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Morongo Band's Helping Hand

The tribe gives holiday meals to the needy in Banning just as Native Americans aided struggling Pilgrims in the 1600s.

November 27, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

In 1620, Pilgrims arrived in the New World, sick and unsure about how to survive along New England's cold and rocky coast. Native Americans helped, teaching them how to grow corn, build houses, use fish for fertilizer and detect poisonous and medicinal plants.

More than 380 years later, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in Riverside County continues the Native American tradition of caring for the infirm, the poor, the lonely and the hungry.

This Thanksgiving season, the tribe donated 3,000 turkeys to feed more than 15,000 needy families.

"We believe in giving back to the community," said Anne Hutton, a Morongo Tribal Council member, taking a break Tuesday from serving hot turkey meals at a community center in Banning. "It's about sharing and caring."

The Morongo tribe says it wants to share its fortunes gained by running one of the oldest and largest Indian gambling facilities in the state. The tribe also gave $1 million to the American Red Cross' Riverside chapter, and provided about 6,000 Thanksgiving meals to families displaced by the Southern California wildfires.

Hutton's lively green eyes surveyed the crowd gathered at Carol's Kitchen, one of the 37 local charities that received turkeys from the tribe.

"There are a lot of people here with sad lives," she said. "This is probably their only hot meal for the day."

Dozens of people, young and old, streamed in and out of the kitchen for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and pies of all flavors. Some had torn clothes. Many had sad eyes. They spoke of being alone, of living without a home and of struggling to survive on Social Security or minimum wage.

"I came here for the fellowship," said Helen Dorsett, a senior citizen with two long, gray pigtails, wearing a red and black snowflake sweater. "I've had brain cancer, I've had a stroke and I've healed. I don't like to suffer. I like to come here and meet friends."

Sitting across from Dorsett was Sophia Mubara, 63, a retired psychotherapist. The two women had never met before Tuesday but immediately became friends, laughing and bonding over stories of spirituality.

"I came here to be around people," Mubara said. "I also don't have much money. A neighbor suggested I come here. I thought she said I should go to Carrows restaurant. I told her I was too tight on money to eat at Carrows."

The meal was prepared by some of the 96 volunteers who work at Carol's Kitchen, founded in 1998 in honor of a young San Bernardino woman killed in a drunk-driving accident.

The kitchen serves 950 meals a week to the needy. Like many nonprofits, it is struggling because of decreased funding by local, state and federal governments.

"We were so grateful for the turkeys" from the Morongo tribe, said Arlene Ragan, the deceased woman's mother, who helped start the organization. "Every donation we receive helps keep Carol's memory alive. She would have wanted to help people during the holidays."

For some Indian tribes, Thanksgiving is a difficult holiday. After the first harvest celebration, tensions formed between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. According to most historical accounts, the colonists took over the land and condemned tribal members for their spiritual principles. Brutality followed, and, many believe, the conflict caused Native Americans to suffer for centuries.

Even today, the group has a high rate of poverty.

Some of the turkeys the Morongo tribe donates go toward other tribes in need. But Hutton said the tribe, like Native Americans at the nation's first Thanksgiving, believes in helping all people in need.

"Our focus is not on what happened," Hutton said. "It is about sharing our Thanksgiving. It is about feeling good in the heart."

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