Some of us wore a construction paper Pilgrim hat. Others wore a paper feather on our head. So I've known since kindergarten that Indians were part of the First Thanksgiving.
What I didn't know was how much we should be giving thanks for them.
Today, with friends in dozens of tribes, I know what amazing people Native Americans are. With their warrior spirit, their deep spiritual nature, their ability to read a heart. I've tasted their generosity, enjoyed their sense of humor, admired their values of respect and courage. And I've grieved all that was taken from them...loved many as sons and daughters.
And learned what few Americans ever know - how much we owe them.
Like Squanto. The man the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims called "a special instrument, sent from God."
He'd been kidnapped as a boy, then taken to England where he learned both English and the Christian faith. With the help of a benevolent captain, he finally made it back home to Massachusetts. After that first awful Plymouth winter when half the Pilgrims died, he appeared one day to a party of Pilgrims.
To their utter amazement, he spoke their language and understood their faith. This "instrument sent from God" taught them how to fish, to fertilize and plant corn, to catch eels with their bare hands, to store food. And he became a bridge to his people. In short, he probably saved our forefathers' lives.
But Squanto was only the beginning. Oneida Indians helped Washington and his army survive at Valley Forge. Native warriors and scouts fought - and died - for the American cause. In the Revolutionary War and in every war America's fought since then. Percentage-wise, more than any other ethnic group in the nation.
In 1987, the U.S. Senate officially recognized that much of our democracy was actually modeled after the representative government of the Iroquois Confederacy. Some of their chiefs were even invited to the Continental Congress where the Declaration of Independence was ultimately signed.
In 2000, a new dollar was minted. The Sacagawea dollar. In honor of the incredible Indian young woman who provided incalculable help to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. When the size of our new country doubled in a day with the Louisiana Purchase, the expedition blazed the trail to the West. With a Shoshone teenager, baby on her back, guiding them, interpreting for them, negotiating for horses to cross the mountains, insuring a peaceful rather than hostile response from the tribes along the way. Is it any wonder that a lake, a mountain, a glacier, schools, even ships are named for her?
Yes, we are deeply indebted to the original Americans. Native Americans.
And for those of us who have been spiritually rescued by a brown-skinned Savior named Jesus, we have an even greater debt. To be sure Native Americans have the same chance to know Jesus that someone gave us.
That mandate is in the very DNA of America's beginnings. The first governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, revealed what was in the hearts of those Pilgrims. "They cherished a great hope and inward zeal of laying good foundations...for the propagation and advance of the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the world." They wanted the people of this New World to know what Jesus did for the whole world.
The first missionary in America, John Eliot, came to reach Native Americans. The first Bible translation in America was for Indian people. The first missionary society in history was formed to help America's original people hear the Good News about Jesus.
But now, nearly four centuries later, only about 4% of Native Americans know Jesus. America's first mission field has become America's great mission failure. And our final mission frontier.
The grief of all that's been lost has fallen like an avalanche on this generation of young Native Americans. You can see it in suicide rates that are three to six times greater than the rest of America's young people. And alcohol, drug and sexual abuse far beyond anyone else's.
For me, those aren't just statistics. They are precious Native young people we know. We've loved. We've buried.
But out of this landscape of hopelessness, I've seen the face of hope for Native America. And it's not a white face. It's Native young people who once were the addicted, the suicidal, the violent. Who now go to reservation after reservation to spread the hope they've found.
In that brown-skinned Savior. Jesus. Who was from a tribe. From a land others had taken. Who loved nature, lived poor and homeless. Who died a violent death. Sounds like Native America.
As I've traveled with these On Eagles' Wings teams God has raised up, I've been an eyewitness to spiritual history. Thousands of Native Americans opening their lives to the Chief of all chiefs. Introduced to this Jesus by young Native warriors who are fighting for their people.
Standing with them, supporting them, praying for them has given me what many more of my Christian brothers and sisters need. A way to complete the circle. To help bring life to a people who helped give life to my people long ago.
For the coming of Jesus that first Christmas carried with it a promise for them and for us.
"The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (Luke 1:78-79).
God in heaven, may this be that time for the people You put here first.
Ron Hutchcraft and his wife are co-founders of the On Eagles' Wings ministry that empowers Native American young people to reach their people with the Good News of Jesus You can learn more at HopeForNativeAmerica.com.