Honoring the wisdom of Native Americans on Thanksgiving

Before I understood the real history behind the American tradition of Thanksgiving, I used to just innocently enjoy the chance to gather with family and friends to share a delicious meal.

I believed the story taught to me in grade school, about how the Pilgrims and their Native hosts sat down to a feast together, and lived happily ever after.

Such innocence, once lost, is impossible to recapture.

Now I know that the same Pilgrims who gave thanks for their delivery from starvation by the generous Native people of the region that would come to be known as New England would be the ones to turn on their benefactors and do their utmost to exterminate them.

My own ancestors were still fighting their own battles back in Europe at this time, but as an American, this is a shameful legacy that I need to confront and acknowledge.

As I wrote in my Thanksgiving post last year, the holiday of Thanksgiving should really be more of a day of atonement than a celebration of abundance, especially as we begin to realize that the abundance of food and natural resources that Americans have enjoyed over the past 500 years is not endless.

As we hit up against the limits to growth predicted years ago by Donella Meadows and others, we must recognize that the Native peoples who were so unceremoniously shoved aside during the Conquest of the Americas had so much more to offer Europeans than corn, squash, beans and turkey.

Indigenous worldviews, the world over, privilege balance over growth and accumulation, and this is the wisdom we need to pay attention to now.

Some argue that such a conservative position would not support the kind of technological innovation in which Europeans have excelled.

But I would ask whether our technological innovations have succeeded in making us happy as a culture, or as individuals within our culture?

Isn’t it true that the vast majority of our technological inventions have been used to foment and practice ever-more violent warfare?

Even our vaunted advances in medicine are primarily used, these days, to try to heal us from the sicknesses and imbalances our own technological inventions have afflicted upon us, by the poisoning of our food, air, water and earth with toxic chemicals and the byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

This image, from the PBS series “American Experience,” depicts members of the Wampanoag tribe meeting a white settler.

Before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and started their inexorable push west, the indigenous people living here were happy, healthy, strong and long-lived.  They enjoyed the abundant food stocks of the ocean, rivers and forests, and lived in harmony with the land.

Yes, there were territorial skirmishes, but there were also strong intertribal councils and confederations, in many cases led by matriarchs who valued peace and did not want to lose their sons and grandsons to needless warfare.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the Native peoples of this continent are still with us, despite all the brutality visited upon them by the European conquerors.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that all Americans begin to honor indigenous people as they deserve to be honored, by giving credence to the Native value of harmony with the Earth, and actually trying to live it.

Honoring Native Americans on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the U.S. is about gathering together with friends and family and giving thanks for being able to stuff oneself with a huge meal.

It’s one of the most important holidays of the American capitalist religion, second only to “Christmas.”

Its founding myth is the fateful meal shared by the indigenous peoples of Massachusetts with the starving English Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims “gave thanks” at that meal for the generosity of their hosts, and thus was born the tradition of a November Thanksgiving feast.

To my way of thinking, Thanksgiving should actually be a day of atonement marked by fasting, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, Lent or Ramadan.

We Euramericans should be reflecting and repenting on this day for the way our ancestors turned on their Native hosts, once the time of starvation was past.

We repaid their kind welcome with a shameful record of stealing, swindling, enslavement, displacement and deliberate infection.

We waged vicious war that slaughtered children and old people along with warriors both male and female.

We occupied their lands without a second thought, and proceeded to cut the primeval forests to make room for our livestock, roads and cities.

This pattern started with the Puritan Pilgrims in Massachusetts, and spread inexorably West, all the way to California and Texas, where indeed the brutal work had already been begun by the Spanish.

I don’t really expect Americans to give up the tradition of the jolly Thanksgiving feast.

But we do need to be mindful of the real historical background behind the custom of gathering to celebrate with family and friends.

American Thanksgiving is a holiday that honors the spirit of sharing the bounty.  When we dig into that heaped plate today, we should be giving thanks to the rich Earth that has nourished human beings for millennia, and for the Native peoples of this continent, who learned how to live in harmony with the flora and fauna of this place, cultivating the first corn, beans and squash, and craftily culling the abundant indigenous turkeys.

And we should pause in our feast to reflect on the ignoble history that unfolded after that original Thanksgiving in Plymouth MA, where America repaid her hosts not with honor, but with persecution, scorn and hate.

In the act of repentance springs redemption.  The indigenous people of this continent are not gone–they are alive and well and living among us.  Let us raise a glass to them today and give them the honor and thanks they deserve.

Wamponoag leader Massasoit

Honoring Native Americans instead of Columbus

I’d like to suggest that instead of honoring Christopher Columbus on this day in October, we make this a national holiday in honor of the indigenous peoples of North America.

It is shameful that we have no national day of recognition for the native tribes who were here to welcome the first European explorers.  Perhaps this is no innocent oversight; if there was a day of recognition, we’d have to confront the ugly truth of what those Europeans did to the Native Americans–from smallpox to displacement, massacres and enslavement.

Still, that bloodstained history lurks beneath the surface of national holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.  It would be better to look squarely at the truth and do something to atone for it–at minimum, honoring the native ancestors of this land, and their contemporary descendants, who continue to struggle and resist the tsunami of Euramerican industrial civilization.  

For an idea of what that struggle looks like today, check out the Honor the Earth website.  Honor the Earth works “to address the two primary needs of the Native environmental movement: the need to break the geographic and political isolation of Native communities and the need to increase financial resources for organizing and change.”  It was founded in 1993 by native rights and environmental activist Winona LaDuke and the Indigo Girls.

In honoring the Native peoples of the United States instead of the European explorer who accelerated the invasion of their territories and the assault upon their cultures, we would be honoring the amazing resilience and wisdom of these ancient tribes, who have withstood the onslaught of European culture with incredible strength, courage and dignity.

We contemporary Americans are standing at a turning point in history where we may be able to get away from the destructive mode of domination represented by Columbus and a host of European explorers after him.

Changing Columbus Day to Native American Day (or perhaps selecting one significant representative Native person from history–I would not presume to suggest a single figure, but there are many to choose from) would be a good start at not only atoning for the bloody history of European-Native encounters, but also moving more harmoniously into the future.


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