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Ten bare-chested men stand around a large glowing fire pit, their breath creating furious clouds around their faces in the biting November cold.
They chant, beat a drum, pray and then strip down to their shorts. One after another, they crawl on their hands and knees into a dome-shaped sweat lodge that awaits them on a patch of snowy land in Minnetonka.
The centuries-old American Indian ceremony is their way of acknowledging Thanksgiving, expressing gratitude to a higher power for the good that's come to them and those they love.
But the holiday can also be fraught with tension, tainted by the tragic history attached to European settlement of native lands in this country.
While some Twin Cities American Indians observe Thanksgiving by holding traditional spiritual ceremonies like the sweat lodge and powwows, others have no use for a holiday they see as a symbol of the destruction of the native way life. Still others choose to bridge the cultures, participating in Christian worship services as well as activities connected with their Indian heritage.
"Many Indian people celebrate Thanksgiving with a meal and simply a prayer, a blessing over the food and general thanksgiving of the blessings they've received over the previous year," said Lee Antell, president and CEO of the nonprofit American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis. "It's really an extension of what American Indians have done for centuries. Indians have always celebrated thanksgiving for the blessing of the harvest. They would thank the creator.
"But with the arrival of the pilgrims, you got a different kind of viewpoint," he added. "There are groups of native people who will not even recognize Thanksgiving Day."
The traditional story of Thanksgiving involves the pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 holding a large feast to celebrate a successful growing season with the native Indians, who showed the European newcomers how to grow corn and survive in their new world.
In fact, Indians have historically held numerous ceremonies of thanksgiving throughout the year, showing gratitude to their God for everything from a successful hunt to a bountiful harvest.
Bob Klanderud is one of many Indians who consider themselves Christian but also pray in the Indian way, too. Klanderud, who works in the Division of Indian Work at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, is of native and Norwegian descent.
Just days before Thanksgiving, Klanderud led the sweat lodge ceremony on the grounds of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka. The church often invites groups of native drummers to participate in worship services, and dedicated land for two sweat lodges made of saplings and canvas that natives have used since the late 1980s.
"We call this our Thanksgiving sweat," Klanderud said. "It's another way of giving thanks."
The ceremony involves building a large fire and heating several rocks while Klanderud burns sage amid the chanting men and drum beating. After the rocks are heated, the men enter the sweat lodge and sit in a circle.
One of the men brings in the hot rocks and the sweat lodge is sealed. Klanderud ladles water over the rocks, creating steam inside the darkened structure.
"We petition with songs and drumming for the spirits to come in," Klanderud said. "We are filled with gratitude. We detoxify our bodies with the steam, and the spirits look at our minds and bodies and souls and help us heal with whatever ailments we have."
Frank Paro will observe a very different Thanksgiving tradition.
The chairman of the Twin Cities office of the American Indian Movement will join the annual Thanksgiving protest at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
For decades, group members and thousands of others have taken boats out to Alcatraz on Thanksgiving Day to hold a sunrise ceremony, or "un-Thanksgiving."
"There's a sense of freedom out there," Paro said. "The message is, 'We're still here.' I don't celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The white man created Thanksgiving."
Bridging two cultures
In Minnesota, there are about 60,000 Indians, nearly 40,000 in the Twin Cities, according to U.S. census data. The two largest groups are the Ojibwe, with seven reservations, and the Dakota, with four reservations.
Some Indian Christians will go beyond attending Christian worship services and traditional Indian ceremonies, religious scholars say. They will also address church groups about their Indian heritage around Thanksgiving.
"Thanksgiving is associated with the conquest of North America and all the negativity that brought," said Deward Walker Jr., an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado who has written extensively about Indian religious life. "It's hard to forget that."
Still, he said, "some people see the event as a very positive one." For Rina Fonder, a member of the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, Thanksgiving includes going to a Sunday service at Akina Community Church in south Minneapolis, an Assemblies of God-affiliated church with a predominantly Indian congregation of nearly 150 members.
On Thanksgiving Day, Fonder, 48, plans to attend an annual powwow at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
"Going to the powwow is kind of like a gathering, to give thanksgiving," Fonder said. "It's a great place to see and meet old friends, to socialize. We don't talk about history and what happened. We're just thankful with friends and family, and what we've been blessed with over the past year.
"I don't want to lose my identity," she said. "I'm proud of my Native American heritage. That's the culture I was brought up in. It's a beautiful culture. The powwows, just hearing the beat of a drum. ... I love it."
Rose French • 612-673-4352