A recent article about Thanksgiving from the Native American perspective, written by a Native American Presbyterian pastor, challenged me to investigate that topic on this 400th anniversary of the Plymouth Rock celebration.
My friends Balde Galván and Lilian Casper provided their families’ experiences.
Galvan says his family gives thanks before they plant their gardens, as well as when they harvest the produce. They use digging sticks, as their ancestors have done for generations. And their Thanksgiving meal may include duck, geese and venison, as well as turkey.
“We teach our kids to be respectful for Native Americans, especially for their philosophy of not being wasteful,” he says.
Casper knows Native Americans on the East Coast who refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving, because of the way they have been treated since Europeans first came to this country. However, her family views the day as a time to be thankful for everything, especially family.
Their Thanksgiving feast includes several native dishes: wojapi (a syrup made of chokecherries or other berries and honey) for dipping their fry bread, Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash, traditionally planted and served together), rabbit stew, venison and sometimes buffalo stew.
In lieu of a regular blessing, her family puts small portions of every dish on a plate which they place in a tree—an offering to the Creator which the birds or squirrels enjoy.
The National Museum of the American Indian provides this information for teachers:
“Native traditions have developed over thousands of years and are distinct and complex. They are also specific to each individual tribe.
“Projects and crafts that attempt to adapt or copy Native traditions tend to perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans. For example, we discourage adopting ‘Native’ costumes into your classroom. Instead, incorporate Native knowledge into your lesson plans with the provided resources... [https://americanindian.si.edu/]
“We encourage you to celebrate the vibrancy of Native cultures through Native American art, literature and foods while you celebrate Thanksgiving.”
Dennis Zotigh of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan, a writer for the NMAI, remembers bringing brown paper sacks to class to decorate and wear as Indian costumes, along with headbands with Indian designs and a feather.
“Looking back, I now know this was wrong,” he writes, pointing out that such costumes bore no resemblance to the Wampanoag clothing of that time, but were just an educator’s interpretation of what an American Indian is supposed to look like.
Tisquantum (Squanto) was a Patuxet, part of the Wampanoag Confederacy who lived in the Massachusetts area. Kidnapped around 1614, he was taken to Spain and purchased by monks who helped him get to England.
There he worked for a shipbuilder and learned English before joining an exploring party and returning to his homeland in 1619. Sadly, he found that his family and the rest of his tribe had been exterminated by a European plague.
When the “Pilgrims” (they were not given that name until much later) arrived in 1620, they built their first settlement on the ruins of Squanto’s village. Half of the colonists died that first winter.
The next spring, Squanto taught them to hunt, fish and plant corn and gourds. He also served as an interpreter between them and other Wampanoags in the area.
What we refer to as the “First Thanksgiving” was not the first for the Native Americans, who already had an autumn fest, in addition to considering each day to be one of thanksgiving.
In the fall of 1621, William Bradford invited the Massasoit of the Wampanoag Federation to join the settlers for a thanksgiving feast. Ninety warriors came, bringing venison, lobster, wild fowls, clams, oysters, eel, corn, squash and maple syrup. The celebration lasted three days.
Squanto died in 1622. In 1637 some 400 to 700 Native Americans in the area were attacked by the colonists. Most of the men were killed, and the women and children were enslaved and sent to the West Indies to work on plantations.
The United American Indians of New England now meet at Plymouth Rock for a Day of Mourning, rather than Thanksgiving.
The article’s author gets together with his family and friends for a large meal on Thanksgiving Day, but they don’t call it that. He thinks it is ironic that many more Americans think of the day after the feast as “Black Friday,” rather than as Native American Heritage Day.
He summarizes the views of Native Americans throughout the country about Thanksgiving:
A Connecticut correspondent points out the present-day celebration is actually the 19th century creation by Sarah Josepha Hale to bring the U.S. together after the Civil War. The writer believes that the real history of colonization should be made clear;
In Oklahoma some families come together for powwows and family dances;
Another correspondent writes, “Maybe we celebrate, after all that has happened to our Native people, that we are still here!”
A New Mexico teacher says that some of her six- and seven-year-olds tell her they are not going to celebrate Thanksgiving because it is a “Day of Death”;
A writer from Washington State thinks the early settlers got the idea for Thanksgiving after observing their Native American neighbors celebrating the Green Corn Ceremony, “where we give thanks to the Creator for our many blessings.”
The final words of an often-repeated Native American Thanksgiving prayer are:
“Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth.
“For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.”
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!