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Our Undying Past

Chewing on Thanksgiving

The American Indian counter-narrative is writ large on this Thanksgiving protest plaque.
Here comes another Thanksgiving. May your celebration be bright and family-friendly. At the same time, bear in mind that many American Indians scorn the common belief that the original feast in was a kumbaya moment between Europeans and Natives.

“For the most part, Thanksgiving itself is a day of mourning for Native people” today, says Tim Turner, a Cherokee man who runs the Wampanoag Homesite at the Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, where that first feast took place in 1621.

Turner recounted the Thanksgiving story in an interview with Indian Country Today. After the Pilgrims suffered through their first winter in Massachusetts, Turner said, the Indian known as Squanto mercifully showed them how to plant corn and fish and gather berries and nuts. That led to a treaty of mutual protection between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags.

The Pilgrims’ harvest that autumn was a success. In gratitude, they organized a feast -- for themselves -- and shot off their weapons in celebration. The gunfire alarmed the Wampanoags, who sent a party of men to offer aid.

Only at that point were the Indians invited to join in. Seeing there was not enough food for the 90 Wampanoags, the braves returned with five deer to add to the communal table. Turkey and pumpkin were possibly included, but as two items on a menu that also featured seafood, waterfowl, maize, and a variety of squashes.

“It was nothing at all like a modern Thanksgiving,” Kathleen Wall, a colonial-foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, told Indian Country Today.

The National Museum of the American Indian, on the Mall in Washington, has a study guide titled “Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth” that explains: “Contemporary celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday focus on the idea that the ‘first Thanksgiving’ was a friendly gathering of two disparate groups—or even neighbors—who shared a meal and lived harmoniously. In actuality, the assembly of these people had much more to do with political alliances, diplomacy, and an effort at rarely achieved, temporary peaceful coexistence.”

Rarely achieved is right. The guide goes on to say that within a few years, the peaceful relations established by the Wampaoags “were often strained by dishonest, aggressive, and brutal actions on the part of the colonists.”

History records the unjust desserts the continent’s Indians ultimately got for saving the early European settlers from starvation. So yes, while Thanksgiving may be a favorite holiday for most of us, it’s anything but for many of our first peoples.

Knowing this, and recognizing that Thanksgiving falls during Native American Heritage Month, some people have adapted traditional native blessings for use in their holiday ceremonies. Here’s a good one that has found a home on the Internet:

Let us, for this moment, become aware of the beauty of our lives, and the grace that attends to beauty…. Grandfather, we are thankful for the gifts of the Sun, and Grandmother, for the gifts of the Earth … We give thanks for the times of meaning, the times of purposes, our times together…

Let us reflect on our struggles and how they have enabled and ennobled our growth; if we but shut our eyes, even for a moment, we can awaken to wonder;
And then we see with new eyes, the land, the sea, the creatures, one another…
And if we can feel a sense of gratitude, that grace will grow corn in our hearts, then we know beauty, then we know you, O Great Spirit.

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