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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.


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