God's Politics

Randy WoodleyLike Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” This is especially true for my family. You know us; we’re the folks that brought you that popular holiday, Thanksgiving. We are Native Americans. After watching the History Channel special on the Mayflower this week, it appears that the Pilgrims may not have actually landed on Plymouth Rock either. Sorry Malcolm … but then again, I think your idea is still very clear. The new settler-state did become one big “ouch” for those outside the privileged system.

According to Barack Obama’s new book, white guilt has already run its course, so my sense now is to move quickly past how bad it really is – and it really is bad – and on to suggesting a way for us to heal. My Native American brothers and sisters have been protesting at “the Rock” since the sixties. Check it out; they will be there again this year. They have important stuff to say, and I would be there with them if I lived on the East Coast. But, in the end, they won’t get much attention.

I was privileged to tell the story of Thanksgiving earlier this year in my home to a dinner table of white American – and one African American – guests. They actually asked me to share the real story. I only stuck the turkey knife in them to the point of awareness, and not discomfort —I’m a better host than that. (Besides, my wife would have stealthily stuck a fork in my knee under the table if I went too far.)

But what I decided this year was that the Thanksgiving story is a good story, one we need to keep. I like good stories, and our Indian way — especially for the purpose of lightly making fun of someone we care about — is to embellish them slightly (okay, embellish them a lot). Now to the point: As I imagine the Pilgrims and the Indians in the awkward courting stage of making friends and building trust, I just know that some Indian made a joke of the whole nervous enterprise and at some point the tension morphed into big belly laughs (at least for the Indians). How do I know this?

Some things about Native people have not changed. Even though we are the most marginalized people in America (oh, I said I wouldn’t go there), we find ways to laugh at ourselves, at others, and at our circumstances. The Indians at Plymouth (I’m sure it had a better name prior) had already suffered under disease before the Pilgrims even arrived. They knew tragedy well, and were likely already ahead of the Pilgrims in understanding some things about their world changing (we integrate fast). In the midst of this seriousness and all the other observable cultural distinctives — I know one of those Indians at the Thanksgiving meal brought with them our keen indigenous sense of humor.

You must understand something about most Indians. Humor is something very sacred to us. After all, we can’t take ourselves too seriously unless we are able to joke about it. It’s just how we handle accepting ourselves as human beings. I guess that’s why I’ve recently converted to just enjoying Thanksgiving as a fact or myth (I think it’s a little of both) that promotes reconciliation between Native Americans and others, and hopefully … lots of laughter. We can definitely use some more laughter in the world, and lots more friend making. I just ask one thing. If we stop laughing while speaking truth — and it feels uncomfortable — please don’t use your privilege to leave the (metaphorical) table. After all, you didn’t have that privilege at Plymouth (eyye!).

Rev. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian teacher, lecturer, poet, activist, pastor and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity (InterVarsity Press).

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