With Thanksgiving comes the inevitable stories surrounding the legend of the first Thanksgiving-and their debunking. Regardless of which version of the tale you accept as most accurate, all share a common thread: the Pilgrims surviving only with the helping hand of the local Native Americans.
The stories of the first Thanksgiving and the attempts to set the record straight share another common theme - they perpetuate the myth that the Indian way of life reached its peak around the time of the Pilgrims' arrival, with each year since being a steady decline into poverty and alcoholism. Recent developments, from the tragic (shocking reports of child abuse run rampant on reservations) to the silly (Victoria's Secret runway misstep), don't help correct that perception.
But the history of the United States is not a story of the triumph of Western democratic ideals. In fact, almost 400 years after that first (perhaps mythical) Thanksgiving, the dominant U.S. culture still has much to learn from Indians, and actually still relies heavily on Native culture. That reliance ranges from the use of indigenous symbols to borrowing principles of justice to dependency on tribal economic development.
Much has been written about the mainstream U.S. culture borrowing Native imagery. Most of us have seen this all our lives-how many of us grew up with an American Indian as our high school mascot? The New Mexico state flag bears a Zia sun symbol, and of course there's the infamous Navajo panties sold at Urban Outfitters and the now even more infamous Native American-themed bra-and-panties-clad Victoria's Secret model.
But comparatively less is known about the mainstream's borrowing of indigenous principles of government and justice - and you most likely won't find blog posts addressing the topic. At most, some may have learned in school that the U.S. Constitution owes as much to the Iroquois Confederacy as it does to European philosophers. Even more obscure is the fact that other tribes, such as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, also had well-developed governments built upon a separation of powers.
Few know that the U.S. criminal justice system has taken a veritable U-turn and started borrowing heavily from traditional Native systems of justice. In 1881, Crow Dog, a Lakota, killed Spotted Tail, another member of the tribe. Dissatisfied with how the tribe handled the case, requiring Crow Dog to make restitution to and provide for Spotted Tail's family, an enraged U.S. government sought to prosecute Crow Dog and hang him.
When the Supreme Court ruled that no basis existed for the federal prosecution and ordered Crow Dog released, Congress enacted the Major Crimes Act, giving the federal government the authority to prosecute Indians who commit serious crimes against other Indians in Indian country, thus taking a significant step toward creating the crazy quilt of criminal jurisdiction that exists today in Indian country. That, arguably, is at least partially responsible for the lawlessness noted in recent stories.
The concept of rehabilitation and restorative justice that so enraged the dominant society 130 years ago is now found at the heart of many criminal-justice reforms. The concept of rehabilitative justice has also made its way into Anglo-American civil courts, where arbitration and alternative dispute resolution draw heavily from indigenous peacemaker systems.
While there is no denying the fact that socioeconomic statistics on many reservations are terrible, the last three decades have seen a resurgence in tribal economic development, with tribal governments operating businesses ranging from factories to casinos. Those businesses have a substantial positive impact on state and county governments.
Indians are not relics of the past. Today's modern tribal governments are an integral part of our national system, and we should take time to celebrate, not what they may or may not have done in the past, but the contributions they are making right now.
Melissa L. Tatum is a research professor of law and the director of the Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona James E Rogers College of Law, the only university in the world to offer three law degrees (JD, LLM and SJD) with a concentration in Indian and indigenous peoples law.