DJ crew A Tribe Called Red, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke and roots singer Martha Redbone talk turkey about what this holiday means to them
As a follow-up to our previous article about indigenous musicians sharing their thoughts on a Thanksgiving that’s going to be different for us all this year, we have three more stalwart musicians sharing their thoughts on their heritage in this context of the holiday.
Included in this part are DJ crew A Tribe Called Red, Lynyrd Sknynrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke and roots singer Martha Redbone, all offering sage advice about how we all could make this a much more mindful holiday for ourselves. You’ll also notice that the recent election comes up again, but not in a good way for Native Americans.
And if you’d like to school yourself more, read Nathaniel Philbricks’ Mayflower book, which among other things, gives some interesting, lesser-known details about the original gathering in Plymouth, including how the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe traded sports along with food.
“We’re on the front line… fighting for us all”
Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas: Both of us in the group are from the same community- the Six Nations in Southern Ontario. I was definitely raised within my culture. It was very important to my parents that I learn who I was and that I was really grounded and based in our culture and our tradition. That basis really informs our work. That’s how we treat what we do and the ways that we feel accountable to our community in not only the way that we act, but also in the people we work with and the things that we say in our music.
The Thanksgiving holiday is always a difficult time really–growing up to know the real histories, knowing what people are actually celebrating during Thanksgiving definitely made it a hard time. And I think you really see evidence of that now in the way that many indigenous people represent online and work that’s created during the holidays, to say ‘this is not for us- this is actually celebrating our genocide.’
We’ve put out music ourself for Thanksgiving in the past- a song called “Burn Your Village To The Ground.” That samples Wednesday Adams from The Adams Family II where she gives a speech about Thanksgiving. So we kind of recontextualize that into our Thanksgiving message.
I think that now, there’s social media platforms where you can really see what people are asserting during times like Thanksgiving. And I think turning an eye towards what’s being said in our community on social media is a great way to see how people are feeling, how it effects people and the statements that are coming out. People aren’t holding back these days. (laughs) There’s a real feeling that it’s time to assert ourselves and tell our history the way we know it.
As far as indigenous issues in North America right now, there’s a lot of ongoing fights and resistances that are happening here in Nova Scotia. There’s a huge fight over fishing rights. And the ongoing resistance against pipelines here and in the United States. All of things that are looked at as indigenous issues and indigenous fights but they are also human fights as well. These are indigenous people on the front lines, fighting for things that affect us all as human beings.
In my community right now, we’re actually in a dispute over land rights. It’s a dispute that goes back to when the land we’re on was settled. It’s crazy to see that these troubles have been going on continuously over generations.
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RICKEY MEDLOCKE (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot)
Lee County, Florida
“We invited everybody over for dinner and they never left”
My father was a Lakota Indian. My mother’s part Cherokee Creek and the rest of her family is English, Scottish, Irish. My grandfather Shorty raised me- that’s where all the music heritage came from. But on both sides of the family, I’m Native. I’ve always really been actually very proud of that whole thing of course.
Natives have not always been very vocal in complaining and trying to go against the grain of America and/or Canada or Alaska. But they have pride that they want to be strong and they don’t want a hand out. They don’t want people feeling sorry for them and pitying them. And in that pride, it has caused deep feelings, probably against government rule. What saddens me in a lot of ways is that there’s a lot of history as far as Native Americans that people don’t even really know because it’s not written any more in the history books. That was supposed to be just yester-year. But there is an old saying- ‘when you try to erase history, history will repeat itself.’ I really believe that.
When we’re talking about Thanksgiving, there’s a lot of mixed emotions. My grandfather had a great saying, ‘We invited everybody over for dinner and they never left.’ (laughs) When the Europeans came over here and even beyond that, when the Viking people first came to North America, here’s these ‘other people.’ And this was the time of conquer and rule. And you got to realize that when Columbus came over, he was actually a tyrant and committed a lot of atrocities. He took slaves back to Spain. A lot of European traders took Indians back to Europe.
So, looking at it in terms of when this country was supposedly ‘discovered,’ once they got here, people started seeing all these riches. They discovered that there was all this abundance of water, and gold and silver up to the 1880’s and they went into Indian lands. They were not supposed to go into [places] such as the Black Hills. But they went into Native lands and they committed atrocities. When gold was found in the Black Hills by miners, Crazy Horse struck out and killed a lot of them because they [the Europeans] weren’t supposed to be there- the Black Hills were the holy lands of Natives So after the gold was found, a fight breaks out and ultimately, it concluded at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And after that, Natives were rounded up and put on reservations, including Fort Sill in Oklahoma where I still have relatives and Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse was killed, and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Sitting Bull was killed on a reservation. And then the government ordered to put the Indians in at Wounded Knee. Indians go to protest about that and they’re all massacred. Over 300 of them – men, women, children, old men, old women. And there was one big hole dug and they were all buried in one massive gravesite.
And think about this: Andrew Jackson decided that he was going to take all of the lands of the Cherokee and the Creek Indians and the Choctaws and sell it to his buddies and make massive money. So he enacts the Indian Removal Act, which created the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Indians marched from East Coast to West Coast, and thousands died going out to Fort Sill.
And then we fast forward to today. Not a lot of people know this. I know that Native families try their best to get their young ones to look at where they came from, and be appreciative and respectful of their heritage and their blood line. I’ve always said that to my daughter. Even on the reservation, they try to teach them their own language.
So if you read about that history, the Natives were very susceptible to them coming. They [pilgrims] thought, ‘we got these supposedly dumb natives and we can take this land and we can stretch out.’ More people kept coming from Europe and they kept pushing. And so here we are today.
And Thanksgiving to me probably isn’t the same thing that it is maybe to a lot of people. But what it means to me is that on this one particular day, everybody gathers and they celebrate with the turkey and all the mass foods. For me, it’s being thankful that you are being able to be with family. But I’m most thankful that I’m alive today, and granted another day on this earth. Especially this year. I have a pre-existing respiratory illness called bronchiectasis so I’ve had to be really careful. I’ve been shut up in my home, and for 7-8 months, I’ve been away from my wife, who is having to take care of her elderly parents. I’m thankful that I’m able to wake up another day and see the sun shine, and feel the wind in my face and I’m able to give prayers on the wind for everybody that has suffered from this thing.
But for Thanksgiving too, I should say that I am very respectful to my gal’s relatives. They know that I’m not the typical guy that gives thanks. I’ve been very vocal about it. They know that I’m dead serious but they’re respectful to me. And I’m respectful to them- I love my gal’s relatives. I go and I partake of a meal only because it’s out of respect for my relatives.
I would say to people, think about it when your feet hit the floor that morning. Be thankful for another day on this earth. Be thankful that when you get up, that you can hug your wife and your kids or see your relatives and sit around and have a good time. I would say that the biggest part is being thankful that you’re alive. And if you have good health, be very thankful for that.
One of the things I ask for all the time is a healing of this earth and a healing of relationships. And a forgiveness of what we’ve committed and what we’ve done to get us here to this point.
Be thankful for what you’ve got now because tomorrow, you might wake up and you might not have it. Live every day like it’s your last. And live it to the hilt, to the fullest.
And think about really where Thanksgiving started. It was indigenous natives feeding the pilgrims to keep them from starving and freezing to death that winter. They brought them corn, vegetables, bread. And it was a celebration of being alive. I would urge everybody, especially this Thanksgiving, to really sit back and examine and really think about it. Think about what’s going on and our situation and be thankful that we’re all still here.
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“Don’t erase us”
I come from the Cherokee / Shawnee / Choctaw southeastern Black Mountain ridge, Appalachia. My father was African-American and Lumbee from Robeson County, North Carolina. My parents split when I was very young. I was raised mostly by my grandparents who were traditional and our mountain culture was an important part of my childhood.
I have a song called “40 Wheels” which was a story about four generations of Cherokee women in my family, so it was my mom, myself, my grandmother, my great grandmother. And it was a tribute to my family’s story- it was our life, the Black Mountain, and how we came to be. So many people now just consider the Cherokee Shawnee land as beginning in Oklahoma, and it’s not the full story. And my family is still there, so I thought it was a real nice way to honor the family by sharing our stories and talking about the land and what the land means to us. This is despite all the laws that have been passed that come through history to eliminate us, whether through genocide or on paper or racial reclassification. There were so many things that were put in place to erase us.
For the election, CNN has this screen up and they said ‘white voters- 65%…’ Then, black voters were a certain percentage of the voters and then Latino was another percentage and then it was ‘OTHER’ at one percent. And we thought, ‘what the hell is that?’ (laughs) ‘You’re talking about the Native American vote?’ There were just in Arizona alone 22 tribes that were responsible for 97% of Biden’s vote, and flipped the state. That’s 22 tribes [see this NPR story for details]. And the Navajo Nation, who has the greatest number of COIVD deaths, had a 97% vote for Biden.
So to be referred to as ‘something else’ was something else! (laughs) All of us in Indian country lost it. First of all, we got really angry, then we had so much sarcasm and we laughed and we cried and then we got really angry. Because it’s just so indicative of everything that constantly happens to us. We’re always forgotten. Even when they were talking about these COVID deaths, do you know that they never count our numbers in the Native nations? They’re never part of the entire numbers [for the US] that we saw on our screens for months. They never included us. Why? Because of sovereignty. They don’t include us because they don’t include Indian Nations as ‘the United States.’ So the number of actual COVID deaths are not entirely accurate at all because they’re not counting the 574 tribes’ deaths. It’s disgusting.
We’re still very much a novelty to people because of the brainwashing that American history has done. People don’t know about us so they go to the media and there’s all these stereotypes and assumptions. They reclassify us- they know nothing about us. They don’t see us, still. They only see us when they need to, usually to say something disparaging. It was so disgusting that the Washington Tribes in the early months of COVID wrote and said that they desperately needed ventilators. And they were sent 200 body bags instead [see this NBC story for details]. The disrespect is never ending.
That has taught me that we have to tell our own stories because people just don’t know. And what little they know has been a lie frankly. So we have to be the ones who have to tell the story. They don’t understand how someone can look at me and say, ‘you’re Native American but you’re black!’ So I say, ‘Yeah, my dad’s black.’ They’ll say, ‘but how can it be- you don’t look like the people in the Lone Ranger or the people in Dances With Wolves.’ And I can just say, ‘I look like everyone in my family.’
It’s because we’re all addicted to these phenotypes. We’ve had everything taken away from us and we all have to relearn who the hell we are.
There was a profound moment as a kid that when I grew up, at the beginning of hip hop- it was Sugarhill Gang and all of that. I just remember it was a huge celebration of blackness. And I remember my mom saying ‘don’t I count for something?’ And we’re like ‘uh…?’ (laughs) And she said ‘don’t erase us- don’t participate in the genocide of your own people.’ And when you’re a kid, you don’t know what that means. But now that I’m a mom and I’m looking at my kid now who’s half English-Jewish, it’s been my thing that he knows who he is and where he comes from, and he embraces all of it. It’s like, ‘no, you’re not part this or part that. You’re 100% everything.’ And we can’t have people cut us up or divide us up. It’s really important we know our story and that we surround ourselves in it.
We have always treated the Thanksgiving holiday as a day of mourning for our Eastern Woodlands relatives. It was the first couple of days home from school and work so it was a chance to gather with our family to share a meal together before the harsh winter months come. We would gather together and bring food and then we prayed. We knew when we were very young and firsthand that there was another, different story than what we were taught in school. Today, as a mother, I still do the same things.
Today’s meaning behind Thanksgiving for us is a wonderful sentiment to gather with family and break bread and spend time together. I am always hopeful that more of our stories get told and even more, that people take the time to listen and learn the truth about the original caretakers and history of the land we all stand on and take for granted. It would be wonderful if people took a moment to acknowledge Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for our Eastern Woodlands Indigenous nations. Take the time to read about us- the Wampanoag, Narragansett have many stories to share and anyone can visit the websites to learn more. If you want to learn more about a community, go to the people.
VIDEO: Martha Redbone “Forty Wheels”
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