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Remembering Indian Role on Turkey Day

November 28, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

Richard Kolb, 10, looked at the tepee in the Betty Plasencia Elementary School auditorium and said he liked the way Indians made it.

"I've never seen one before," said the dark-haired fourth-grader, a descendant of Tewa and Luiseno Indians.

Another student asked what the dwelling was called.

"It's called a tepee," said Alyce L. Murdock of Sylmar, a Navajo Indian. "They generally fit eight people, including two to three adults and about five children. When you walk in, the custom was you never walk all the way around. You back out the way you came in."

The 4-foot-9 woman, wearing a floral-patterned pink-and-green skirt and blouse from the Kickapoo tribe, sat on the auditorium stage next to replicas of the tepee, an Indian holding a peace pipe, and a Great Plains Indian wearing head feathers and a breechcloth.

Her hair worn back, she had come to the school a half-mile from the Civic Center to discuss the

Indian role in Thanksgiving with an assembly including Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Latino-American students.

The program was one of many commemorating Thanksgiving in city schools. At the Van Ness Avenue Elementary School, Latino, Philippine and Korean-American students, many of them new to the United States, ate a traditional Thanksgiving dinner including turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

At the Elizabeth Street Elementary School in Cudahy, children collected canned goods and the faculty raised money to buy turkeys for families of needy students.

Wearing 17 Indian rings with coral, turquoise and mother-of-pearl stones, Murdock said the 8-foot-high tepee next to her was only a replica because "A real one would have been too big for this auditorium. The branches which hold the sides might have gone through the roof," she said.

After she discussed the Indians' role in early Thanksgivings, Murdock asked students to walk by the stage and inspect the earrings and necklaces at her feet and her deerskin moccasins inlaid with red, green, yellow and blue beads.

Not an Indian Holiday

Ironically, Murdock said, Thanksgiving is not an official Indian holiday even though Indians played a vital role in the ceremony that set the pattern for the present observance.

That occurred, according to Jane M. Hatch in "The American Book of Days," after the Massachusetts Plymouth Colony suffered tremendous winter hardships in 1620.

In the spring and summer of 1621, a Pawtuxet Indian named Squanto helped the colony plantand cultivate its corn and barley. After the rich harvest the following fall, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.

"The Pilgrims invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, to share their feast," Hatch wrote. "Massasoit enthusiastically agreed to attend the celebration, but when he unexpectedly brought along 90 companions the Pilgrim settlers feared that the natives would consume their entire winter larder.

"Fortunately, however, Massasoit recognized their difficult position and sent his hunters into the forest. They returned with five deer, and the feast began.

"For three days the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag shared the bountiful feast.

"The militia under the leadership of Capt. Miles Standish drilled and fired their muskets and cannon to entertain their guests, and in turn the Wampanoag delighted their hosts with demonstrations of their traditional dances. The group also competed in foot races and other athletic contests."

Murdock talked about the Indians' role in Thanksgiving and about other aspects of Indian culture.

Friendly Indians

Speaking in Spanish and English, she said that "You'll find Indians, once you get to know them, are very friendly."

She recommended that students keep in touch with their cultures and learn from their grandparents.

"A lot of our history is not written," she said. "It's handed down from generation to generation."

Murdock said Kickapoo Indians wore skirts and blouses such as hers, but that Navajo women wear blue or black velvet blouses and black satin skirts. They preferred something shiny, she said, to accentuate their turquoise jewelry.

She said movies that portrayed Indians beating their hands to their mouths and whooping were inaccurate. "We don't chant" she said. "We sing, but the songs have meaning. They tell stories."

She said that the colors painted on men's faces depended on what tribe they belonged to and that no two Indians could wear the same design.

Gloria Benzing of Eagle Rock, a Sioux Indian, held up a black shawl with fringes and Murdock explained that each fringe was handmade.

And she said the tepees, mobile and native to the Great Plains, contained a hole in the top so that smoke could escape from the cooking fire.

The information impressed the students, including the fourth-graders about to study Indians in their unit on California history.

"My parents live in a house, but not like this," Kolb said about the tepee. "They would like to come over here and look at it."

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