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Thanksgiving: A Native American View

by Jacqueline Keeler


I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people.

Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead.

I was proud to sing the new lyrics in school, but I sang softly. It was enough for me to know the difference. At six, I felt I had learned something very important. As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors, and I learned that my family possessed some "inside" knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses came to our homes.

When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, they were poor and hungry -- half of them died within a few months from disease and hunger. When Squanto, a Wampanoag man, found them, they were in a pitiful state. He spoke English, having traveled to Europe, and took pity on them. Their English crops had failed. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow their food.

These were not merely "friendly Indians." They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary -- but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing. Among many of our peoples, showing that you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect. Among the Dakota, my father's people, they say, when asked to give, "Are we not Dakota and alive?" It was believed that by giving there would be enough for all -- the exact opposite of the system we live in now, which is based on selling, not giving.

To the Pilgrims, and most English and European peoples, the Wampanoags were heathens, and of the Devil. They saw Squanto not as an equal but as an instrument of their God to help his chosen people, themselves.

Since that initial sharing, Native American food has spread around the world. Nearly 70 percent of all crops grown today were originally cultivated by Native American peoples. I sometimes wonder what they ate in Europe before they met us. Spaghetti without tomatoes? Meat and potatoes without potatoes? And at the "first Thanksgiving" the Wampanoags provided most of the food -- and signed a treaty granting Pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth, the real reason for the first Thanksgiving.

What did the Europeans give in return? Within 20 years European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoags. Most diseases then came from animals that Europeans had domesticated. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, one of the great killers of our people, spread through gifts of blankets used by infected Europeans. Some estimate that diseases accounted for a death toll reaching 90 percent in some Native American communities. By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way "for a better growth," meaning his people.

In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism.

Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us. Indeed, when I give thanks this Thursday and I cook my native food, I will be thinking of this hidden heart and how my ancestors survived the evil it caused.

Because if we can survive, with our ability to share and to give intact, then the evil and the good will that met that Thanksgiving day in the land of the Wampanoag will have come full circle.

And the healing can begin.

Index Native

Jacqueline Keeler

Jacqueline Keeler

Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California.

Her work has appeared in Winds of Change, an American Indian journal.

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Four Days of Thanksgiving

by Sister Mary Josť Hobday, OSF

Thanksgiving. It has different meanings for different people. For some, it is an extended holiday weekend. For others, a day of thanks that may or may not include church. For still others, it's a day to gather the family around a big meal, with vague notions of Indians and Pilgrims in the background.

For Native Americans, it may be a sad day of remembering what they lost because of the appearance of another culture with different values and customs. Among younger tribal members, it is often a day of protesting and calling attention to grievances.

For me, the meaning of thanksgiving has been enriched by my Native American background, especially by the traditions of the Seneca Iroquois Tribe, which are extensive and thought provoking. This tribe has one celebration of giving thanks, for instance, that lasts four full days. It has a formal order consisting of storytelling, teachings, silence, singing, drumming, chanting, rest, the serving of special foods (including the sacred berry of the tribe, the strawberry), and remembering all of the things for which to be thankful.

To help remember, the ritual has 16 special chants of thanks. They are for people, the earth, plants, water, trees, animals, birds, the "sisters," (special powers that help people take care of themselves and look after each other), the wind, thunderors (powers that bring rain), the sun, the moon, the stars, the Four Beings (powers that bring enlightenment and strength), Handsome Lake (a member of the tribe who was particularly effective in spreading Christian values), and, finally, the Creator.

In this ritual, the chanting of the story of thanksgiving night begin like this: "Now the people have gathered to give thanks. In the early times, the Sky Dwellers (beings in Native American origin stories who came to earth and helped Populatcit) told us we must move about the earth with love. They said the first thing we must do when we meet one another is be thankful for each other. Above all, we must relate to the earth as our mother, who supports all, even our very feet." It continues litany-like in this fashion.

I like this ritual because of its world focus, and that's one reason I think it's worth passing on as we approach our great national holiday, Thanksgiving. Often we take all that we have for granted.

Or, we think that we have earned everything we have. We fail to see, as we would if we were really observant, that the things we have - especially the important things - are indeed gifts that we have received from the earth, from each other, and, when all is said and done, from God.

Or, if we are thankful to God, we don't really appreciate the fact that God has given us all the gifts we have, including life itself, through creation. I'm afraid we still think of the Creator as completely separate from creation, and, by doing that, we perpetuate the old dichotomies that have plagued us in the past.

As you can see from this Seneca Iroquois ritual of thanksgiving, Native American people have less difficulty with this. Somehow, they were able to keep their focus on this world longer than many of us Christians, and they still were able to relate it to the Creator. Note this, for example, in the 16 thanksgiving chants of this ritual - the first 15 are about creation and then comes the Creator.

The point here is not necessarily to duplicate this Native American ritual of thanksgiving - can you imagine yourself giving thanks for four solid days? - but to appreciate the profound sense of thanksgiving Native Americans have. Native peoples, I think, have avoided the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. In this way, Native Americans can enrich the celebration of this greatest American feast - Thanksgiving - and our more important Christian celebration of thanks - the Eucharist.

Sister Mary Josť Hobday, OSF, was a Seneca elder, storyteller, author, professor, Franciscan Sister, and dear friend of A Network for Grateful Living.

The Seneca are a group of indigenous people native to North America. They were the nation located farthest to the west within the Six Nations or Iroquois League in New York before the American Revolution. It was the French priest missionaries who first called the Haudenosaunee by the name of Iroquois. Ironically, there is evidence that America's Founding Fathers, after the Revolution, turned to the Iroquois for inspiration when forging our own Constitution. The Iroquois had sided against us, and had known George Washington as an arch enemy. But their own confederation had actually been surprisingly advanced. It was known as Gayanashagowa or the Great Law of Peace. See George Washington Town Destroyer

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