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Indian leader urges Utahns to taste truth

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They speak in soft voices, without rancor, but Utah's American Indian leaders have an urgent message this Thanksgiving.

Taste the truth, says Forrest Cuch, director of the state Indian Affairs Division. The Pilgrims found no wilderness around Plymouth Rock. They found a civilized people who opted to share their autumn harvest with the white newcomers. Most schoolbooks say, "The Indians had never seen such a feast," but in fact the Algonquins had already cultivated the ingredients — and invited the hungry Pilgrims to share their bounty.

Such generosity could go a long way today. Besides giving thanks to God, we would do well to turn to our neighbors in a spirit of sharing and respect, Cuch says. That is what happened between the Pilgrims and the American Indians at the first Thanksgiving.

"I love the holiday, myself," Cuch adds. "I just wish (history books) would get a little more real" about the Indians' contributions. "This is the 21st century. We should be getting real by now."

Anthony Smith of the Indian Walk-in Center likes to quote a poster that appeared some years ago: "The Pilgrims formed the first welfare line."

Mario Platero, whose heritage is Navajo and Zuni, helped organize the Utah Indigenous People's Day celebration at the Walk-in Center on Monday. "It's mainly for the children," Platero said. "I think we need to move past the negative feelings."

"There was a relationship of trust" between the whites and the American Indians at the first Thanksgiving, and "that was lost."

But Platero, like Smith and Cuch, says it can be regained, through inclusivity in schools, neighborhoods and government.

Cuch points to that classic European-American dish, spaghetti and marinara sauce. "I love Italian food," he says; he also loves the fact that indigenous American tomatoes, noodles that originated in Asia, and Italian herbs mix to create a nourishing meal. That, like the first Thanksgiving, is an example of inclusivity.

With an eye to a more inclusive — and progressive — Utah, Cuch has organized an empowerment-training conference for tribal leaders. He brought young people from the state's five tribes together and is helping them become more involved in the education system and other sectors of government.

A history teacher who has worked in Indian education across the United States, Cuch often challenges the schoolbook version of how pioneers civilized the West. He often quotes the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong," and plans to bring its author, James Loewen, to the empowerment conference in Salt Lake City this spring.

Loewen's book debunks a load of myths about who was and wasn't civilized on the American continent. It takes an egalitarian view of the nation's development — something that we can all use.

Bringing historical truths to light will benefit all Americans, Cuch says. Tell the Thanksgiving story as a reflection of generosity and mutual respect between people, and we will provide a positive example for Indians and non-Indians alike.

"Kids can handle the truth," Cuch adds. "They don't lose their loyalty as Americans or as members of whichever church they belong to. Thanksgiving is really an Indian holiday that has been celebrated, at the fall harvest, for hundreds of years."

Yet, "I always get the sense that people are afraid that the Indians will take over the world if we get credit for something. The world will not cave in." Instead, communities will grow stronger, having given thanks for all of their members.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com