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Thanksgiving in a Tepee Encampment

* For Indians on the Mall near the Washington Monument, the holiday is a symbol of Native American loss.

November 23, 2000|ROWAN PHILP | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Uh-oh. Indians on the Mall for Thanksgiving.

Yep: the other guys from that 1621 banquet, front and center in the nation's capital, and all the inconvenient truths they represent.

There they are, in three tepees by the Washington Monument. A family. Just a single Omaha family and some friends.

You just know they're not commemorating that nice first Thanksgiving meal, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe of Patuxet sat down together. No, they'll be commemorating that pesky second one--the one where the native tribe wasn't invited. Or maybe that really unfortunate 50th one, where there weren't any Wampanoag left to invite.

You know, turkey just doesn't taste the same without a dash of denial.

"Oh, we don't want to cause anyone indigestion," laughs Nathan Phillips, a resident of the live-in tepee, which appeared this month with two symbolic ones on the Mall just north of the monument. "There's no point in making people feel guilty. In fact, we wish other Americans well on their Thanksgiving. We're here to pray for those who are suffering, and to remind people that a lot of American Indians don't have too much to be thankful for."

Phillips, brought up in a traditional tribal home in Nebraska and now a construction worker living in Washington, D.C., is founder of the Native Youth Alliance, a small intertribal organization whose aims include promoting indigenous culture via vigils and ceremonies and the placing of Native American orphans in Native American homes.

This is the second year that the Alliance has set up tepees on the Mall, and once again Phillips, his partner, Shoshana Konstant, and their children--Zakiah, 3, and Alethia, 14 months--are the main protagonists of a 30-day vigil held during Native American Heritage Month.

Phillips will join fellow Native Americans around the country in commemorating Thanksgiving as a "day of mourning," during which he will fast and pray for those who have suffered.

Phillips' residence lodge is an olfactory heaven of sage, tobacco and cedar, warmed by a "sacred fire" and decorated with feathered talismans and a buffalo skull.

Where do the antlers come from?

"D.C.--Rock Creek Park," says Phillips. Responding to the surprise on his visitor's face, he generates even greater skepticism by suggesting that Washington, however government-focused, is rich in spiritual bounty.

"Just look up to the sky--in the air over the Commerce Building," he says. Sure enough, a hawk is engaged in a beautiful, dramatic aerial dance with a crow, while four soaring buzzards watch the tableau below them.

Phillips' dog watches the birds, too. Jake, his master insists, is "an original indigenous American dog."

The tepees have caused as much public interest as confusion since being erected Nov. 1. The family members have been asked if they are selling firewood. They've had to politely shoo out visitors who've mistaken their prayer lodge for a tourist exhibit.

And they've suffered old prejudices.

Without saying a word to the family, one woman walked up to Jake on Monday, shook her head and tossed him a doughnut. Oblivious to Konstant's stare, the woman made a show of wiping out the dog's perfectly clean water bowl and filling it with the bottled water she was carrying.

"You know, this dog needs to get water," she said. She left the empty bottle with Zakiah before striding off. Apparently, she believed the child needed a toy. "Ma'am," Konstant called after her, "Jake gets plenty of water. And we don't have a trash can here--please take your water bottle with you."

Konstant says, "Oh, we've had a couple come here and tell us we're practicing heathen ways, and that we have to change. But we've also had a lot of wonderful visitors with a real desire to learn. We had a deacon come visit--in all his robes--and he was interested and offered us friendship."

Another friendly visitor was Debra Westenberger, a member of the Oneida Turtle clan.

"I felt joy when I saw the tepees on the Mall--but then I felt sad to see there were only three, as if this is all we have left," says Westenberger, who works with abused Native Americans in Menasha, Wis. "They're trying to make a statement about the needs and the rich culture of our peoples, and this is it in this whole city of concrete."

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