OPINION | A Native American view on Thanksgiving: It’s a verb


For the many Native nations that lived in ancient times throughout the Great Lakes region of the now United States Thanksgiving was a verb, not a noun. It was not a holiday. It was an action that brought families and communities together in thanks for continued life in an environment that embraced with rich abundance and at the same time killed under the fierce domination of nature.

Native people understood in the most lucid fashion imaginable that the straight line from food source to their mouths involved a close and enduring relationship with nature. This started with respect for what the Creator made. It went on to delineate every known type of living thing and the dust of ancestors in the cosmos, from rock to river to everything that gave up its life to become dinner. Thanks of that magnitude took time, and indeed even today many tribal thanksgiving prayers are recitations of quite some length, requiring memories honed over decades so that the words come out just right. No edited or translated liturgy could ever be so precise. Today many tribes repeat the same words spoken hundred of years ago in that reliable cadence that comes from memorizing every word, exactly.

Having this kind of thanksgiving connected not only the living with the dead; it acknowledged the permanence of the relationship all humans have with nature. This is a connection beyond cognition or the desire for favoritism from the Cosmos. It acknowledges that the Creator is not the repairman. The Creator does not make personal dreams come true. The Creator presides over the accomplished fact of the known Cosmos while over and over, acknowledgment of how connected we all are, we rocks, we trees, we people is recounted to comfort the old and teach the young. The entire Great Lakes area attracted Native people with its food, shelter, and relative peace. For thousands of years it was the known world.

Even so, somehow life got complicated. The benefits of wealth and leisure and spare time spread wealth all over the landscape of the world. It has become harder, it can be said without exaggeration, that it is more complicated to give thanks because Europeans made all their wealth and placed it on top of nature’s fine perfection.

It has seemingly become justified and easier to set aside one special day called Thanksgiving and place an abundance of food on the table. But then the Creator could say with some justification, “they must mean someone else” upon hearing thanks for hormones-added turkey, enriched wheat products, corn on super genes, string beans raised on pesticides, and cranberries processed into jelly in cans.

Why would already well-fed people gorge themselves to the point of pain? Back in the distant past for all humans, a feast meant a break from minimum calorie intake. It was a chance to get a jump on the next spate of starvation. What’s more, for Native people, fasting – the deliberate act of starvation – is a prized and sought after practice to teach the importance of vision and unity with the cosmos, because to throw at nature the one thing you can, your own vulnerable and precious body, means full commitment to this life and all it offers.

So it doesn’t seem to mean much today to go from pretty full all the time to really, really full and uncomfortable on the one day set aside for that purpose.

Of course, there are those who spend the day serving Thanksgiving dinner to the poor. And there are those who give donations for Thanksgiving dinner for the poor. And there are still others who fast on Thanksgiving Day as a token of moderation and sacrifice. This is all good. Who would say it isn’t?

Few would contemplate giving up a home and job to live out in the woods because that is the natural way of human life.  Native people today who fast do just that, but only for limited periods of time. Eventually there must be a return to Western life. No one can escape what we have done to our world, the natural world. So, no going back.

But we are still equipped with the same set of senses and abilities that we had at the dawn of our existence as humans – some 200,000 years ago. That equipment was honed to help us get around in the natural world. The ears that enable us to hear Rap or Rachmaninoff were meant to process information that either helped us to live or avoid sudden death. Back then we needed ears to help us find and consume food. Back then we needed eyes to see the horizon or among the trees in the forest. We did not need them to read. Progress has made us dependent while we are built for a world that is no longer relevant to our continued existence.

For Native people, these paradoxes are not only worth discussing, they are part of how well to judge how far out to the edge to go and still be called Native. Yet, Native people are drawn like the ancestors before to celebrate abundance and to acknowledge the need for vision and self-deprivation.  Some old echoes still rattle the bones. There is a lesson in that for all of us.