I lived on the rez for six years and made a lot of Indian friends, but that’s not why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I like Thanksgiving because the whole family gets together and I get to see my nieces and nephews and there’s lots of food.
My favorite Thanksgiving on the rez was the time I was invited to one of my favorite family’s house. I knew the mom, and taught or coached four of her children, and knew the little ones too, and loved them all.
One of the boys — I won’t say which — thought it would be a hoot to play a trick on Mr. Kahn. He brought a horse to that house in the desert, under the red rocks.
That horse was gray. It had no shoes. It had no saddle on its back or bit in its mouth. All it had aside from what it had been born with was a rope around its nose and over its neck.
And a bad attitude.
So. My A student jumped on that horse’s back, grabbed the reins and sat on that gray horse as it tossed its head this way and that, and danced what I — a city boy — recognized as an ancient horse dance, known as Get This Two-Legged Animal Off Me.
José trotted that gray horse sprightly around the yard, brought it back and jumped off its bare back and handed me the reins.
“Here, Kahn,” he said, “you try it.”
While his smiling family looked on.
“Right,” I said.
“Go on, Kahn,” he said.
“Right,” I said.
“Can’t you ride a horse?”
“Nope,” I said. “Never rode a horse in my life.”
We smiled at each other, two friendly liars.
José took the rope off the horse’s nose and it galloped back to whatever hell it came from.
Then we went inside, kicked the dogs and chickens out of the way, and filled our plates and went back outside and ate Thanksgiving dinner under the huato.
Now, here’s the thing. I thought it hilarious that José tried to play that trick on me. And if I’d been just a little bit stupider than I am, I’d have thought it hilarious if that horse had bucked me off and broken my collarbone, or any bone you choose.
Because I was on their land, in their culture, and — praise God for small favors — I had learned enough about it to know what to expect, and how to react.
I don’t want to get heavy and philosophical now, on the eve of a holiday, but let’s face the facts. The reason the United States, day by day, is losing influence around the world, and becoming despised rather than welcomed into foreign lands, is that the world sees now that we have been barging into foreign lands forever, without learning a damn thing about their cultures — even enough to know when they’re playing a joke.
It’s well known, and documented, that when President George W. Bush started the stupidest war in U.S. history, in Iraq and Afghanistan, he did not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’a Muslim — or that there was such a difference. And here we are, 16 years later, and I know for damn sure that 99 percent of my countrymen still do not know the difference between a Shi’a and a Sunni, or could explain it. And that none of them — zero — could tell a joke about Sunnis and Shi’as, without offending both of them.
What does this have to do with Thanksgiving?
Plenty. It’s our greatest national holiday. And it has nothing to do with religion, or with so-called patriotism. It does not. It’s a day where we, ostensibly, say thank you for everything, like the Indians did when they lived off the land — off the bounty of nature.