It’s just one of those strange-but-wonderful things that happen unexpectedly.
Poet and essayist Jessica Greenbaum, who was teaching at the time in the English Department of Barnard College (one of the “Seven Sisters”) in New York City as an adjunct assistant professor, was planning her Thanksgiving 2014 dinner with friends and family for her house in Brooklyn. She had an idea to make the event a bit different: While enjoying a good meal, she would also educate her guests about the American “First Thanksgiving” story.
Being smart, however, Jessica was suspicious of the basic textbook version of that historic event, where the kindly-but-“savage” Indians and peaceful-but-starving colonists gather for a big feast and become best friends forever.
So by way of emails and phone calls, she asked Mike Roberts, president of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), about the Native American perspective on that First Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the story her guests ended up hearing was considerably different from the myths espoused by old textbooks, which are the ones many Americans take as truth because they learned it that way in elementary school.
Jessica learned from Mike that the colonist view as presented in the textbooks is quite unlike that of the original Indian inhabitants, and that what followed historically for Native nations was nothing for them to be thankful about. (Mike is like that. As a member of the Tlingit tribe and well-connected across Indian Country, he sees lots of “teachable moments” about American Indians and Alaska Natives, even if that teaching is directed at a respected professor and award-winning author like Jessica, who has just been granted a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to finish her third book.)
Through this process of discovery, Jessica became a first-time donor to First Nations, making a very generous online gift to the organization. For that, First Nations is very thankful. She also encouraged her Thanksgiving guests to support First Nations and other Native American charitable causes.
“I wanted to have an authentic response to the Thanksgiving holiday – I guess that comes from what I know through Judaism and our own traditions – so that’s why I contacted First Nations after finding you on Charity Navigator,” Jessica noted in a December phone interview. “I wanted something that felt like a true connection to the characters of the Thanksgiving story, and which would also benefit Native Americans.”
Jessica’s parents are first generation Americans, born to turn-of-the-century East European Jewish immigrants. They grew up very poor in New York City during the Depression, and met while going to a free city college. Both eventually would get graduate degrees and become professionals. Jessica grew up on Long Island, taking buses to Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War and, later, in the second wave of feminism, for equal rights. She earned her B.A. in English at Barnard, collected an M.A. in English at the University of Houston, and recently added an L.M.S.W. in Social Work from New York University. She is married to attorney Jed Marcus, and they have two girls, ages 21 and 17.
“Until talking with Mike, I had a fairly low-level consciousness about Native culture in the U.S., and some of it may have been stereotypical in that I strongly or exclusively connected the idea of nature, land and natural co-existence to Native cultures, which I think many people do, without going much deeper than that,” Jessica said. “But I had a yearning to not be as distant from that culture as I had been, and that’s what drove me during this time. I’m delighted it led me to make a connection with First Nations.”
Jessica noted that she recognizes the chronic poverty and health issues that many Native communities face, and it’s another reason she chose to explore the American Indian perspective. “I felt there has been co-opting of the holiday – the ‘bounty’ and everything – and there was something about it that just wasn’t working for me, hasn’t ever really worked for me. Yet I’m surrounded by people for whom, because it’s not religious and because it’s a holiday of basic goodwill, it’s really their favorite of the year.
“When I found First Nations on Charity Navigator, I saw that it was highly respected and a top, four-star-rated charity,” she added. “After reading your website, I knew this was work I wanted to support and spread the word about.”
Jessica has been a writer since her childhood, concentrating on her poetry but also authoring essays and criticism. (Her third book is underway, and her previous two books are of poems, with the most recent published by the Princeton University Press). In an attempt to make a contribution beyond her art, she began raising money for women and girls in the developing world by selling homemade muffins outside her house to pedestrians headed to and from an upscale flea market nearby. She especially works toward ending female genital mutilation, forced marriage and human trafficking. On her radar currently is facilitating the pilot program for a poetry reading and writing group with participants in the Center for Disease Control’s health program for 9/11 first responders.
“My hope for this story is that Indian communities will know that many non-Indian Americans DO have a sense of the bones and the ghosts and the injustices that have led us to the present day,” Jessica concluded. “By me learning more, spreading the word, sending a contribution and urging others to do likewise, we can help develop the community of people working toward First Nations’ goals.”
First Nations’ supporters come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all corners of the U.S. and beyond. We warmly welcome Jessica to our family and into our Native circle.
(As a further note to the story, Jessica has contributed her considerable writing expertise to helping First Nations craft a story that will likely be used later this year in First Nations’ Thanksgiving-related mailings and communications.)