The past week meant loads of school children brought home crayon-colored pictures of turkeys, Indians and Pilgrims. No doubt there were a few holiday concerts with adorable kids in construction paper Indian headbands with feathers stapled on, who sang an off-key rendition of “Ten Little Indians” before going home to share a feast of plenty with a table full of family. This is the American Thanksgiving tradition.
But to Jamie and Bob Jondreau, it’s offensive.
“You know that song, ‘Ten Little Indians’?” asks Jamie, 49, a member of the Rappahannock tribe. “That song is a desecration. It’s about counting dead Indian children.” ( Read more.)Yet Jamie’s 10-year-old daughter has gone to public school and has heard children singing this song for as long as it’s been a tradition. Few seem aware it might offend.
“Being an Indian here is hard,”says Bob, a member of the Ojibwa tribe. “Every day we walk two roads, the Indian road and the white road. These roads never meet.”
In his 61 years Bob has found that being himself, Indian and American in one body, is a difficult proposition.
Jamie and Bob live in a comfy, brick rancher in Norge. The outside of the house, complete with a happily barking dog inside a fenced-in yard, fits right in with the rest of the homes in the neighborhood.
Once you step inside, however, you’re at the intersection of Bob’s “two roads.” The walls are filled with family photos, some snaps in western clothing and others in traditional garb. Pieces of Indian art, like drums, paintings and sculpture, claim the spaces between photos.
Yet placed here and there amidst the culturally rich art and photographs are things probably in every other house on the block: a television, video game system, homework and youth sports photos of daughter Meno, even a photo of Meno riding the newest roller coaster at Busch Gardens.
The inside of the house is a mirror, reflecting the two paths each member of the family walks each day. A few steps in the white world, a few steps in the Indian world; it’s a complicated dance.
Jamie moved to Williamsburg in 1957 with her parents, who left reservation life in King and Queen County and came to work at Historic Jamestowne as the first Indian interpreters. Most of the photographs on the walls in the living room show her mother and father working at Jamestown in Indian dress, doing “Indian” things like sewing, gathering, fishing and singing.
The first picture she points to is of her mother in costume with Queen Elizabeth, visiting for the settlement’s 350th anniversary, watching, and smiling, as the Indians go about their work.
There are many pictures of her father, too, in costume. “They put a mohawk on him,” Jamie says, pointing to one shot of her father leaning against a tree, holding what looks to be an ax. “I don’t know why they did that, it wasn’t his real hair. It looked silly.”
Jamie and her family soon moved from their home near Jamestown to the neighborhood where she lives today. “There was lots of prejudice then,” she remembers. “We moved into this all-white neighborhood, and the neighbors sent around a petition to try to get rid of us. They didn’t succeed, and we stayed. The time wasn’t a good one.”
During the time when America was struggling with its own racial identity, Jamie went on to attend Lafayette High School as a girl who was neither white nor black.
She recalls racial tensions between blacks and whites, but what she remembers most from that time is being the only American Indian around. “I really had this forlorn longing to be with my people. I started dancing at pow-wows. We had to go to pow-wows or go back home [to King and Queen County] to see Indians.”
In 1996, Jamie decided to go back to college and get her masters degree in counseling at Hampton University, where she met Bob, son of an Ojibwa tribal chief. Bob was working as a U.S. Air Force recruiter on campus. Their relationship developed quickly, each seeing in the other a kindred spirit.
“We were married on campus by a black minister in his dashiki,” says Bob, remembering their unusual wedding. “That says a lot about us.” This was the first Indian marriage on campus since the late 1800s, according to Jamie, even though there is a small Lakota Indian presence at HU.
The Jondreaus both had been a part of the Christian faith yet also remained true to their Indian heritage, which led to more tap-dancing between cultures even after the wedding.
Jamie remembers the cultural celebration that followed her mother’s death.
It is Indian custom, Jamie says, to light a large fire and keep it burning for three days to help the dead person’s spirit cross over safely to the other side. Jamie’s family and friends watched the fire burning for her late mother day and night, played the sacred drum, and celebrated the spiritual journey her mother was taking.
“You can imagine what the neighbors said,” says Bob. “When I called the fire department to let them know, they at first said, ‘no way’ since it was against regulation, but once I talked to the chief and explained our customs, he said okay. But [someone from the] the fire department had to be here to supervise.”
Bob, like his wife, also straddled the divide between Christianity and Indian spiritualism.
“I was Catholic. I wanted to be a Franciscan monk,” says Bob. On his reservation, he attended mass at a church on his Ojibwa reservation in Michigan called “the Holy Name of Jesus Christ.” The priest was an Ojibwa, but the holy family displayed in church depicted Jesus wearing a war bonnet and Ojibwa blanket, with the altar home to a traditional Indian drum.
The Jondreau’s daughter, Meno, came into the same two-path world that her parents have learned to live in. Born in the old Williamsburg Community Hospital, she was delivered to the sound of her father’s sacred drum, which he plays in the Four Rivers Drum group. The same drum that led her grandmother’s spirit to the other world welcomed Meno into this one.
Even after having Meno and living in the community for so long, the family still sometimes faces prejudice. “Race is still an issue here,” says Jamie, remembering the first time Meno had to face the fact that some people judge her by her heritage. “In first grade, someone asked her what color she was. I said, ‘she’s the color of love.’”
The Jondreaus, despite some unpleasant experiences over the years, still keep in step with the white community. They have local jobs, they have kept their daughter in a local school, and they try to reach out to people in the community by visiting schools and colleges to talk about American Indian culture. They will always be Indian, though, and so will Meno.
Like other Americans, they took time on Thanksgiving Day to be together.
“We celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way that everyone here does,” says Jamie. “We eat turkey and pie, spend time with friends, and enjoy the time off work to talk and be together. We’re thankful that we’re in a time that’s a little easier to live in. We hold no grudges – but we haven’t forgotten.”
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