As the Oneida Nation float made its way down Broadway in this year’s 86th Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, “Thank you for giving us Thanksgiving" was the most popular cheer heard from the crowd; “Look honey real Native Americans” was second. The float called “The True Spirit of Thanksgiving” was certainly a favorite among parade goers. Many visitors clapped their hands and danced as they heard the sounds of Iroquois social dance music blasting from the speakers on the float. As I crouched to take a photo I heard a father say to his child, “Look son, those are the First Americans."
For the fifth straight year Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter lead the tribes float accompanied by 12 Native American representatives, some from as far away as California. The goal of the Oneida Nations' participation in the parade is to combat the stereotyped images created by the media and create a positive and accurate portrayal of who Indian people are today. “We want to the public to see the very spirit of Native people and how the tradition and culture of our ancestors inspired the very first Thanksgiving” said Halbritter. I asked the tribal representative how he feels about the fact that many Native Americans chose to protest the holiday, his reply was a positive one “Native people certainly have a great many issues to address and need to come a lot further in our struggles but I think there is a time and place and right now I think is a time when the ceremonies of thanksgiving and gratitude to the creator for all we have is celebrated, we must remember the many blessings we have and we do have many." Sonya Flores a Native American from the Kupa Tribe of Southern California also gave her Native prospective on Thanksgiving. “We as Native people have much to be thankful for, our participation in thanksgiving can show Americans, yes we are here and we are thankful for not just inspiring the first thanksgiving but also our many accomplishments as a people and the many more yet to come."
The highlight for the Natives on "The True Spirit of Thanksgiving” float was the performance in front of Macy’s where Grammy Award-winning Oneida artist Thirza Defoe sang the song she wrote especially for the event “Tree of Life." With backup from her Native choir and Halbritter’s accompaniment on the Iroquois water drum the song brought the crowd to their feet. I asked Thirza how she felt performing live in front of tens of thousands of people in attendance and more than 50 million on television around the world, this humble young woman simply replied, “It was truly amazing.”
Thanksgiving celebrations will always be a source of controversy for Native people for many years to come but the holiday is cemented in the fiber of American tradition. I don’t think we as Native people will ever get the average American to throw out their turkey dinners and remember the many Native tribes who never had a second or third thanksgiving with the first visitors from Europe. A Native spectator who asked to remain nameless said “If it wasn’t for us they would have never had a feast, let’s take this day all America wants to thank us and build it into something positive. This is our holiday and our tradition of being thankful and yes we are here and our traditions and culture are still alive that in itself is a blessing and something to truly be thankful for.