Airlift Repays Pilgrims' 1621 Debt

Times Staff Writer

With the help of some sixth-graders from North Hollywood, 22 small planes lifted off from Van Nuys Airport and flew northwest Saturday to repay a debt to Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag Indian tribe in 1621.

The planes were loaded with 120 frozen turkeys, crates of instant stuffing, bags of pinto beans and other food for the Chumash Indians of the Santa Ynez reservation, about 95 air miles away near Solvang.

For the 13th time since 1971, the Litton Flying Club was setting out on a "Pilgrim flight" to pay its self-imposed debt to Massasoit, the Indian chief who helped the Pilgrims make a party of it at the first Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony.

Abundance of Guests

The Pilgrims invited Massasoit, but were dismayed when he showed up with 90 fellow members of the tribe, fearing that, by the end of the feast, there would be little to be thankful about in the coming winter.

The chief, so the story goes, caught on right away and dispatched some hunters, who provided five deer for the festivities. (It was the Pilgrims who set a culinary precedent by shooting "a great store of wild Turkies," the records say.)

The flying club figures that Massasoit's courtesy indebted white Americans, who have done all right in America since they needed help 365 years ago. The club is made up mostly of Litton Industries employees looking for someplace to fly on weekends.

Each year, they fly food to an Indian reservation in the week or two before Thanksgiving. Indian actor Iron Eyes Cody, whose monument of a face is stung by a single tear in a well-known television commercial, picks the recipient tribe.

This year the club gathered five tons of food, some of it donated and some bought for about $3,000. "It was a lot more than we expected," said the club president, Jim Eddingfield. Not all of it would fit on the planes, so two pickup trucks and a van carried part of the supply to Santa Ynez.

As usual, the club raised most of the money through a dinner and a raffle. But, this year, club members had outside help.

Class Project

The sixth grade at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, at the suggestion of their teacher, Sue Kent of Canoga Park, joined in as a class project. The students brought food from home and held bake sales that raised $300 to buy turkeys.

Ten of the 40 in the class turned out at the airport Saturday morning, grinning as they helped unload the turkeys from a truck.

"This is so neat," said Lindsay Sloane, 11, of Encino. "This was a good idea. It gives Thanksgiving a whole different meaning."

"The Indians gave us stuff for Thanksgiving a long time ago, and now we're, like, paying them back," said Josh Stempel, 11, of Tarzana.

Kate Fujimoto of Hollywood and Katie Wilhelm of Studio City, both 11, said the class was protesting the commercialization of holidays. "Like, money is not the most important thing," Katie said.

The children remained behind when Cody and about 45 club members flew to the Santa Ynez Airport, a flight of 30 to 50 minutes. The airport adjoins the reservation, where about 200 Chumash live, said the reservation chairman, James Pace.

A group of about 40 to 50 Indians served the club members a lunch of roast beef, pasta salads and a cake decorated with the words, in deep appreciation. Some wore full Indian regalia, with beads and feathers. Most wore everyday clothing with an Indian touch, a necklace here, a feather there.

Lunch in Tribal Hall

The lunch was served in the tribal hall, where the Chumash--like many other Indian tribes, capitalizing on federal court rulings that freed them from many state gambling laws--hold bingo sessions on Wednesday and Friday nights. White gamblers, about 600 of them a night, provide work for "about 45 of our young people, and cut our unemployment on the reservation from 50% to about 8%," Pace said.

The Litton club last made a "Pilgrim flight" to the Santa Ynez reservation in 1982, and some of the Indians and club members remembered each other. Others introduced themselves. In a scene that echoed the historical account of the brotherhood of the first Thanksgiving, they sat together at long tables, sharing the buffet lunch. The conversations ran from children to jobs, from cars to health problems.

One of the club's leaders jokingly cautioned the members, "Remember, don't eat more than we brought," in a sentiment Massasoit would have understood.

Cody, in beaded buckskin and wearing a wig of two dark braids, recited a buffalo prayer in the southern Cheyenne tongue. A Chumash woman in traditional dress, dripping with ribbons and jangling with bells, snapped his picture.

Pace presented Eddingfield with an Indian art object, a cow's skull on a leather background laced in a hoop and decorated with symbols, which were copied from ancient cave drawings found in the area, Cody said.

"This contribution really helps, especially our elders and the large families," Pace said.

'Good People'

Tony Romero, 64, praised the group as proof that "in this world, there are good people." Romero described himself as "what people call a medicine man, but I'm really not; I'm a cultural and spiritual adviser.

"It should be this way throughout the universe," he said, his long gray-streaked hair falling over a bright scarlet shirt decorated with ribbons.

"We have a beautiful brand of people today, compared to the old days," Romero said in an interview later. "Back then, people were kind of brutal. I guess they had to be mean in order to survive. The descendants of those same people, Indians and white, are a better kind of people today."

The Indians did not dance for their guests, however, as the club members had expected. Romero said later that a film crew sent by French documentary maker Jacques Cousteau had been there early that morning.

"The dancers are kind of tired," he explained. "We danced 2 1/2 hours for those guys."

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