American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Thanksgiving Holiday, Origins

Title: First Thanksgiving
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Ceremonies of thanksgiving for the bounty of nature are a common element in many Native American cultures. Feasts of gratitude and giving thanks have been a part of these cultures for several thousand years. In Lakota culture, a feast of thanksgiving is called a Wopila; in Navajo, it's Hozhoni; in Cherokee, it's Selu i-tse-i; and in Ho Chunk (Winnebago), it's Wicawas warocu sto waroc. Thanksgiving in many cases is a yearlong event, celebrated, for example, after the safe birth of a baby, a safe journey, or the construction of a new home.

Native peoples introduced their thanksgiving celebrations to English colonists near Plymouth Rock in 1621. A fall thanksgiving holiday, usually accompanied by feasting on traditional Native American foods (turkey, corn, yams, squashes, cranberry sauce, etc.) has been widely practiced since about 1800 by most non-Native people in the United States and Canada. President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation led directly to Thanksgiving being declared a national holiday in the United States. Canada declared an official Thanksgiving holiday in 1879, which is celebrated six weeks before its counterpart in the United States.

Thanksgiving is part of an annual cycle. Many Native American peoples celebrate a number of seasonal thanksgivings each year, of which general American culture has adopted only one. At each season, thanks are given for nature's provision of an economic base, whether it is corn, buffalo, or salmon. According to José Barreiro, editor of Native Americas, "The Thanksgiving tradition requires that human beings place themselves in a humble position relative to the natural, plant, and animal elements and to consider, in one mind, the contributions of these other species to our well-being and survival . . . Among the Iroquois and other traditionalists, the 'wish to be appreciated' is the fundamental shared perception—the first principle—of existence (Barreiro, 1992, 28).

Mohawk Nation Council Subchief Tom Porter offered a traditional thanksgiving prayer, "Words before all else," that is used for all of the Iroquois' nine thanksgiving celebrations:

[Before] our great-great grandfathers were first born and given the breath of life, our Creator at that time said the Earth will be your mother. And the Creator said to the deer, and the animals and the birds, the Earth will be your mother, too. And I have instructed the earth to give food and nourishment and medicine and quenching of thirst to all life. . . . We, the people, humbly thank you today, mother earth.

Our Creator spoke to the rivers and our creator made the rivers not just as water, but he made the rivers a living entity . . . You must have a reverence and great respect for your mother the earth. . . . You must each day say "thank you" [for] every gift that contributes to your life. If you follow this pattern, it will be like a circle with no end. Your life will be as everlasting as your children will carry on your flesh, your blood, and your heartbeat (Grinde and Johansen, 1995, 34–35).

A tribute to the Creator and a reverence for the natural world are reflected in many Native greetings throughout the North American continent. More than 2,500 miles from the homeland of the Mohawks, the Lummis of the Pacific Northwest Coast begin public meetings this way: "To the Creator, Great Spirit, Holy Father: may the words that we share here today give the people and [generations] to come the understanding of the sacredness of all life and creation" (Grinde and Johansen, 1995, 34–35).

The domesticated fowl that would come to be called turkey in English was first eaten by Native Americans in the Valley of Mexico; the Aztecs introduced it to invading Spaniards. By the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock in 1620, turkey had been bred in Spain and exported to England for almost a century. The passengers of the Mayflower had some turkeys on board their ship, so when they prepared for the first Thanksgiving, the English immigrants were familiar with the wild turkeys that were hunted by Native peoples in eastern North America. Wild American turkeys seemed larger and better tasting to many colonists than their European-bred brethren. They were also easy to hunt. Thomas Morton said that a hunter in early seventeenth-century New England could shoot one turkey while others nearby looked on, "The one being killed, the other sit fast everthelesse . . ." (Cronon, 1983, 23). By the late twentieth century, wild turkeys were scarce in much of New England.

Native Americans gathered the seeds of corn when it was a wild grass, and selected yields for the most productive, hardiest varieties. By the time European immigrants made landfall in North America, corn was more productive per acre than any cereal crop in the Old World. Corn, along with squashes, beans, fish, venison (deer meat), and various "fowls" (probably turkeys, ducks, and geese) were consumed during the first Anglo-American Thanksgiving. The abundance was welcomed by the Pilgrims, who had arrived in the New World with English seeds, most of which did not sprout in American soil. They nearly starved during their first winter. William Bradford, governor of the small colony, wrote in his diary that Squanto, who was able to teach the immigrants in their own language how to survive, was "a special instrument sent of God for [our] good" (Case, 2002).

Examples of Foods Native to the Americas 

Cassava (tapioca)
Chewing gum (Chicle)
Chocolate (Cacao)
Corn products, such as hominy, corn starch, and corn meal
Green and yellow beans
Maple sugar and syrup
Mint and mint flavorings
Peanuts and peanut products
Green and red peppers
Potatoes and potato products
Sassafras tea
Squashes, including pumpkins, watermelon, yams, and cantaloupe
Sunflower seeds
Wild rice

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Barreiro, José. 1992. "The Search for Lessons." In Indigenous Economics: Toward a Natural World Order. Edited by José Barreiro. Akwe:kon Journal 9, no. 2 (Summer): 18–39.; Case, Nancy Humphrey. 2002. "Gifts from the Indians: Native Americans Not Only Provided New Kinds of Food and Recreation; They May Have Given the Founding Fathers Ideas on How to Form a Government." The Christian Science Monitor. November. Available at: 002/CO_11302002_Gifts.htm. Accessed January 9, 2007.; Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1995. Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.; Indigenous Economics: Toward a Natural World Order. Akwe:kon Journal 9:2(Summer, 1992): 18–39.

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