Besides the turkey, the pies, and the Norman Rockwell sentimentality of the Thanksgiving meal, Americans love the story of that first friendly meal between Indigenous people and the pilgrims in 1621.
For decades, kids have carefully cut construction paper pilgrim hats and Native headdresses and reenacted the message of harmony that the holiday is meant to convey.
Sadly, the story just isn’t true. It’s mostly sad for the Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose treaties were broken by the American government. The myth of the first Thanksgiving was embroidered and invented during the Civil War by President Lincoln to promote unity. This video from the National Museum of the American Indian is a clever take on informing America about the creation of Thanksgiving, and the devastation to the tribes on whose land we now live.
Today’s and yesterday’s politics aside, harmony at the Thanksgiving table is just not historical. But the Thanksgiving story does prompt Americans to think about the Indigenous people who lived here when European colonists arrived. President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Heritage Month in 1990, after almost seventy-five years of advocacy by Seneca and Arapahoe and Blackfoot people.
This week, we’re featuring a poem by Edgar Gabriel Silex, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence and visited students in Howard County schools during the 1999-2000 academic year. With Native American, Chicano, and European ancestry, Silex grew up in a small reservation on the Texas-Mexico border. Author of four books of poetry and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities, Silex now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
His poem “For Chris” springs from his memory of teaching poetry on a Diné reservation in Arizona, of meeting a young boy who confessed that his father had thrown him through a window. He bared his chest to show Silex the scars. Though the encounter between Silex and Chris took place on the reservation, the issue is not exclusive to Native Americans. Silex’s words address the universal ideas of family, abuse, anger, and love.
The evening after he met Chris, Silex said, he was so enraged that he couldn’t sleep. He tried to write about the boy and his abuse, but couldn’t at first. But as he thought about the boy, and about his own childhood peppered with violence, he began to see beyond “half the story,” as he says in his poem, and toward the idea that love can still exist inside abuse.
Most of his poetry is found, Silex told poet and interviewer Michael Collier: “all of us experience things as we go through life. The poets tend to be the ones who are more like witnesses. They capture and encapsulate the emotive experience of the event. … I found the poem or the poem found me, it was just a matter of getting the most experience per line down.
Poetry’s density sometimes frightens people; the compressing of so much life and feeling into such a small space sometimes feels like a thicket readers are fighting through. But that’s poetry’s magic trick—creating the links in the readers’ minds, sharing experiences that are universal, and letting that meaning bloom on the page for the reader.
Silex’s author’s statement for his book Acts of Love, addresses so many reasons for writing (and for reading) poetry: “a state of grace is our ultimate human condition, forgiveness is our highest form of love, awe is our only muse, suffering is our path to salvation, beauty is our only reward, displacement is our human inheritance, passion is our only freedom, restraint is our act of kindness, solitude is our wisest friend, simplicity is our most complex desire, reverence is our highest achievement, and poetry is our most constant state.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer