Native Americans in Washington Pray for Those Suffering

November 21, 2000

Source: The Washington Post

On November 21, 2000, The Washington Post wrote: "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 Indians 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 the District's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, 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...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...There's only one flag at the site that could remotely be called a protest banner. Wedged into a pile of cut logs next to the main tepee, it demands attention for American soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. 'I'm a veteran,' says Phillips, 'a Marine Corps infantryman in the '70s, and I'm a patriot, and those soldiers need remembering.' Phillips says he was removed from his mother's care at age 5 and raised by a white family until 17, when he joined the Marines. As a result of his upbringing, he explains bitterly, he has lost much of his Omaha culture. When he begins his prayer of mourning with a ceremonial pipe on Thursday, he'll begin in his native tongue. But his prayer will end in English."