Thanksgiving has long been a mixed bag for Indigenous Peoples. Though established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in the context of the Civil War, over time Thanksgiving became associated with the Pilgrims and used to justify appropriation of Indigenous lands. In 1970, Indigenous activists declared it a National Day of Mourning to commemorate all that was lost.
Despite this history, Thanksgiving remains the most Indigenous of holidays. In fact, we have a lot to learn from our elder sisters and brothers on this land about giving thanks.
Many Indigenous authors, from Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac to Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, emphasize that gratitude is a daily practice in Indigenous cultures. When everything you eat is hunted, gathered, and grown by your own hands, it is much easier to see food as a gift.
The story we have told for the past century and a half is that the first Thanksgiving occurred in the fall of 1621 at a joint Wampanoag–Pilgrim feast. Yet for Puritans at the time, giving thanks was a stark affair. It usually consisted of a long day of fasting and prayer in church. It was the Wampanoag who held this type of feast to thank the spirits of the land that sustain them.
Feasts like Thanksgiving focus and magnify the daily gratitude in Indigenous cultures. Food is the very essence of life, everything in the cosmos focused down into a single point. When shared at a feast, food unifies everyone present physically.
The ceremonial act of giving thanks unifies all present spiritually, illustrated by the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. The Haudenosaunee, who are our close Indigenous neighbors in New York State and Canada, use this beautiful litany to salute each part of the natural world and the Creator of all.
“We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth,” the Address starts, “for she gives us all that we need for life. … It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.”
Though the Haudenosaunee address the Earth and all its beings, the main effect is on the speakers, enacted in the concluding line of each stanza: “Now our minds are one.”
Nicholas Black Elk, a famous Lakota holy man, extends gratitude further in the prayer he recited annually on Thanksgiving found in Holy Man of the Oglala. We don’t only thank all living beings, we join with them to offer thanks.
“The nations of living things the world over — and we the two-leggeds, along with the children and smaller ones with them — come to you today,” on Thanksgiving, Black Elk prayed, “to express thanks.”
Becoming part of a chorus of gratitude is a beautiful idea to sit with and grow into. Yet there is an even more challenging final step: in Indigenous traditions there is the idea that the land itself gives thanks. That human beings can live in such respectful reciprocity that the land enjoys the gifts unique to human beings and gives thanks for us. To me, this is most clearly seen in many Aboriginal traditions of Australia, where the land yearns for human song.
Giving thanks, then, is a great circular motion: gratitude for the beings and gifts of the earth, gratitude with the beings of the earth, and gratitude from the beings of the earth, continually circulating yet focused and magnified at a ceremonial feast.
This Thanksgiving, like all Thanksgivings, America will be set in motion. The whole country responds to the homing signal to unite with relatives and friends. Many of us return to where we were born, the very land calling us back to where we emerged.
It calls us to complete the circle and connect anew with all our relatives of the land. Add local foods to the feast. Say part or all of the Thanksgiving Address and Black Elk’s Thanksgiving Prayer. Find a way to honor our Indigenous neighbors, who helped birth this holiday. Start a practice to thank the land and the other beings that call it home.
And maybe the land will find it easier to be thankful for us.
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