Understanding Thanksgiving: history and prayer

In this Thanksgiving season, when notions of family well-being are called for, we give thanks to Creation for all good fortune. Particularly in these tough times, when so many are suffering the effects of hate and arrogance, all good things are appreciated.

Throughout the United States of America, the Thanksgiving season is the annually reinforcing time to share good food and a sense of well-being. It is also always a good time to remember the history that brought us to this moment. The story of Squanto is worth recalling, what it signaled both for American Indian peoples and for the first Pilgrims who settled on Indian lands.

The tale has a certain familiarity throughout the Americas. European explorers scout the coasts, seeking information on local conditions, looking to establish trade. Upon leaving to re-cross the ocean, they kidnap Native people and leave behind an invisible foe, the smallpox plague, which from 1615 to 1617, wiped out several Native towns along the New England coast. Among those taken in the early voyages was a Native man named Squanto, who was shipped to Spain and England and was away from his people, somehow missing the horrendous plague during his ordeal as a hostage.

In an incredible example of a human being returning to his original lands, Squanto, befriended by an English captain, manages to make the voyage home to his town of Pawtuxet, later renamed Plymouth. But he finds Pawtuxet empty; all of his people dead from smallpox.

Having experienced kidnapping by one Englishman and yet befriended and freed by another, Squanto himself decides to befriend the first Pilgrims. Thus he ushers them into the still-standing homes of his dead relatives and sets about to teach them to plant corn, to hunt game and to fish. Within days of arrival, at his urging, Pawtuxet’s new residents, the Pilgrims, join an already existing Native confederacy. Thus Squanto arranges for them a measure of security from war.

Early kidnapping, mass death by smallpox and yet the good-heartedness to teach newcomers how to survive off of the land and even how to “confederate” with other jurisdictions, marks the first settled contact in the history of the United States. It is the origin of the idea that something of value transferred to the Pilgrim settlers, and that a “thanksgiving” of some sort is proper.

This is an area still deserving of intense historical research, and there is in the work of scholars such as Bruce Johansen, John Mohawk and Donald Grinde, a substantial road map for understanding what actually took place at Plymouth and elsewhere from that time forward. As we all know, over the following centuries the young American colonies went on to form themselves into the world’s most powerful union.

Not a little of what has made the United States of America great comes from its formative consciousness rooted in the Indian’s lands and peoples, in its indigenous geography. From the time of Squanto’s meeting with the Pilgrims to the many encounters with Iroquois and other eastern confederacies, the new settlers, prominently including the founding grandfather Benjamin Franklin, learned to live and act and think in the American way. Truly, Uncle Sam’s often reluctant but most helpful guides in that quest have been American Indian peoples.

Unavoidably, America grew strong and unique from its contact and formative inter-penetration by Indian intellect, practice, identity and example. The concept of unity of states and other sovereignties under a confederated or federated structure, the idea of privacy and individual freedom to develop and grow, the instinct and right to roam the land freely ? these are all elements of American life that bear influence from a Native perspective.

The United States is a vast and powerful institution that encompasses many communities, races, ethnic groups and, indeed, nations of people. It is a dynamic bastion of diverse peoples and competing ideas. In its totality, however, it moves with tremendous weight and force. Sometimes its existence and trajectory have great positive impacts on the world. Other times, it has plowed over peoples and places.

More than most, American Indians have known how destructive the thrust of U.S. society can be to their interests. They know too that the machinery of the U.S. government can be intensely violent as well, when it chooses to be. Overrun by policy and force, once, twice and many more times, U.S. tribes have managed to survive and even, in some cases, to substantially recover from the shock of immense losses.

The Indian nations are self-governing peoples and societies, aware that their histories extend much deeper on this land than those of the states and the federal government with which they must contend. Working always for the greatest possible independence, Native nations are yet mindful of the intricate historical, contemporary and future common destiny they share with the new nation-state called America. They are at once threatened and protected by it; enlivened and dejected by it; wary, always, of the bad that too often obscures the good.

This Thanksgiving season we give thanks most of all for the common space that defines us all as fellow human beings. At the core, we all need the same things: strong, healthy families, guidance and development in youth, productivity as adults, respect and security as elders. We all benefit from good relations with our neighbors, fair treatment from government, the opportunity to give our children a good chance at decent lives, with freedom from violence and access to the innocent happiness and opportunity to hope that is their inherent right.

It is a matter of history that the events of the early 1600s described above were followed by intense migration from England and elsewhere. Wars of extermination came next, based, in part, on a religious and racial intolerance the likes of which had never been seen in this hemisphere. Massacres and or removals of tribal communities would characterize the history of the eastern region over the next two centuries. Another two centuries beyond that would witness the onward westward dispossession of American Indians, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Survival of the tribes carried little guarantee and, certainly, striving to polish the covenant of honorable government to government relationships has never been easy.

Finally, if the history of this most American holiday is easily missed these days, so too is the meaning of the genuine Indian thanksgiving, which goes well beyond history. Lost in all the pageantry and dinner trappings of the celebration is the prayer concept of Native peoples that places the human being in the context of natural life and those elements and forces that sustain life. The expression of deep and sincere appreciation for the bounties of the natural world celebrates as well its interrelationship with human beings. This is found in the well-documented Thanksgiving Address of the Iroquois and in the ceremonial teachings and cycles of most every Native people in the Western Hemisphere.

It is perhaps the greatest treasure of American Indian life; the deepest of truths, one that requires constant remembrance among the land’s Indigenous peoples, and one that has yet to be fully appreciated by the newcomers.


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Understanding Thanksgiving: history and prayer

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