should definitely be reaching out to the original people so we can tell the original story to children.”
A lot of us don’t speak on these things in this way — like we’d want to — the sting of past rebuked attempts still following us from childhood. Even from the here-and-now. This is why we look to our elders.
Tall Oak, a Pequot and Wampanoag elder, who passed on February 11 of this year, was one of six activists who established the first National Day of Mourning. In 1970 Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, was asked by then-Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent to give a speech commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Europeans who rolled up on Plymouth Rock. (The rest, as they say, is history.) The Governor’s office found James’s speech too “extreme” to be delivered at the event, an edict that angered the Indigenous folks in the area.
Tall Oak, Frank James, and their compatriots held the first Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that year.
Wampanoags across the U.S. — that’s right, we’re everywhere — still vary in perspective and position on how to approach the holiday. Other tribes do, too. Wampanoags have been known to march in Plymouth’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I’ve known some Natives to ignore it altogether. It’s just another day … never mind the floats.
Others, still, gather and celebrate in a way that you might find around any other table. “Freedom from Want,” but with backstrap.
Beyond that, some Wampanoag tribes have adopted “Thanks Giving,” a celebration that, in some respect, subverts colonial expectations and centers our lifeways and traditions.
In my work as a writer/journalist/professional Indian, my stargazing, misty-eyed pipe dream is to find and cast a light on the real Indian Country. Whatever that means. And, exceedingly, it becomes difficult to pin down. It is, at this point, trite and useless to declare that Indigenous people aren’t a monolith. We’ve said it plenty of times, too many times, in the hope that people will recognize the spectrum of experiences that encapsulate the post-1492 condition. We’ve been left wanting.
The experience, the viewpoint, the conclusions, are varied. But we Indians, all of us, have been dragged through the various flavors of colonization and genocide to the end that our understanding of the world hinges on one simple fact: We survived.
During a panel at Bristol Community College in 2017, Tall Oak addressed the audience, saying: “My obligation is to speak for my ancestors, who have paid with their blood for what little we may have today. And to hold on to it best — best we can — for our generations yet unborn.”
To that point, we have something we say in Wôpanâak: Âs Nutayuneân.
Âs Nutayuneân means, literally, “We still live here.”
Âs Nutayuneân means, to our people, “We are still here.” We survived. We still fight. We still breathe.
Regardless of what understanding our Peoples may have accumulated in that 500-year chasm between then and now, we can all say the same.
Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe. That’s the way.
Editor's note: This story was updated to remove the English name of Tall Oak.
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