Jacksonville’s Indian Culture Via Manan Patel

Words by Teresa Spencer

The first Thanksgiving is portrayed and remembered as a friendly harvest festival where the Pilgrims (or immigrants I should say), came together to eat and give thanks. But, in reality, the assembly of the Indigenous Natives and the English settlers was more about political alliances, the pursuit of peace, and diplomacy, according to some historical tales.  

Since 1970 there has been a gathering at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts on Thanksgiving Day. While most Americans take this day to give thanks and celebrate family, those of Native American descent see Thanksgiving as the National Day of Mourning. Though a glum label, the event is actually held to remember ancestral history, protest racism, and protest years of oppression, which some (probably most) continue experiencing today. 

 But what about those of Indian descent here in Northeast Florida that are not connected to Indigenous people in America?  Who are they and where did they immigrate from? Do they celebrate Thanksgiving in the same sense that Americans traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving?  We wanted to know and we found out that in fact there are many different types of Indian immigrants, all with varying opinions about celebrating Thanksgiving.  

While researching, It was found that around the mouth of St. Johns, Jacksonville was home to the Saturiwa tribe, their main village along the river’s south bank. But by the 1770’s Florida’s Indians collectively became known as Seminole, completely ignoring each tribe’s individuality. There are in fact more than a dozen original Native American tribes in Florida – each one with distinctive cultures and customs. Despite the various heritages and lifestyles, most are in agreement that Thanksgiving isn’t what modern-day Americans portray.    

I spoke with Manan Patel who runs an official Facebook group, established in 2018, for the Jacksonville and St. Johns Indian Communities. It became quite clear that what is more important than getting into the specific beliefs and practices of immigrant Indians here with respect to Thanksgiving, was to learn more about the local immigrant Indian community and why he started the Indian-based social media group in the first place. 

 

Folio:   What inspired you to start this group?

Patel:  I wanted to give back to the Indian community. I didn’t know how to connect with them. After graduating from UNF, I went on to grad school in Atlanta and New Zealand. But when I came back in late 2016 to my hometown Jacksonville, I had no idea what was happening in my Indian community. To stay updated with events and community news, I had to sign up on various newsletters from many different organizations. There wasn’t really a central online meeting point or Facebook page/group that existed. 

 I thought I’d create something to make use of my free time and my social media skills. I created a Facebook group that would allow me to share information that would benefit me and my friends. My friends liked what I did and they invited their friends. From there on, it snowballed. I encouraged the Indian organizations to join and to share their events. They now realize how useful it is.

 It became the hub and the central online one-stop shop for everyone to stay updated about what’s happening in Duval County and St. Johns County. 

 

Now, it’s a place where people go to share opinions, find assistance, engage in discussions, share restaurant reviews, movie reviews, and most importantly, to stay in touch with their friends and families online. One member even mentions that it’s something she would look forward to when waking up in the morning. To see what new information there is and to see beautiful pictures of places around Jacksonville and St. Johns County.

We also have guides such as catering lists where people can look for Indian caterers, lists of Indian restaurants, a list of small businesses/vendors and tiffin service like home cooked meals. 

Businesses can use this Facebook group to advertise their businesses, solicit constructive feedback, and reach out to the community in real time. It allowed our Indian community to support local Indian-owned businesses.

 What I am most proud of is that if there’s an Indian family visiting or moving to Jacksonville or St. Johns County, they can easily find this group online. Once they join the group, they will find useful guides, information packets that help them get familiar with their surroundings, allow them to do their research with the information provided and reach out to the community to connect. They can learn about the lifestyle here in Jacksonville and St. Johns County. They can ask questions and get answers in real time. It’s so much better than Googling around for hours and talking to various realtors or visiting the city and driving around.

Folio:  How does this social media group contribute to the Jacksonville community?

Patel:  Before the pandemic, I was merely sharing flyers and important events in the Facebook group. During the pandemic, it became a way for the Indian community to stay connected online. To share food pictures, movie reviews, join Zoom classes, and to engage with the community in a fun way. Now, it has become bigger. It became an online community. It became a tool. It became the place where you can immediately seek out information. It is the place where Indians living in Northeast Florida can go and connect with everyone. 

 Folio: Please elaborate on any statistics or relevant information the citizens of Jacksonville should know about the Indian history/culture and the current data in Northeast Florida.

 Patel: The Indian community is really complex because there are different regions of India meaning that everyone has different ethnicities. Everyone is from each different region of India and though, we are labeled as South Asians or Asians. Even though I am Indian but to be more specific, I am a Gujarati from the state of Gujarat. There are several Indians living in Jacksonville that are from other states of India. So in Jacksonville and St. Johns County, there are about 40% of Gujaratis, 30-40% of South Indians (Tamil, Malayalees, Telugus, etc), and roughly around 10-20% of Punjabis. This is only a rough estimate based on my experience being a Jax native. I have asked a few respected community leaders and they agreed on this estimate.

 The actual data of Asians living in Jacksonville and St. Johns County indicates there are roughly 4% of Asians in Jacksonville but it doesn’t specifically outline the ethnicity.

 

Patel hopes the Indian community reading this will find it inspiring and be proud of how they have come together to show that in reality no matter the descent, his group promotes being ONE Indian community!

 

Here at Folio we give thanks to all cultures, creeds, races, and ethnic backgrounds in Jacksonville. Especially those that are actively working and contributing to making our society (and home) a better place to live. 

 

About Teresa Spencer

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