Listen: Ron Libertus on Indian Studies and Thanksgiving

MPR’s Doug Hamilton interviews Ron Libertus, of the Ojibwe Nation, on his thoughts on Indian studies and Thanksgiving. Libertus discusses the concept of “giving thanks.”


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RON LIBERTUS: With Indians, it's a matter of a time when the harvest rolls in, you thank the creator for the bounty. I think it's more the European mentality that registers a date and whatever goes along with that date and later times it became economics. So it depends on how you view it, who started it? I think both sides probably gave thanks for whatever they were having. But I think it's common to Indigenous people that giving thanks was a way of-- a way of life. You did it all the time.

DOUG HAMILTON: What sort of relations did the pilgrims enjoy with the Indians in America according to Indian traditions?

RON LIBERTUS: Well, the Indians were very accepting because they knew there were different kinds of people. Remember, there were 2,000 separate groups of people over here in the United States in the 15th century. And so they knew there were other peoples who believed other things, who had different origin myths, who had different concepts. So they accepted that. So Indians were accepting. It was Europeans that were not accepting.

They had one language stock, Indo-European. They had two groups of people in Europe, Christians and Muslims, and that was it. And everybody had a preconceived notion of what everybody else was like. So they were the unaccepting people, I believe, historically.

DOUG HAMILTON: Well, aside from this historic feast, the Thanksgiving dinner, did the two cultures get along outside? Did they interact?

RON LIBERTUS: Well, yes. Indians, as I said, these people came along and they were strange, but they were no stranger, say, than a Choctaw to a Wampanoag. And so they were fully accepting. And Indians said, here's how you grow corn and here's how you do this, and so forth and so on. It was Europeans who, in their concept of land really is what is the basis-- was the basis of the first fights, and it's the basis of any fighting now is really land.

It was Europeans who felt that land had to be built a fence around it and put your claim in a county court and say, now I now own this. And Indians, of course, never believed in land ownership. It was something the creator had left-- had put there and that you were to exact your existence from. And that's really where the fights began.

So I think the first-- well, if you read William Bradford, the governor of Massachusetts, if you read his letters in 1620, which I've done for study reasons, he said the Indians were just pleasant and wonderful. And he gave all that romantic nonsense about Indians.

And finally, this went all the way to 1623 when those first three celebrations occurred that Bradford actually laid down as part of their law in Massachusetts. And it was after that Indians became vicious, according to Bradford's letters, after 1623. But at that point, of course, they were forcing Indians back with military strength. So you're bound to fight back.

DOUG HAMILTON: How do you feel about the version of the Thanksgiving story being taught to schoolchildren these days?

RON LIBERTUS: Well, I don't-- I don't know that I think much about it. I mean, I'm like any other American person right now. Thanksgiving to me is two days off in a row and eating too much and watching the Detroit Lions lose to somebody. But I think what's really strange is how this society tends to look at Indians once in a while.

Indians will call attention to themselves during Indian Week, May, the first week of May. And that's sort of a Thanksgiving in and of itself. It's Indians giving thanks are still Indians, whatever that means to any other Indian. And then at Thanksgiving, schools tend to look at Indians. So those seem to be the two times that-- and that's sort of like zoo week.

The first one where Indians call attention to themselves and everybody goes out and celebrates and visits a powwow and has a lecturer in their school and that sort of thing. And then the Thanksgiving day, when somebody looks at Indians, and then they tend to romanticize them and look back to that old culture of when Indians were accepting and giving, and when everybody else seemed to be taking.

And when Indians view that, they get angry. Like the American Indian Movement did back about-- well, it was 1970, actually. It was 350 years after the first Thanksgiving, they stormed Plymouth Rock and had a day of mourning. When Indians think about Thanksgiving, they get a little angry and probably reasonably so.

DOUG HAMILTON: So if there were any changes that could be made in the teaching of this tradition, what would those changes be?

RON LIBERTUS: That's difficult because one would have to look at the whole educational system. I think if one is going to do it right in Indian teachings, that is history, literature, language, and those sorts of things would have to be inculcated in the entire curricula. I don't think one can look at one certain event and then determine somehow how relationships occur, or are, or were become. I don't think things-- I don't think there's any way to take Thanksgiving in its present form and teach it properly. I mean, if you're just historically correct, that's about the best you can do.


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