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John Andersen: A Thanksgiving story with two sides

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Thanksgiving. Over the river and through the woods, we gather together, or in Johnny Carson’s words, “Thanksgiving is an emotional time. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they see only once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.” It is not Bah Humbug but it is pretty close.

When I was but a lad, as the saying goes, our Sunday School Class went to Neillsville, Wisconsin before Thanksgiving and Christmas. I only remember doing it twice but it left a lasting impression. Neillsville itself is no more remarkable a community in Central Wisconsin than any other except for one fact. There was an Indian School in Neillsville along the Black River.

The school was constructed near the banks of the Black River in 1920 and opened in 1921. Ben Stucki was the administrator and the funding was primarily through the Winnebago Indian Mission of the Reformed Church in Black River Falls.

From the historical society of Clark County, unlike many places in Canada or the United States, “The Indian children were enrolled by their parents, none of them were forced to attend. In fact, the demand became so great that, in 1929, an addition was added to the school, nearly doubling the size. At one time 125 students were attending classes and living here.”

The mission of the school was to provide a basic education through grades 1 through 8, and if they were given the option of staying here and attending public school many children went on to get a high school diploma. Also from the Clark County Historical Society, “The children were allowed to speak their native tongue at the school, however, they were to learn English, therefore during certain times of the day, they were restricted to only speaking English.” By 1961 the school closed as the trend for specialized education for the Indian Nation’s began to wane.

The impressions of those visits have remained with me for years. We no longer use the term “Indians” but Native Americans. We have come to realize that stereotypes of Native American mascots and sports team names is somewhat childish.

My own education came not at the hands of my elementary teachers, my middle school history teachers, my high school history and civics teachers nor my college profs in American history. My education began with fire code regulations on Tribal Lands and the Ceded Territories in Wisconsin, and I am so much the poorer for it.

I was not completely ignorant of Native Americans. I had a classmate, Mitchell Redcloud. Mitchell was a member of the Winnebago Nation now known as the Ho-Chunk Nation. He arrived at Purdy Junior High School in ninth grade.

He was quiet with piercing eyes. He played football and basketball. I had him in several classes. He had a quick wit and a winning smile. We were classmates but not really friends. Mitchell was killed on June 30, 2000, at 8:30 p.m. when his motorcycle hit a deer.

In writing this column I reached out to my classmates to gather background for it. Unfortunately they were not much help as their backgrounds were similar to mine. Our knowledge of Native American culture was limited by what we were taught and our own life experience; which is limited.

Thanksgiving is Thursday. The reality courtesy of Dana Hedgpeth a Washington Post reporter and an American Indian and a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina, we know that “the actual history of what happened in 1621 bears little resemblance to what most Americans are taught in grade school, historians say. There was likely no turkey served. There were no feathered headdresses worn. And, initially, there was no effort by the Pilgrims to invite the Wampanoags to the feast.”

“Chief Ousamequin and his men showed up after the English in their revelry shot off some of their muskets; one hundred warriors armed to the teeth.” Told it was a harvest celebration, the Wampanoags joined, bringing five deer to share.”

I am not asking you give up your traditions. I only ask that you remember for every story there are two sides. This is not wokeness or Critical Race Theory, it is education. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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