One of my first real memories of Thanksgiving occurred back in 1954. I was going to school in Clewiston, Fla. back then and living with my Clan grandfather, Morgan Smith (Bird Clan) and his wife, Katy Smith, who was Laura Mae Osceola’s mother. They were getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. Up until then, I never gave too much thought to Thanksgiving because we lived way out in the swamps, far from the worldly ways, or the United States ways of celebrating Thanksgiving by having a bunch of Indians sitting around with Pilgrims dressed in some kind of white cloth around their necks and weird-looking hats. That is what I thought Thanksgiving was.
When I came home from school that day, Morgan and Katy had a bird on the table. Since it was Thanksgiving, I thought it was a turkey, but they indicated to me, “We don’t eat turkey.” That was because, once upon a time, way back in history, a man and a turkey had a fight and the turkey took the scalp of an Indian. The turkey won and he celebrates it by carrying the scalp on his chest. And we also don’t eat turkey because the turkey possesses the man’s soul.
So, I realized we were not going to celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey, but I still wondered what kind of bird that was on the dinner table. And I come to realize that it was a Muscovy duck, you know, the duck with a bunch of warts on top of its head that you see in the city limits of Hollywood and Miami. It was one of those ducks that Morgan and Katy had in their yard. They had a bunch of ‘em and had killed one to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Man, I thought that was the funniest thing. We were going to celebrate Thanksgiving by eating a duck.
So to this day, if you are celebrating Thanksgiving and you are a Seminole Indian, you may run into some families who do not eat turkey, but instead they may have chicken, or maybe even a steak for Thanksgiving. And the ones who do not know will surely go to some Wal-Mart or Winn-Dixie and get a butterball turkey.
My son and I will be going out hunting this Thanksgiving. My son killed a turkey last year on Thanksgiving, and he wants his sister to kill one this year. I have never had any guilty feelings about eating a turkey. I’ve always taken his scalp. Sometimes, it will be an 8-inch scalp; sometimes, it will be 9 inches.
We never had Thanksgiving until the Pilgrims came over, and I think they shot a turkey and ate it, and we all thought about giving thanks, but when the Pilgrims multiplied and outnumbered the Indians and then killed the Indians off, they called it Thanksgiving. I don’t think the Indians were giving thanks then.
But, all these years later, if we don’t go into the history too much, it can actually be fun eating the turkey. My favorite Thanksgiving turkey is from Boston Market. Anyway, happy Thanksgiving, and if you don’t know about the turkey carrying the scalp around, ask your grandma and she will tell you the legend.
Have a great Thanksgiving.
James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.