Local American Indians Call for Formal Apology

While families across the U.S. gather around their household tables this Thanksgiving, local members of the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. will be meeting up with their own family — each other, for a potluck dinner at the Burgundy Community Center in Alexandria. powwow

While families across the U.S. gather around their household tables this Thanksgiving, local members of the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. will be meeting up with their own family — each other, for a potluck dinner at the Burgundy Community Center in Alexandria.


Members of the American Indian Society (AIS) of Washington, D.C. celebrate Mother’s Day with a pow wow. (Photo: Courtesy Kathleen Dorn)

But, according to Michael Nephew of Falls Church, their table talk will be less about a pilgrim story of the past and more about catching up with one another.

Nephew, who serves as the organization’s president, saw the American Indian Society (AIS) as an opportunity for American Indians to get together with their brothers and sisters in the community when he moved to the area from New York years ago. He is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as being part of Seneca and Cayuga.

Nephew first heard the story of Thanksgiving when he was a young boy, but said he “ironically heard very little” about Native American Indian history during his high-school years.

He said the biggest misconception about how Thanksgiving is taught in public schools is the “fighting that occurred shortly afterwards between [the settlers] and Native Americans often goes unmentioned.”

The holiday story traditionally taught in classrooms is a happy one of pilgrims who were befriended by the Natives, taught to hunt and gather and showed their gratitude with a shared meal. However, Nephew recalled a slightly different version of the feel-good tale, one of bloodshed and greed.

“[The settlers] were biting the hand that fed them,” said Nephew, referring to various wars that took place soon following 1621, during which many Natives were killed by colonists.

One thing Nephew believes can heal the wounds of political and social distrust between modern-day American Indians and the U.S. government is a formal expression of remorse from the latter.

“I think there needs to be an apology,” said Nephew, citing the Canadian government’s apology to its indigenous tribes in 1998.

Nephew said he wouldn’t be able to show anyone the land where he played as a kid even if he wanted to.

“People don’t think [the government] is taking away Natives’ land today, but yes, it has happened. And it’s happened in our lifetime,” said Nephew.

And what about those who believe they shouldn’t have to apologize for something they didn’t personally do?

“Well, it might have been their parents, especially in this area, where so many parents are involved with the government at that time. It’s not as far back as some may think,” said Nephew.

AIS Treasurer Mary Sunbeam agreed, challenging President Obama to a second Thanksgiving — to which tribal chiefs are invited to the White House for a peace-offering meal.

“We have not been healed. No president has come forward. We’re not asking for money or retribution,” said Sunbeam, who added that “these kinds of forgiveness need to happen” and that American Indians are looking for it to come from “power sources who’ve been too lax.”

On Nov. 5, President Obama held the first annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior. Invited were leaders from each of the federally recognized tribes in the U.S., as Obama signed a memorandum directing “every Cabinet agency to give a detailed plan within 90 days of how … to improve tribal consultation.” A formal apology was not issued.

“At some point, [the U.S. government] needs to say, ‘This is what happened. It wasn’t a good thing for our country. It wasn’t a good thing for the tribal people,’ and to heal the pain where there’s no closure, just open wounds,” said Sunbeam, a member of the Cherokee Nation of the Appalachia tribe.

Aside from her AIS duties, Sunbeam serves as the president of Positive Education, Inc., designing and presenting courses on Native American Indian cultures to schools, businesses and religious organizations.

She said the only Native American education she’s heard of public-school students having are brief mentions during the second and sixth grade, but that “most teachers are not trained in college to teach Native American history.”

“Thank goodness they will call on people like me to teach these things. Even today’s immigrants coming to the U.S. will ask me if I am a real Indian because they’ve been told we’re all dead,” said Sunbeam.

She said the blame, however, doesn’t fall solely on government-run school systems, but equally in the laps of American Indians. Sunbeam added that, unlike the NAACP, the American Indian community has not had enough advocacy for more extensive education.

“We can’t say it’s the government’s fault. Where are we? We don’t have enough activism in our own culture,” said Sunbeam, who hopes to change that through her own curriculum. Her work has been acknowledged by the American Association of Community Colleges with a Northern Virginia Community College Model Program Award.

As far as an organization comparable to the NAACP, Nephew said the Association is racially categorized, whereas “the tribal government is a political entity.”

“Part of the reason why there isn’t something like [the NAACP] for American Indians is people from each tribe have to make sure their particular tribe survives as opposed to recognizing all Natives and trying to lend support to other tribes,” said Nephew.

Still, Sunbeam believes U.S. politics play a critical role in Native American history teachings, or lack thereof, in today’s schools.

“The bottom line is education is political,” said Sunbeam, who suggested the U.S. government incorporate Native American history into the U.S. citizenry test.



Michael Nephew, President, American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. (Photo: News-Press)

As far as Thanksgiving, Sunbeam and Nephew agreed that the holiday’s theme is a bit novel, given that expressing thanks is a culturally embedded part of their everyday lives and not just a one-day event.

“What came to be known as the first Thanksgiving was the idea of sharing food for people in need. It wasn’t a kindness thing; it was something you just do. It wasn’t religious, though it became so later on,” said Sunbeam, who added that “giving thanks to God, the great source, for weather to produce a harvest was always part of her culture” growing up.

She recalled being taunted by her peers in grade school for once bringing a dandelion sandwich to school.

“Nowadays, people go to GNC and buy dandelion root, the weed in their yard they find a nuisance. But when I was a kid, I was taught it was nature’s product for organs after the winter time and your body gets sluggish,” said Sunbeam, who garnered more than a few chuckles as a little girl with green stuff in her teeth. Taking the high road even then, she said she looked at it as “their ignorance, and I tried to educate them.”

Nephew recalled being looked to in high school from his peers as a historical fact checker. Still offering up the facts today, he works alongside other AIS leaders, to speak at government agencies and private schools about his culture’s historical footprint.

As far as Sunbeam’s message to open ears she encounters, she said, “Save money on the self-help books. We all have a belly button. We’re all one human race. I’m working on getting that message across.”

There are 564 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. To this day, neither Virginia, Maryland nor Washington, D.C. have federally recognized tribes, leaving people within those tribes ineligible for federal funds ranging from health care to housing assistance.

Both Rep. Jim Moran and Sen. Jim Webb sponsored legislation this year granting federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes, which was OK’d by the House in June.

As of Oct. 22, the Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2009 passed in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.