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A Native American Thanksgiving

In observance of Thanksgiving, it is my pleasure to present a guest post from my friend Diane Mitchell, whom I have known since elementary school. Both of us grew up in the same rural area in western AZ. Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving to you!


By Diane Mitchell

Old age must be getting to me, because my memory of Thanksgiving as I was growing up south of Poston is not entirely clear.  Unbelievable!

Anyway, in the 1940s, my Mom and Dad relocated from the Navajo Nation to the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), Parker/Poston area in western Arizona.  I went to many of the same locales and schools that Joe attended (but not at the same time, hah!).

We would go to some of the Thanksgiving Dinners at Irataba Hall, the Tribe’s gymnasium.  Growing up in this area, my brothers and sisters (8 total, but maybe only 7 grew up in Parker) were not familiar with a “traditional” Thanksgiving. But then again, tradition is what you make it.

One of my brothers reminded me of the times we would go hike in the mountains around Poston after the big dinner. I remember we tried sliding down the big dirt hill using cardboard boxes or whatever we had to use at the time (Native snow sledding!). We would hike up and around the top of these mountains east of Poston, and various mesas near our house. We never thought of the possibilities of rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas, bobcats, lions-and-tigers-and-bears-oh my!

We were kids and we were fearless.

Most of my siblings were into sports, and some were distance runners. One time, my brother Jr. ran to a mesa and made a big letter “A”, running up and down, and sideways.  We could actually see the letter from our kitchen window.

I also remember that we often traveled back to my parents’ homelands on the Navajo Reservation to visit my Grandmother Marie and other relatives, for Thanksgiving, summers, and I believe most holidays. My parents would pack us (all the kids) into Dad’s truck camper and off we’d go. We would fight and yell as well as sleep in the camper. My parents never heard any of this commotion as they sat in the front of the pickup cab. Lucky them.

I remember eating a lot of mutton (lamb meat) that we Navajos are big fans of. My Grandma Marie had over 200 sheep, and she would herd the sheep around the mountains of her home. That’s probably what we had for Thanksgiving dinner, instead of turkey. In fact, I’m quite sure.

We would watch Grandma Marie and my Dad butcher a sheep with Mom’s help in preparing the meats. We kids would always stand around to watch the head being cut off and…

OK, I won’t go there. But as kids, we didn’t think of it a gory or sadistic. It was food, and it was delicious!  The meal was cooked over an open fire, with homemade frybread, tortillas, blue corn meal mush, and I won’t mention the blood pudding.  Mmm, mmm, mmmm (getting VERY hungry now!).

Now that I’m older, I recognize the importance of tradition. Maybe not so much a Navajo tradition, but to me a tradition of traveling back home to Parker/Poston from Utah (where we lived for a while).  I would pack up my kids (as my parents used to do) and travel back to Arizona through 3 states to make it back for Mom and Dad’s turkey. Each year, these family gatherings began to have several new faces as nieces and nephews would get together, some meeting for the first time.

Sometimes Dad would cook the Thanksgiving (or Christmas) turkey beneath the ground, staying up all night to check on the fire.  I could hear him wandering around early in the morning, doors opening and closing. The turkey was always cooked to perfection.

After my father’s passing, I decided to try that. Once.  Both my mother and my kids tried to remember how he prepared the turkey with all the wrappings, digging the hole, and getting plenty of firewood, etc.  My attempt turned out OK, but just not the same as Dad’s.  That was one of the times I wish I would have paid more attention when I was younger.  We would always try to help Mom with all the food preparations, but we could never match her frybread.  She was a true Frybread Queen.  Her creation was a fluffy golden brown delicacy…sigh!

Unfortunately, I never paid attention then either.

So now our tradition, as I think most of my brothers and sisters do, is a family gathering for Thanksgiving/Christmas as well as most holidays when possible. We do our best to meet at the home of whoever volunteers to play host and we’ll do potluck style dinners. Cook your best, and bring it over!

I’m sad to say, mutton is not on the menu much anymore. That’s a rare luxury.

So, this Thanksgiving, we’ll do our “tradition”. We’ll pack up the car with kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, and whoever else, then get on the road to the Thanksgiving Family Dinner. Wherever that may be.

Diane Mitchell is a Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) member who now lives in a Phoenix suburb.


48 comments. Leave a Reply

  1. Lonnie Alcaida-North

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful story Diane. Your childhood memories are worth their weight in gold that’s for sure. Treasure them always!

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

    • Lanna Flood

      Such wonderful blessed memories, thanks Diane for sharing. You prompted old memories of my own that I haven’t thought about in years, growing up in a large family on the CRIT reservation. It was the smallest of blessings back then that are now so sacred. You expressed it so beautifully, and this is of course why you are a BFF of mine! =) Thanks for making this storytelling possible Joe! May you all have a blessed, safe and traditional gathering!

      • EstudioRay

        Thanks for posting the comments. Memories are best recollected and shared in stories. I’ve always been a big fan of stories that paint word pictures where you can smell certain things and feel the air around you as you hear or read it. Just as certain smells bring us to a time and place that we enjoy.

        Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Tracy (Howard) Alcaida

    Great Blog Diane! My husband and I would also take our children to the mountains south of Kudu to slide down on cardboard (great fun). To this day my hubby pits (cooks underground) our Thanksgiving turkeys. They are great and seem to taste better than oven roasted. It is so funny to see our children bring their friends home with them and these friends always want to stay or come back, especially after swimming (in the canals), fishing at no name, camping out at the corrals behind Poston, and to just be able to shoot their guns in the back yard (BB guns, that is ;) ! Anyway great story and “Happy Thanksgiving”.

    • EstudioRay

      Thanks for more memories, Tracy! Lots of good times that come to mind with certain smells and flavors.

  3. Albert Hurtado

    I have written a few blogs over the past few months, unfortunately this is the furthest point I’ve come on my friend (Pepe) Joe’s site. That story was inspiring Diane. Although to this day, I still don’t know my directions in the Poston/Parker area, where is the west from east, south to north, I just knew how to get from one point to another.
    To piggy back on your story, I remember Reverend Loveridge (Baptist Church) paring up the families to each other’s house for Thanksgiving. Just bear with me, this will all tie in together as we go on this memorial journey together.
    I must have been around, I don’t know, but I do remember I was in second grade. My mom and myself along with some of my sisters were paired up with what think to this day as the only African-American family in the Poston area. The Thomas’s lived on Eddy Rd, exactly where my sister-in-laws house is located on to this day. The thing was that someone had to be the host, and my dad was not about to have at our house, I think it was because we were (halelujah’s), by that time maybe even later, I had converted from catholicism to christianity as I said before, I think. Anywho, my brother drove us to the Thomas’s house, it was a trip, cause they didn’t have a typical house or should I say modern house. They’re house was a older wooden house with a pot belly wood burning stove inside, which was both a stove and a fireplace, so as you walked in you greeted with the unforgettable smell of mesquite wood burning. I rememeber walking in, and seeing Mrs. Thomas standing by her sink, pumping the old hand pump for water to do her dishes. My mom jumped right in to help, she felt right at home, as this was her custom growing up this way. We on the other hand thought it was cool, and pumped the pump just to pump. Mr Thomas invited me to go outside to check on the goose, (no turkey) he had buried and it was going underground as well. As we sat by the pit, Mr. Thomas moved rock and coals around, and begin to tell me a story how they had moved to Parker from Alabama or somewhere down south, to pick cotton in the area, fell in love with the Native folk, the river and decided to make it their home. Mr. Thomas pulled the goose out of the pit, handed me a piece of meat, and asked me to try it out to see if it had no poison on it (as he winked his eye). His beard was gray, his hair that hung out of his ball cap both on the sides and the back was gray as well. He put his left arm around me and walked towards the house. I remember the smell of mesquite coming out of his green and black squred coat.
    By the time we came in, the women folk already had the table set. My two younger sisters called me over to take a look at their phonograph, (record player) you had to turn the crank in order for it play, just the jack in the box. We had a blast taking turns turning the crank on it, it was a big deal to us. My brother and the Thomas boys were outside up to no good, as always, they were in the (girls stage) by now. My older sisters were with the daughter of the Thomas’s. Forgot to mention, they didn’t have inside plumbing, so if you had to use the restroom, you went outside away from the house to use the outhouse, pretty cool also, but it stunk. Anyway, to bring this to an end, we had a fantastic dinner that brought traditions from the south to the west. Later on the a navajo family (the rays’) showed up with some pie’s then the (Zeyoma’s came by). We played horse shoes till it was time to go home. The women took off their apron’s, we loaded the station wagon and headed, well I don’t know, I still don’t know my directions in Poston. God bless you and have a very traditional and happy THANKSGIVING Day.

    • EstudioRay

      That’s a great story, Beto! I can smell the wood burning in the stove and the alfalfa fields surrounding the area.

      • EstudioRay

        Oh, and that was the Daniels family, not Thomas family.

  4. Debbie Drennan

    Great stories, all of you! I loved growing up in Parker : )

  5. EstudioRay

    This is great reading these responses! Diane said it the best “tradition is what you make it”. As adults, our traditions are those that we establish, to which our kids will grow up and say “Yeah, I remember as a kid, my parents would always…”

    The leftovers are what I enjoyed the most. My mom would make turkey mole, turkey tacos, turkey enchiladas and other things. I still think that jamming in all the stuffing, gravy, turkey, etc. into a tortilla is a great walk around meal.

    Thanks again!

  6. Kermit Palmer

    Great story Diane, they meal and all was always great, but what I remember was living in the Poston Valley with very little TV or radio and no electronic games. As children we had to be creative and make up things to do which kept us all active and imaginative. I know this has carried over in my life after CRIT valley.

    • EstudioRay

      Good point, Kermit! Radio stations faded in and out, depending on evening, night and storms. Bringing in a colorful world and imagery we could only imagine at the time.

  7. Jaime Neeper Brorman

    One year when my brother Jarral and I were in high school, he decided to spend Thanksgiving with some of his friends from Poston by living off the land. They got their guns and a car to go hunting. My mom made chicken enchiladas that year for thanksgiving bc she knew we would be able to eat as many as we wanted bc Jarral wouldn’t be there. He loved her enchiladas! After she cooked the enchiladas we all had to drive up to Parker for some reason. As we were about to arrive home, we saw Jarral tuning out the back door. Once in the kitchen we noticed some enchiladas were gone from the pan….later on we learned living off the land hadn’t worked out and I think the tribal police had just missed arresting Jarral bc he didn’t have a hunting permit.

    • EstudioRay

      LOL!!! That’s too funny, Jaime!

      Ask Jarral if he remember getting kicked out of the gun safety class at LePera. Laughing during an inappropriate time as they were showing us a film or something or other on nature.

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  8. Josephine Scott

    Great story Diane! I always think back of those days when our family would join your family & cook out on top of the mesa (Peterson Road past the gravel pit). We had gunny sack races, a game of baseball? But mostly I remember going on a walk (small hike) along the hill (at the time it seemed like a big mountain to this 4 or 5 year old) holding on to your Mom’s hand all that time.
    Another time I remember your Dad & my Dad found a spot in the weeded area & roasted a whole bunch of corn underground. While they were doing that, we were running around & playing with the junk that people had left in that area. Again, not thinking of snakes & stuff like that.
    Now & then I get cravings for plain boiled potatoes (my parents use to take us up to the Navajo Rez); they would boil eggs, meat & potatoes, then we would eat these at the picnic spots around Prescott or Sedona. Then get back in the truck with the camper & go to Chinle Valley or Jeddito area. Wow, those were the days. Thanks for sharing, ShiBuddy.

  9. Barb Sloter

    Such memories brought so vividly to mind, thanks Mitch! It brought my memories back of such simple times living in Poston, playing kick the can, basketball, basketball and more basketball! May the precious memories we have be shared with our family and friends so they may never be lost or forgotten and may we all take the time to incorporate new ones with every passing year. Many blessings to all!

    • EstudioRay

      Thank you, Barbara! I hope you have a great rest of the year with your loved ones. Very good points about memories and sharing them.

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