An interloper’s eye-opening Thanksgiving

A city dweller recounts a holiday spent with a Native American family.


Celebrating Thanksgiving four years ago, I was a stranger in a strange land. Fresh out of college and not quite three months into AmeriCorps service on the Colville Reservation in north-central Washington, I would not be able to enjoy the Thanksgiving tradition I’d known all my life — watching the parade in New York City with my family. I was going to need to find another home for the holiday. 

Spike, a rancher and the cousin of a teacher friend, was a possibility. I had met him when I went to help gather his cattle in from their summer pasture, visions of cowboy glory dancing in my head. When I told him I had just completed college back in Washington, D.C., he growled, “D.C., huh? You better not be no f---in’ politician.” But then he laughed and taught me how to use a modern cowboy’s four-wheeled steed: “This turns it on. This makes it go. Now follow me — and don’t flip it.”

I did flip the all-terrain vehicle once, but I liked ranching, and Spike liked me enough to keep teaching me to chase cows. So, in mid-November, I gratefully accepted his invitation to join his family’s Thanksgiving dinner on the ranch with my six fellow volunteers.

Paul VanDerWerf, Flickr user

By that point, I knew a little bit about families and traditions on the reservation but had yet to join a Native family for a celebration in their own home. Holiday gatherings differ from family to family, and at the home level they are bound to be imbued with “the way we do things.” We were warmly welcomed, yet I could not shake the feeling of being an interloper. I stood awkward and tense in my new cowboy boots during the drumming and singing that began the family’s version of Thanksgiving. 

As the afternoon wore on, I began to relax. I couldn’t help but see the irony in being a pilgrim, a newly arrived suyapi — white person — from Massachusetts, celebrating Thanksgiving with a Native American family, and all of us watching the Dallas–Washington football game on TV after dinner.

The game ended, and over dessert I learned that, in October, our host and several other family members had fought a wildfire that came within feet of destroying the tribal school and the trailer we volunteers lived in. The story was told in an uproarious way, but it brought a pang to my heart. The silly parallels I had been drawing in my mind between the “First Thanksgiving” story of Squanto and the Pilgrims gave way to a deeper appreciation for the meaning of the holiday. I felt deep gratitude for the hospitality of Spike and his family. 

That hospitality, and my thanksgiving, continued through the rest of the year. Months later, sitting on the porch of the ranch house watching the cows, Spike delivered a lesson that rivaled — in maybe a minute and a half — anything I’d heard in four years of college.

“Look,” he said, “you ain’t gonna save anybody here. We don’t need it. But I’m sure glad all you volunteers come here each year from all over the country and see how we live here. And maybe you’ll take that with you when you go back East or wherever.” 

This Thanksgiving, I’ll wake up in my grandmother’s apartment in New York City. As I dress for the parade, I’ll glance out the window at the bits of Hudson River still visible between the towers of Trump Place across the street, and I’ll think back to the lessons I learned on the ranch. 

Indeed, that year, for which neither my suburban Boston upbringing nor my shiny diploma in international relations had really prepared me, taught me the meaning and power of gratitude in daily life. During volunteer orientation, someone said that we didn’t have to like everyone in our communities, but we did have to try to love them. The more I came to know that endlessly complex community, the less I understood it. But I loved that slice of rural and Native America with my whole soul. 

I didn’t fully understand rural America then, and I won’t pretend to now. But I remain shaped for life by people who opened their homes and their hearts to me when I was a stranger. We called each other friends four years ago, and we still do today. 

Colin Steele is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He was a Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest/AmeriCorps volunteer on the Colville Reservation from 2012-2013. He is now a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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