Raise your glass to the Calusa and Seminole

In preparation for the holiday season which is about to descend upon us like flies on a pile of warm dog excrement, I would like to suggest an alternative thanksgiving toast to all my friends this year.
I guess it started several years back, when I was a nubile fiancee and my ex-husband-to-be and I shared our first thanksgiving with his family. Now, I had celebrated many fall holidays with my own family, but, as I come from wildly Italian heritage, they resembled the average Sunday dinner. There was a lot of food, some people drank too much, somebody stormed out in a huff, and somebody else ended up in tears. You know, a typical family gathering. But I had never had a white thanksgiving before.
For those of you who may not understand this, many Italians don’t exactly feel like white people. Oh, we live in the same world and enjoy far less bigotry than people with brown or black skin or Hispanic surnames, but when your last name ends in a vowel, you are always a little different. Especially in Florida, where most of your friends don’t go to mass on thanksgiving and don’t understand why you would serve lasagne on thanksgiving. So when I say my first “white” thanksgiving, I mean what many of you would consider a “proper” fall holiday. My ex-mother-in-law-to-be had the squash and the pilgrim thing going on, and they actually- this was a new one on me- wanted to talk about what they were thankful for.
Now, even then, I didn’t have a bad life by anyone’s standards, and never in my life have I had to search too hard to find something to be thankful for. I have always had good food, a sturdy roof over my head, parents who love me, and all the friends I could ever manage. But in my family, in between the fighting, we tell each other how lucky we are all the time rather than just one day a year. Which is pretty wonderful when you think about it.
I don’t know what came over me that first thanksgiving. Maybe it was foreshadowing to come, maybe it was just that they served wine to me and I didn’t really come from a home that passed out alcohol to people under 21 (yes, I was a mere zygote when I got engaged). Over 21 it was a whole different ball game, but our parents did their level best to keep us all out of Betty Ford before we graduated college. So far it seems to have worked with all of us.
Whatever it was, I opened my mouth in what my family refers to as “typical Salustri fashion”. To wit, I didn’t really consider that I was trashing a very important tradition for the man I loved and his family, or that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need to express every feeling I had every moment I felt it. Yup, Salustri (You should see what the fam calls “the Salustri Stare of Death”, my cousin Michele actually patented it and has insured her eyes with Lloyd’s of London).
I told my future ex-relatives that I thought thanksgiving was a barbaric holiday and I never saw the point of celebrating the advent of us tricking many tribes of indiginous Americans into false treaties, the spread of alcoholism, STD’s, and Christianity. To me, I said, celebrating thanksgiving was simply celebrating the most evil things about America.
I should mention that I’m fairly certain the people I said this to had relatives who may have actually traveled to America on the Mayflower.
As you might imagine (and as often happens when I drink and talk, which is why I don’t do it much), this was not remarkably well received. My future ex-mother-in-law’s eyes got so big I swear I could see her cerebellum, and I’m pretty sure my ex-husband-to-be started running through his old black book in his head.
But, what is it, 13 years later, I still stand by that sentiment. THINK about thanksgiving. It’s one of those Hallmark holidays where we try to make up for grousing about being in the top 20% of the world’s wealth (instead of the top 10%) and treating our family offhandedly the OTHER 364 days of the year and talk about how great we have it. We all promptly forget that the next day when we bitch about taking grandma shopping or whine that we don’t have enough money to buy really good Christmas gifts, but for a few hours on the third Thursday of every November, we try to believe it.
And what are we really celebrating here? That we met with native Americans, convinced them to share their food with us because we couldn’t work out survival in this brave new world on our own, and then proceeded to thank them for it over the next several hundred years by wiping out entire tribes, exposing them to syphilis, convincing them that Christianity was the only way to go if they didn’t want to burn in hell forever after we brutally murdered them with our old world gunpowder, and, oh, yes, just have a little sip of the grogg off the ship and you won’t care anymore about what we’re doing to your whole way of life. We finally beat them down into postage-stamp size “nations” where they have our blessing to take our money gambling and sell cigarettes, and if they’re REALLY lucky we didn’t realize the development potential of the land we assigned them and they have a river or two where they can take the white man on little airboat rides.
What do you think the Calusa are thankful for this thanksgiving? Don’t think too hard; we wiped out the last Calusa by the late 1700’s. The ones we didn’t kill by gun, small pox, or measles we captured and sold as slaves. Every now and then you’ll find a Calusa shell mound somewhere, but that’s about it.
How about the Tequesta? Well, they didn’t like us much at first, but we won them over by giving them colored fabric, knives, and, oh yes, rum. Then we used warfare, slavery, and disease to all but eliminate them by the end of the 1800s.
And, of course, the Seminoles. Of the three tribes I mention (and Florida had more, but I think you’re getting my point here), they are the “luckiest”. We didn’t exterminate them completely. In 1823, we signed the treaty of Moultrie Creek with the Seminoles. WIthin the year, we built Fort Brooke to deal with “problems” between Seminoles and white settlers. By the 1830’s… well… our government decided the best way to solve those problems was to move ALL remaining natives to Oklahoma. In 1834, the government moved 3,824 Indians westward. In 1957, the Seminole tribe of Florida incorporated and less than 30 years later they founded the Tampa reservation. Today you can go there and gamble at the Hard Rock and buy tobacco.
Now, please understand, it was a war and the natives lost. I get it. I am all ABOUT survival of the fittest. But what makes my intestines itch is the way that we rewrote the past and then, to heap insult upon insult like we’ll heap those sweet potatoes on our plate next Thursday, celebrate the advent of our lying, killing, maiming, and diseasing. We have a holiday for it. We give thanks for the kindness we welcomed, abused, and turned against countless tribes. We conveniently ignore what we did, revising history so much that I doubt anyone reading this can name two other Florida tribes that once existed. We don’t even have the courtesy to remember those we lied to and destroyed on the holiday we created to celebrate the lies and destruction.
So I ask all of you… next week, celebrate thanksgiving. Eat too much, drink too much, do whatever you normally do. But at some point during the day, pour yourself a glass of firewater (rum is what I would suggest, simply for historical value, but I suppose a merlot would do the trick as well), and toast the Calusa, Seminole, Tequesta, and the others.
And, if you want to have a little fun with your in-laws, bring up the whole “barbaric holiday” thing. It’s highly entertaining.