The People Whose Land This Was

  • Thanksgiving has a significant meaning for Americans, but an even more substantial meaning for Native Indians. 
  • Black Friday is not just about pre-holiday sales, it is also Native American Heritage Day!
  • Native Indian spirituality, tradition, and conservation ethics emphasize gratitude for creation, care for the environment, and recognition of the human need for communion with nature and others.
The Great Plains Buffalo was revered by Native Americans.

By Larry Whiteley

November is a busy month. Deer season is underway in most parts of America. Fishermen are trying to get another limit of crappie for the freezer to enjoy on a cold winter day. Sports lovers have their choice of football and basketball games to watch. And, of course, there is Thanksgiving Day.

In today’s world, there is very little, if any, media coverage of what Thanksgiving is all about. It was once a time of gathering family and friends, enjoying a big tasty meal, and sharing in thankful moments of peace and love, giving thanks to the Lord for what we have. Today, for many folks, it’s a quick Thanksgiving meal with the family, probably at a restaurant, and hurrying back to football games on TV or going Christmas shopping.

Lost in all the busyness of November is the fact that it is also Native American Heritage Month. In addition, Black Friday is not just for taking advantage of Christmas sales online or in stores; it is also Native American Heritage Day. Odds are, you won’t hear or see anything about this important commemorative day.

Do you remember the story of the first Thanksgiving that we adults all learned in history class when we were young? Is it even taught today? It was about the English Pilgrims braving the perils of the New World to escape religious persecution. They would have never made it without the help of friendly Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe.

The Wampanoag not only provided the food for the feast but also taught the Pilgrims how to hunt, fish, and grow food to survive. Thanksgiving, as a holiday, originates from the Native American philosophy of giving without expecting anything in return. If the Wampanoag had known what would happen to their way of life, they would not have helped so completely.

The people whose land this was, were respectful to nature.

Long before settlers arrived, the lives of Native Americans revolved around the great outdoors and the hunting and fishing that the unspoiled outdoors provided. They celebrated the autumn harvest of the food they planted and nurtured, and the gift of abundant wildlife. Their spirituality, traditions and conservation ethics, emphasized gratitude for creation, care for the environment, and recognition of the human need for communion with nature and others. That is something we should all learn more about, learn to do, and be especially thankful for.

Many Native Americans, in today’s world, will gather with friends and family on Thanksgiving to eat and give thanks. However, for more than a few Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest. To them, it commemorates the arrival of settlers to their land, followed by centuries of oppression.

It is a reminder to them of the genocide of millions of their people, the loss of their land – stolen from them, and the relentless assault on their culture. They honor their ancestors and the struggles of their people to survive today. Thanksgiving is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection for them, as well as a day of protest for the racism many Native Americans continue to experience.

I recently watched the new Ken Burns 4-hour documentary, “The American Buffalo.” After that factual rendering, I now understand why Thanksgiving is a day to mourn for Native Americans.

For thousands of generations, Native Americans relied on the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter. They only killed as many buffalo as they needed. They used every part of the animal in the lives they lived, wasting one of the animals. The Buffalo were revered by the Native Americans.

In the early 1800s, as more and more white men came to this land, it was estimated there were 30 million buffalo in the Great Plains of America. Buffalo herds began declining for several reasons, including drought and diseases introduced by the white man’s domestic cattle, and the lucrative buffalo clothing trade.

The skins of American Buffalo are prepared for shipment back East.

The arrival of the railroads in the early 1870s and a new demand for buffalo hides to be used for belts to drive industrial machines back East brought thousands of hide hunters to the Great Plains. With the steady westward movement of white people, they wanted the land of the Native Americans for farms, ranches, and towns. The Native Americans fought to keep their land.

Then someone figured out that as important as the buffalo herds were to these people, if they got rid of the buffalo, they would get rid of the Indians. Great slaughters of buffalo started taking place. The hunters took the buffalo hides and left the rest of this great animal to rot.

Their meat and bones littered and desecrated the land. In just a little over 10 years of time, the number of buffalo went from an estimated 12-15 million to fewer than one thousand. By 1900, the American buffalo was on the brink of disappearing forever. The Native American people’s lives were also changing forever.

A mountain of slaughtered Buffalo bones.

The government decided to force the Native Americans to leave their land so they could make it available to white settlers. The Indians fought to keep their ancestral lands and traditions. What would any of us do if someone came to take our land and way of life? Most of us would fight to keep it.

60,000 Native American children were sent to boarding schools.

Treaties were signed. Both sides would break them. Eventually, all the Indians were placed in reservations.

If the white man later found that the land where Indians were placed was of value, they would move the Indians to worthless land.

Over 100,000 Native Americans died during forced marches, like the infamous Trail of Tears. When all the Indians were finally on reservations, the white man came and took their children. They put them in boarding schools, cut their hair, dressed them in white man’s clothes, and forbade them to speak their native language. They were trying to take the Indian culture out of them. Many children died at those places.

What we Americans did to the Native Americans and the American buffalo is a dark time in our nation’s history. By the end of the 1880s, nobody could find a buffalo. Today, thanks to the efforts of a few, there are now 350,000 buffalo in America. That is good.

Most Native Americans still live in poverty today, and mostly on worthless land. We Americans put them there. Yes, some Indian lands have casinos on them, but few Native Americans benefit from them. The white man has figured out a way to take that too.

Another important day in November is Veterans Day. You may not know this, but Veterans Day is also important to Native Americans. For over 200 years, American Indians have fought bravely in the United States military, even before they gained U.S. citizenship in 1924.

The contributions of the Native American CODE TALKERS during World War II are a big part of our successful American war history. Their stealthy codes using their native language were never broken. It is witness to the power of their language that helped to save the Democratic Government of the United States of America during World War II.

Native American Code Talkers being honored.

Known as warriors throughout history, that deep tradition continued for Native Americans into modern times. Many still contend that the land is still theirs. After all they have been through, they still feel they are defending their land and people.

The Pentagon reports more Native Americans participate in the military at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic groups in the United States. They have served our country well.

As a veteran myself, I am proud to have served with Native Americans. I have great respect for them and their ancestors. They have been through a lot.

I am not proud of some of the things our people and our government have done to Native Americans and others. We, as a nation, are beginning to right the wrongs we did in the lives of the American Indians. That is a good thing. We came together to save the buffalo. Let us come together to help these Indigenous People.

It is time to right the wrongs of the people whose land this was.


Author Note: All photographs utilized to share this story are from the public domain.