What does the national Thanksgiving holiday mean for Native American peoples?

November 21, 2012

With the images of the historic and powerful Acts of Repentance with Indigenous People observed at General Conference 2012 and the Central Texas Annual Conference meeting in Waco this June still fresh in many minds, here is an essay from a Native American pastor in the United Methodist connection on what the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving means to many of our Native American brothers and sisters.
 
by Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin*^
 
As I stand upon the Earth, I know that I am part of a Circle.
As I drink water from a cup, I know that I am part of a Circle.
As I harvest from a garden, I know that I am part of a Circle.
As I gather from a berry bush, I know that I am part of a Circle.
As I hunt and look into the eyes of the deer, I know that I am part of ?a Circle.
With each breath I take, with each day I live, I know I am part of a Circle.
My family gathers around a table and shares the foods and the stories.
Laughter and tears mingle to remind us that we are all part of a Circle.
That Circle is the Earth. That Circle is the People. That Circle is Life.
 
The Rev. Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett shared with us the tradition of the Great Thanksgiving as it is practiced by the Iroquois People in his book, Giving Our Hearts Away, the text for United Methodist Women’s 2008-2009 mission study on Native American Survival. Mr. Fassett describes the lengthy prayer listing everything in creation for which the people give thanks. United Methodist Women members who participated in that study will recall the daily ritual of giving thanks for the most basic things in creation, the things that give us life.
 
In the Gospel of John, we read of Christ’s role in the creation of these things: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (verse 1:3). This is a stunning declaration about Jesus. New Testament writers echo the theme: “For in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible. All things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
 
Our attitude toward creation ought be shaped by this realization and by the revelation that the salvific power of Christ goes beyond our individual salvation to the complete purpose of Christ, and that he reconciles all things to God, “whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). Nothing that the Creator God has made is forgotten in the plan of redemption.
 
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Romans 8:22-23).
 
So even as our families gather around our tables to give thanks on a national holiday known as Thanksgiving, we are acutely aware of the brokenness of the sacred circle of life. Not everyone has enough to eat on this day. Not everyone has a loving family with which to share it.
 
And the story of “the first Thanksgiving” as it has usually been told is far from the truth.
 
Images of pilgrims and American Indians enjoying a meal together may bring feelings of pride to some, but for Native Americans, such images are a painful reminder that peaceful relationships rarely existed between European immigrants and the First Peoples of America.
 
What really happened at Plymouth Rock?
When the pilgrims arrived in 1620, they were poor and hungry. Miles Standish led a party to search for food, and discovering a cache of seed corn stored by Indians, he brought it back to the Mayflower. The native people were not strangers to Europeans; among them was Squanto, who had been captured as a slave in 1614, taken to Europe, and miraculously returned home again. It was with compassion mixed with great caution that the native people assisted these new arrivals, providing food, teaching planting techniques and signing a treaty granting the pilgrims the right to the land at Plymouth.
 
Massasoit, the powerful Wampanoag leader, formed this treaty but not without mention of the theft of the seed corn and the capacity of the colonists to violate native people. The images we see of pilgrims dining with Indians are reminiscent of that treaty signing. But within 20 years European disease and treachery had decimated the Wampanoag people, and by 1623 the elder Mather, a Pilgrim leader, gave thanks to God for destroying the “heathen savages” to make way “for a better growth.” 
 
When was the first Thanksgiving?
There seems to have been many thanksgiving ceremonies at various settlements. William B. Newell, a Penobscot Indian and former chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, says that the first official Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 to commemorate the massacre of 700 men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance.
 
The Indians were ordered from the building and were shot down as they came out; those remaining in the building were burned alive. The very next day the governor declared a thanksgiving day. For the next 100 years, every thanksgiving day ordained by a governor was in honor of this bloody “victory.”
 
Later, U.S. President George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration, marking Nov. 26, 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” Certainly a better sentiment, but the earlier images of settlers’ thankfulness remain in Indian peoples’ memories.