Evolving views of the holidays

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This is "Indian season," José Barreiro - a senior editor at Indian Country Today - notes dryly. Between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, the news media and schools dust off their American Indian stories in a sort of Black History Month for natives.

Despite that somewhat contrived focus, the attention is not unwelcome, many natives say. It's an opportunity to temper romanticized views about Indians and provide a more just telling of history, one that acknowledges the history of their demise following Columbus's arrival on the continent.

The battle over how the story should be told in schools, museums, and other public settings - and how the darker aspects of these holidays as seen from a native point of view should be acknowledged - came to a head in 1992, the year of Columbus's quincentennial. What emerged from the worldwide protests and boycotts of those celebrations was more in-depth research and ultimately a more nuanced account.

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South Dakota changed the holiday's name from Columbus Day to Native American Day in 1990. And protests regularly erupt across the United States each year, Denver often taking the brunt of them.

In Venezuela, where 70 percent of the population has some Indian blood, President Hugo Chávez renamed the holiday the "Day of Indian Resistance," which was marked this year by his supporters in Caracas toppling a statue of Columbus.

For some Indians, however, the US national holiday of Thanksgiving remains a day of mourning. It was not just the events that followed the arrival of the Mayflower, but "the myths that were perpetrated on the whole of us that the Pilgrims fed 90 Indians, not thinking about the five deer that the Wampanoags brought to the meal and the other gifts of wild game," says Paulla Dove Jennings, an Indian of the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island. She and other Indians used to protest at the Plimouth Plantation until the museum in Plymouth, Mass., started to give the native perspective equal time, she says.

While many myths offensive to Natives have been punctured in recent decades, bitterness lingers.

The extent of it is hard to gauge, however. Indian Country is a diverse group of 562 federally recognized tribes in places as far flung as Alaska and Florida; 2.5 million US citizens claimed native descent in the 2000 Census, and 4.3 million others claimed Native and one other race.

That geographical spread, along with the distinct traditions and histories of the tribes, means a patchwork of attitudes toward the two holidays, says Andrew Lee, executive director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"While it would be easy to uncover movements in Indian Country against celebrating Columbus Day or Thanksgiving, it would be equally easy to find attitudes that directly contradict those," he says.

Thanksgiving never needed incorporating into Indian culture. Indian tribes have traditionally offered thanks throughout the year. For Indians, the holiday is the story of the pilgrims thanking the Indians for providing them with food, without which, "the early Plymouth colony would have starved to death," says Dr. Barreiro, a Cuban-American of Taino heritage himself.

What has shifted the balance of relations between Indians and the white majority is that "American Indians today are not just more willing to assert their rights - the consequence of four decades of militancy - but their newfound economic muscle also gives them the political clout to implement their demands," says Philip Jenkins, author of "Dream Catchers: How mainstream America discovered Native Spirituality,"

Growing political clout and more self-determination are part of what some call the Indian renaissance - exemplified by the recent opening of the first National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The museum has received mixed reviews, yet its very existence marks a rising profile for Indians - a prominent acknowledgement of their history and presence.

Battles over Columbus Day and Thanksgiving still erupt in pockets each year. But for some natives, "Indian season" has become a chance to honor their enduring cultural imprint and resilience."The most resolute Indian resistance has been the ability to journey into ... the Western ways ... and not be completely pulverized by them," says Barreiro.

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