Author: Mansi Vaghela
Handpainted Photo: Roland W. Reed
On an autumn day in 1621, the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans had a grand feast together. This celebration came to be after the pilgrims came to the new land in the winter of 1620. They struggled through the brutal winter season but a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, Squanto, taught them how to grow corn, catch fish, about plants, and many useful harvesting lessons. After the pilgrims’ first corn harvest in November of 1621, they celebrated with the Wampanoag Native Americans. They shared lobster, clams, venison, corn, berries, pumpkin, squash, and more.
This what many of us know about the history of Thanksgiving, but what followed was a trail of gruesome and terrible events. The Indian Removal Act, The Trail of Tears, creation of Reservations, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the ongoing injustice that ravage through the very few Native American tribes that are left, are just a fraction of the hardships faced by the group. “Hardships” does not even come close to describe the intensity of these events.
Still, the most beautiful art and culture come from a myriad of Native American traditions. Brilliant poetry written by the most talented Native American writers is so underrepresented in today’s culture. The sadness of their ancestral past and the ongoing inequality shines so brightly through their words, readers can feel the sorrow. The poem highlighted here is “America, I Sing You Back” by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, a Native American poet, and editor.
By Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
for Whitman and Hughes
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.
Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.
My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.
As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.
My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.
But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—
and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.
When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.
When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Inspired by Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’s “I, too”, Hedge Coke puts her own extension to the collection using her voice as an Indigenous woman. Like Whitman and Hughes, Hedge Coke brings a sense of musicality through this poem, bringing in identity and history throughout her piece as music is a large part of Native American culture. She reflects on the conflicts that America faces, the natural resources that are being stripped from the land. The main imagery Hedge Coke paints is of a mother singing to her child, the child being America and the mother being the Native American tribes who nourished the land before pilgrims settled. As she grows, the child rebels against her mother, but the mother hopes that this phase will pass and the child will soon return to her pure self. In just a few lines, power and vulnerability emanate through Hedge Cokes’ work.
Thanksgiving today is more about giving thanks to all that we have in life. It is a day to celebrate family, friendship, and togetherness. The feast that the Native Americans and pilgrims had back in 1621 is not a reason for celebration anymore—and for good reasons. Since 1970, Native Americans of New England conduct an annual protest called the National Day of Mourning, on Thanksgiving Day. A similar but unrelated holiday called Unthanksgiving Day is held on the West Coast. These counter-celebrations highlight the injustices faced by Native American communities today and raise awareness of these issues. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, reflect on its true history—the cruel events that followed, and the discrimination and the inequality that are still faced by the Native American community. Hold this in duality with gratitude for what is here now and the intention for a unified and peaceful future without violence and intolerance.
Here are some organizations supporting Native American communities to donate to:
NARF – “Since 1970, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has provided legal assistance to Indian tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation.”
Warrior Women Project –“ The Warrior Women Project is an innovative collaboration of scholarship, media, and activism that seeks to provide a forum for the Warrior Women of the Red Power Movement and current indigenous activists to tell their stories in their own words for the benefit of future generations.”
Stand With Standing Rock – “The Oceti Sakowin Camp is a historic gathering of tribes, allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
First Nations – “First Nations Development Institute believes that when armed with the appropriate resources, Native Peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual, and cultural well-being of their communities. We invest in and create innovative institutions and models that strengthen asset control and support economic development for American Indian people and their communities.”
Please take a look at some of the beautiful artwork by Native American artists highlighted in our piece: Statement Makers–Native American Artists