Day 296: Syria, Thanksgiving, and a History Lesson or What We’re Really Afraid Of

cornucopiaThe United States celebrates Thanksgiving this month. I find it ironic that a debate about helping Syrian refugees have sprung up around the same time. People who label themselves “Christian” are the ones most loudly proclaiming that we should deny people who are fleeing a strife ridden country safe harbor because there might be terrorists. I am absolutely disgusted by this attitude for several reasons.It is hypocritical on several fronts.  The pilgrims who landed at Plymouth rock on November 9, 1620 were roundheads fleeing persecution in overwhelmingly Catholic England . In other words refugees fleeing the homeland where it was becoming increasingly dangerous for them to stay there to political and religious beliefs, not so different from the choices Syrians find themselves facing right now if it?

When a boat full of scared and disoriented Europeans landed the Native Americans took pity on them and taught them to survive the first awful winter. How did we repay them? Blankets that were knowingly infected with smallpox and later The Trail of Tears and the atrocious reservation system at the end of it. Our ancestors took the kindness offered and paid it back in fear and suffering. Perhaps the people who scream terrorism the loudest do so because it’s what they would do in the same situation. Recently I overheard a conversation in which the topic turned to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and a woman somewhat sheepishly replied that she wasn’t terribly keen on Thanksgiving because she was half Native American. She went on to say that in her house growing up and today her father refers to Thanksgiving as “don’t feed the strays day.” I laughed and silently cheered the woman’s dad.

In the house my sister and I grew up in we were taught and shown that our skin color carried with it unspoken privilege that lots of our friends were not afforded. Our parents showed us through their own words and actions that the happenstance of skin color did not make us any more special or deserving than the next person. I remember when I was in fourth grade an educational speaker from the Lakota Native American tribe came to talk to my class. His main subject was the Trail of Tears I think but he also explained that the names the white settlers called each of the tribes were incorrect because they often would unknowinglya sk an enemy tribe what the name of the tribe “next-door” was and so the answers they would get would often translate to things like “snake in the grass” (which if I remember correctly is what Cheyenne means). The presenter went on to explain that the tribes called themselves simply “the people” in their own languages.

When I was little and before I was born my mom went to a lot of Native American powwows, because of this I knew a great deal more of Native American history than your average white 10-year-old. The presenter had brought several pieces of traditional Native American regalia (it is never ever under any circumstances, referred to as a  costume) from various tribes including a war bonnet from anothe tribe. The thing about regalia like that is you have to earn the right to wear it which doesn’t happen before you are 50 and unless you have one that has been passed down through the generations when you are old enough to wear it you have to make it yourself. I knew this was not a piece of Lakota regalia and even if it were the presenter, who didn’t look far past 30 would have been too young to own one by tradition, and I told him so. He was totally stunned that a white child would know such a thing, he didn’t say that butwas written on his face. He went on to explain that he had gott particular piece donated to him by a friend from another tribe. It was, and still is, one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt it was my small apology for the trouble my ancestors had unfairly given his.

To the people who shriek terrorist and say that we should turn away those in need simply because of what might be, I enjoin you to remember the parable of the Good Samaritan and remember as Thanksgiving approaches that our ancestors were once refugees too. I fervently hope we can learn from their mistake and perhaps this time not let fear keep us from the right thing.

Authors note: the name the white settlers were given for the Lakota was the Sioux.


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