A Thanksgiving for Indians to cherish

DAN RODRICKS

November 26, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

They were, ironically, like a band of inspired missionaries who had come to save souls -- those of the dead and those of the living who had dishonored the dead. They sang and they prayed, and on that Thanksgiving Day 1974, they got what they wanted.

I got a terrific newspaper story and, more important because it was more lasting, a new appreciation for the spirit of American Indians -- how passionate they are about their ancestry, and how certain they are about who they are.

It was an important lesson, worth recalling now, in light of two things: the Lead Coffin Project in St. Mary's City (about which more in a moment) and the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World.

We have heard their protests for years. Columbus Day is a national day of mourning for Native Americans. They have nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, either. They complain of the name of Washington's football team. They protest Atlanta's tomahawk chop.

A lot of people hate hearing this. The great crimes against Indians occurred long ago; we, the living, were not responsible for them and resent being hit with guilt for something we can't correct. The counter-protester doesn't hear argument; he hears whining. He says: "Shut up and get a job."

So when, on Thanksgiving Day 1974, I saw a large group of men with long, black hair, most of them dressed in decorated denim -- one with "AIM" (for American Indian Movement) in big red letters across the back of a ranch jacket -- I at first dismissed it as the usual counter-demonstration to Thanksgiving observances in Plymouth, Mass. I figured it was an occurrence as perennial as pumpkin pie at Plimouth Plantation. Nothing new under the sun.

The Indians, some adorned with hair ribbons and bead jewelry, assembled beneath the large bronze statue of Massasoit, on a hill overlooking the moored Mayflower replica. They pounded drums. They sang an Indian anthem in high-pitched voices: "Ayyy-ya-oh, ayyy-ya-oh, ay-ya,ay-ya, ay-yahhhhhhuh-ya." The sound still rings in my ears.

Suddenly, the singing stopped and the point of the protest was announced: The Indians were after bones.

For years, the skeletal remains of an Indian ancestor, believed to be a teen-age Wampanoag girl, had been on display in Pilgrim Hall. And for years, a group of Massachusetts Indians, led by the Wampanoag's Supreme Great Chief Mittark, had been fighting to get the bones returned to a sacred burial ground on Cape Cod. The Indians considered the display of the bones a great sacrilege; even greater, however, was their disinterment.

dTC This remains a widely held view. Last week, Barry Richardson, executive director of the American Indian Center in Baltimore, gave a disgusted laugh at the mention of the recent opening of coffins from the crypt of Maryland's founding Calvert clan in St. Mary's City. Such scientific curiosity is sacrilege, Richardson said.

In that regard, it's interesting to note that, of all people, a spiritual leader -- in this case, the Catholic bishop of Southern Maryland -- gave his blessing to the opening of the Calvert crypt.

The Indians at Plymouth felt no need to affirm their heritage with the public examination of an ancestor's bones. They were not interested in scientific or archaeological findings.

Chanting and pounding their drums, they marched from the harbor to Pilgrim Hall, and as they stepped inside the museum their sound echoed off the high ceilings. The sound was deafening, passionate and angry, almost religious, one of the most incredible sounds I have ever heard.

"We want the white man to realize that all we have left is our ancestry and our self-respect," said Stonehorse Goeman, a man of Seneca and Chippewa heritage. "We ask you to join with us today."

He offered a peace pipe to L. D. Neller, the tweedy, mild-mannered director of Pilgrim Hall. Neller was either greatly moved or overwhelmed; he smoked the pipe, coughed heavily, then announced that the bones would be released.

Accepting them for the Wampanoags was a very dignified man, full of New England Indian knowledge and lore, named Frank Wamsutta James. I will never forget the long prayers that were recited over the bones and the deep, soulful howls in the songs as the Indians gave thanks to the Creator for the deliverance of justice, even this very small, brittle piece of it.

They reburied the bones that afternoon.

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