Indigenous Musicians Remix Thanksgiving Part One

Black Belt Eagle Scout, Grand Funk’s Mark Farner and Debora Iyall Romeo Void talk turkey about what this holiday means to them

Indigenous Musicians Remix Thanksgiving Part One (Art: Ron Hart)

Among the many things that COVID has managed to destroy along with a quarter-million people in the United States (not to mention millions more sickened) is one of our most cherished holidays.

This Thanksgiving is gonna be different for all of us, with family gatherings being turned on their head and now maybe representing potentially deadly spreader events.  So while we’re forced to rethink Thanksgiving this year, we might give some thought to some deadly events in the past which followed the original American Thanksgiving.  T-giving is usually a day or two off from work for most of us where we get together with the folks and stuff our faces  (for us Jews, it’s almost akin to Xmas in that way).  It’s not just an American holiday either–it’s observed in Canada, Australia, the Philippines, the Netherlands and other countries as well.

Thanksgiving actually traces back to the UK circa the 1500’s, as a time to show the divine gratitude for a good crop. This got carried over by the Pilgrims when they came over to Virginia and chowed in Plymouth in 1621 with the ‘Indians,’ aka the Native Americans, who helped the Brit immigrants make it through the winter by sharing food with them.

That was all good and well and extremely generous of the tribes,  but how were the Indigenous people treated after that by the UK/European newcomers subsequently?  There was stolen land, broken treaties and the infamous Trail of Tears as the tribes were herded onto reservations and suffered genocide via ‘manifest destiny’ and pox-filled blankets.  It’s not stuff we wanna think about when we stuff our faces, right?

But what if we did give it some thought?  With the idea of a really mindful T-giving, we wanted to get some insight from a stellar group of Indigenous musicians in this two part article.  

In this first part, we hear from indie rocker Black Belt Eagle Scout, classic rocker Mark Farner (Grand Funk) and Debora Iyall from new wave legends Romeo Void. We asked them to give their thoughts on their heritage and Thanksgiving, including whether they actually celebrate the holiday and what they’d advise for the rest of us.  The answers were surprising- they had understandably mixed feelings about it, with several of them celebrating it themselves in their own way, but also insisting that the true meaning behind it and that the subsequent history can’t be forgotten.

That’s especially true (as we’ll see) as the indignities haven’t stopped in 2020, and may not stop in the future, unless we take note of it and take them more seriously. 



Portland, Oregon

“I want to protect my tribal sovereignty”!

Black Belt Eagle Scout (Photo: Sarah Cass Art: Ron Hart)

I don’t really use the word ‘Native American’ in describing myself.  I describe myself as ‘indigenous.’ It’s because I belong to a tribe and we have tribal sovereignty.  I used to actually use ‘Native American’ but as I grew and learned more about the atrocities that the United States committed against ingenious people, I sort of changed the way I started talking about my identity and moved more towards that word ‘indigenous’ and going more into what my indigeneity is.  I’m Swinomish and Iñupiaq.  Swinomish is in the so-called ‘Northwest Washington state’ and Iñupiaq is from the Arctic area and so-called ‘Alaska.’ I grew up in Swinomish and that’s where my dad’s side of the family is from but my mom is Iñupiaq and we go there every once in a while to visit.

I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving anymore.  I used to celebrate it with my family but we didn’t celebrate it in the sense that other American people celebrate Thanksgiving, like ‘let’s give thanks for this country.’  It was more so like, ‘hey, we have this day off and this is the food that normally happens during this time so let’s eat together.’ So I did grow up eating turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing.  But then I changed that ethos as I started getting older and actually realizing what Thanksgiving is in terms of what it means to be indigenous today.  With colonization still continually happening all around the world, it’s not really something that I want to give thanks about. But I want to protect my tribal sovereignty and the treaty rights we have that were broken by the United States and various administrations. 

My parents still celebrate Thanksgiving so I have conversations with them about it.  It’s interesting from my generation perspective versus their perspective- ‘hey, we should rethink why we do things.’ I think that with assimilation, a lot of people have some hurt and trauma within them.  So it’s easier to not deal with a lot of things and just go with the flow.  And it’s rough when the food is really good. (laughs) 

My parents are very supportive of me if I have a new idea or if I have something that I want to do.  But I can tell that they love food and they love festivities, so I think it’s hard for them to let go of the fact that we won’t have stuffing or pumpkin pie around the same time that other people are doing that.  That’s something that I think about when I talk to them- they’re like ‘OK, we don’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving but we still want to have a meal with you.  Can we figure out a different way to go about this and not have it be Thanksgiving?’  So it’s very complex in terms of when you’re talking to various individuals in different generations. I feel like I have a lot of peers in my generation that don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that want to abolish it and not uphold the constant reminder of genocide. 

So I don’t think people should celebrate Thanksgiving.  I think people should learn more about the real history of the United States and how much genocide has been committed against native people and just educate yourself about this sort of thing and try and understand it.  You should question it and think ‘why are we celebrating this foundation of genocide- why can’t we do something different?’ People like to sugar coat things like, ‘oh, that’s just a thing of that past.’ But it’s still ongoing to this day- the treaty rights are still being broken and there’s so much turmoil that happens with indigenous communities.  

Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving, I try to focus on other things, like my tribe celebrates so many different meals each year.  I try to hone in on those specific things.  We always do a clam bake and offer seafood to all of the tribal members and there’s just various dinners that happen all the time in my community.  And so I think adding more weight to those experiences is something that is needed as well. I’m from the Coast Salish people and we come from the Potlach culture where we come together for various types of meals all the time. And it’s not like one day a year for that specific meal. We come together and we celebrate our families, our songs, and different parts of ourselves in this tradition.  And so, Thanksgiving is just a day to me. (laughs)

I think it’s a day where if you’re going to day anything, maybe educate yourself and read about the native people of the land that you’re occupying.  There’s an incredible website called  It’s not 100 percent right about which land belongs to which natives, but it’s a pretty good resource to look at if you want to quickly know whose ancestral territories they are.  And sometimes, there’s links to the tribes and if there’s a tribal government that’s there or if there’s more resources where you can learn about things.


VIDEO: Black Belt Eagle Scout “Soft Stud”



MARK FARNER (Grand Funk Railroad)

Emmet County, Michigan

It can’t be a retaliatory lifestyle”

Mark Farner (Photo: Brad Shaw, Art: Ron Hart)

Through our childhood, my mother would always reference her grandmother.  Her American legal name was Elizabeth Jones, but her native [Cherokee] name was Cohonei. My mother had a wonderful relationship with nature and she would always direct our attention to the small things.  When I was about 3 or 4, we would get down on our bellies with our mother and lay in the lawn looking at ants for hours. (laughs) And when it was raining, she would take us out by the hand and we’d go running, jumping in the puddles. It was about our relationship with Mother Earth and what Mother Earth brings.  And in spite all of the technology of man, Mother Earth keeps recovering from all of the injuries and the scars and the beatings that mankind has put on her.  And that was every day of our life- we would have some reference.  That’s been part of me- it’s my love of nature.  I hunt, I fish. I know the creator put us here to enjoy this place, and also to take love to those who are in need when you can honestly give it.  We are to be free souls, each one of us.  And we ourselves are the only ones who can set ourselves free- no other person can do that. It has to be us doing that, under that understanding, and this is where the freedom comes from.

And this is through my mother’s recollections and her stories to us about my grandmother because she had healing hands- my mother would tell us if someone was sick, that she could put her hand on them and they would recover.  And I always admired the thought of that because in my imagination as she was telling us was this humble old woman who just had an abundance of love. 

As part of my Cherokee nature, let me just reference this: Cherokee men esteem their women and their wives are to be equal with themselves.  When the Cherokee would show up at a pow wow, their women were with them. And when they would go in and if there were no other women in this war circle except for the Cherokee, then the chiefs would ask ‘where are your women? How will you hear from the spirit if you don’t have your women here?’  In order for us to hear, we can’t just say ‘men are going to hear this.’ The men keep hearing it for a long time and the men keep bringing the damn wars. 

For Thanksgiving, we just give to God the creator, and give the thanks. The thing about Thanksgiving is being thankful and being grateful and in spite of what we have seen coming at us, we have to take it back to our hearts and give it to love because the love is in us.  It’s where we came from- we are not born with M-16’s in our hands and knives in our teeth.  You have to train a child how to kill and how to be mean and how to hate.  These are not natural inclinations so we take Thanksgiving to the heart and give all the thanks to the creator because the creator made us all equal.  

Related that to the history of Native Americans in this country, I’ve always had a problem with any of kind of abuse like that, especially once you’ve gone through the Trail of Tears in Oklahoma– then you have a better understanding.  I heard about it all my life but when I was given the Cherokee Medal of Honor, I went through the museum and it is something that you have to experience personally to really get the feel of it and the gist of it. 

But even in spite of what man has to done to the Native Americans, we still have to come back to the love. It can’t be a retaliatory lifestyle.  That just leads to more and more war and that’s what the planners of our estate, the world estate, want us at- war.  That’s why there’s so much hate right now And it’s a world that’s being led by this violence and retaliation and all these movies.  It’s programming for war. The video games are programming our children for war. ‘Take a life, chop that head off, chop that arm off, make the blood flow!  It’s OK, this is fun!’ 

But love has to take you out of there. And this is the only way that we can do it- you have to have this unconditional love that lets you forgive those assholes with the same measure that you expect to be forgiven. And that’s where I find my peace because I know that all of this is happening because of provocation.

So for Thanksgiving, I would say to give thanks for whatever you have, whatever love you have.  If you don’t have love, you don’t have anything. So when I say ‘whatever you have,’ it has to be associated with love.  It’s unconditional, it’s who we are. It’s our nature, it’s where we came from, it’s where we’ll return to. 


VIDEO: Grand Funk on Don Kirshner’s In Concert 1972



Debora IYALL (Romeo Void)

Coachella Valley, California

“The true recognition of how America came to be is never really recognized”

Debora Iyall selfie (Photo: Deb)

I have two sides of my family- one’s Norwegian, English, Dutch, Irish and the other is Native American, out of the Northwest coast. We are from the Cowlitz tribe from around Olympia Washington.  

I have a really awesome side of the family.  Our grandfather went to Washington DC and met with Calvin Coolidge when it was time for Native Americans to get the vote.  He was in a contingent of tribal spokespeople who had been lobbying for many years for that. I also have cousins who’ve been on the tribal chair of two different tribes because when you’re a native, a lot of times, you’re more than one tribe, depending on who’s married in the family. One of my cousins was a tribal chairwomen of the Nisqually Tribe in Nisqually, Washington. Also, I have cousins on the Cowlitz Tribal Council in Longview, Washington. 

“My grandfather Frank Iyall who lobbied for our tribe, seen here with Calvin Coolidge. He’s the big guy in the coat and bowler hat.” – Debora Iyall 

My parents’ marriage didn’t last so we moved away from Washington when I was about 2. My mom was always very independent and progressive and encouraged us to go to pow wow’s and she bought me Indian art books, but I wasn’t at all tribally raised. I was raised by my white veterinary mom in Fresno. (laughs) My mom taught us to just love nature.  She was always very agnostic and on Easter, we would go driving up in the hills, and have a picnic out in nature. We didn’t go to church much at all except when she had to do surgery so she would drop us off at church so we could have the morning to stay in.  

And since that time, I’ve always stayed around some kind of Native American community when I could.  I taught art out on the Navajo at Ganado High School in Ganado [Arizona] and I lived in Sacramento for a few years so I went to a lot of the community events there. I taught actually in Humboldt County at a preschool when I was about 21 for the Indian Action counsel.  I also used to work for the Cahuilla Cultural Museum- I led kids on hikes in Indian Canyons in Palm Springs. 

In the early 2000’s, late 1990’s, I was working at the American Contemporary Indian Arts Gallery in San Francisco.  I was active in the Native American Cultural Center and I did a program for Native American artists in recovery to do print making at a cultural center in San Francisco from 1992 to almost 2000. 

Recently, I was watching one of the news programs about the election and it listed the race of people and it said ‘Caucasian,’ ‘African American,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘Asian,’ and ‘something else.’ ‘Something else’? I’m like ‘right…’ So once you know you’re ‘something else,’ which happened to me in grade school, when people pointed out to me that I wasn’t white.  ‘You’re just a brown kid, what do you know?’  I was always different.  I’m a chubby brown kid in a pretty white neighborhood, growing up in Fresno.  Once you’re ‘something else,’ then that’s part of you. At least for me, it clicked in where I said ‘well, I am going to be something else.’ And you just check out of stifling yourself. (laughs) So I wanted to be creative and I got involved in creative things. I would have the courage to try different things.  That’s how I got into rock and roll and how I felt good on stage. If you were going to design a rock star, you would have never designed me! (laughs) But I made it work for me and it was art for me as well as something else. 

For Thanksgiving for us, it’s a family get-together but it didn’t have anything to do with pilgrims. If anything, we would acknowledge that the true history was never told. And it’s a traditional thing to be grateful for each day. And each moment is sacred- no one’s ever been here before. I’ve been sober a long time so that’s a whole other level of being thankful and having gratitude.  And sharing and making community and making connections because the antidote to addiction is connection.  And I think that’s why I like teaching- I like to make connections to things that I love.  And this is a no-brainer, I love this.  

Last year, we had my husband’s whole family and a couple of my family here- my sister and I are super-close  We just had to have family everywhere and then it was such a big group that we all ate outside on the picnic table and patio. What we do now, I usually put the turkey in and go for a swim because where we live, I can go to the community pool. So that’s perfect timing for me and then I get nature and beauty and health and all that in the same day. And then you come home, and the house smells great and you make the pies.  So it’s a time to come together.  You get off work.  Now, that I’m a teacher, we get the whole week off!  I’m looking forward to it, honestly.

We have our own understandings on my side of the family. Last time we did it, we burnt sage outside first thing in the morning. Because I’m sober, it’s something I do every day- not necessarily burn sage but tell the world that I’m glad I’m here and have this moment of gratitude every morning.  It is kind of my own ritual, spirituality. I share that with my nephew and nieces the most.

I think it is important to recognize the diversity of the tribes in America and be conscious of whose land you’re presently on. In Native gatherings, there is always a protocol at the beginning of a pow wow or conference, where for the people whose place it is (around here. it would be the Cahuilla tribe), you’re aware that this is their place.  So I would say that every locale in America has Indigenous people from there.  And just sort of acknowledge that, thank you. (laughs)  To me, the white supremacy in the details of the systemic genocide are just so imponderable on any kind of superficial level.  And it’s still here. We have that more than ever in our culture. So, the true recognition of how America came to be is never really recognized.


VIDEO: Romeo Void “Never Say Never”



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Jason Gross

Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first and longest-running online music magazines. He has written for Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Time Out, AP, New York, MTV, Oxford American, Billboard, MOJO, The Wire, and Blurt. Reissues and collections that he's produced included Delta 5, Essential Logic, Kleenex/Liliput, DNA, Oh OK and OHM –The Early Gurus of Electronic Music. He lives in New York with his girlfriend and 30 plush cats.

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