Part II: Longing, Reconciliation, and Thanksgiving
A continuation of an exploration of Thanksgiving and possibilities of reconciliation. Please read Part I first!
What do we long for?
Humans long for harmony. To the extent that ‘reconciliation’ also entails justice, we long for reconciliation. The desire for the Beloved Community dwells in our hearts. We have a hunger that propels us towards one another despite our (inherited) traumas and false narratives of domination and competition.
To gather around food and give thanks is surely amongst the oldest acts of humanity. It is part of deep religious traditions, from Shabbat and the Passover Dinner to Communion and the Islamic Iftar; from indigenous harvest festivals all over the world.
To eat together is to participate in our shared life. To eat together is at the heart of the Christian sacraments: Jesus said, “eat this bread, for this is my body; drink this wine, for this is my blood.” Partaking in communion is feasting upon the embodied love of the Divine.
The greatest reconciliation, in many faith traditions, is with God. In the Christian tradition, reconciliation with the Divine is experienced in part through reconciliation with other peoples and with our planet. We gather together in Churches and fields to commune, to “re-concile” ourselves with the Divine Presence that is all around us at all times. We act out what we desire to be our lived experience. It is through our acting it out that we can become it. That is one of the powers of ritual.
When we are in a space of reconciliation, with other humans, with Earth and/or with God, we are in a place of deep gratitude. The writings of mystics and the experiences of millennia of human spiritual encounters point to the nearly overwhelming gratitude that accompany experiences of deep communion.
Gratitude and Reconciliation are closely intertwined. But they are not the same thing. It is probably impossible to experience reconciliation without gratitude; but it seems possible to experience gratitude without reconciliation. Gratitude can lead us to reconciliation. But we need to be careful, even wise, in how we approach this process.
But to let the enactment be purely focused on the past risks denying what’s happening in the present. In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s not just a denial of the immensely unsettling history that is harmful, but the practice of expressing gratitude for a reconciliation that did not happen. Without acknowledging reality and engaging in actions to bring that reconciliation into being, this ritual effectively serves as a spiritual bypass.
I wonder: what if Sally Hale had reached out to her Wampanoag sisters, and sat with them, to find a different story? She lived much of her life in Boston, not far from the Wampanoag Reservation on Martha’s Vineyard or the long-standing Wampanoag Churches on Cape Cod, which had, in her father’s lifetime, been known for their fiercely traditional Christian services (even as they strove to maintain sovereignty and had no interest in U.S. citizenship). She easily could have had a conversation. Certainly other white women, such as Matilda Josyln Gage, who was just a generation younger than Hale, were in close conversations with Native women; such conversations enabled, inspired, and (behind the scenes) supported the suffrage movement.
Hale quite likely didn’t do so because of her own prejudices and the dictate of the social norms of her times. She was a fierce advocate for the end of slavery, though she was not a suffragette. I don’t know how she saw her Indigenous neighbors or if she wanted the harmonious part of that tale to be true. I can easily imagine that she was not able to inwardly reconcile her desire for a “real thanksgiving” between Indigenous and settlers to be true with what she saw as the white/Christian superiority of “her people.” Did her gratitude extend beyond their original tentative welcome and into their continued existence?
What might have happened had she stepped further outside of the container of what a “good white Christian/Protestant woman” did? Yet another moment when history might have shifted towards something more harmonious, when my ancestors seem to have missed an opportunity.
Her longings for unity were, in some ways, not big enough to include her neighbors; to believe that it was possible to form a country that included the very people who were here first, not necessarily as citizens (many indigenous peoples did not want U.S. citizenship), but certainly as people with immense dignity who deserved to be treated as equals, sovereign over their own destiny; even as teachers, neighbors, and collaborators.
Instead, she sought reconciliations, peace, and unity amongst her fellow “Americans.” Which, in her imagination, did not include Native peoples.
It is a story reeking with irony, given that the First Thanksgiving supposedly celebrates the original “Americans” welcoming the English.
Hale’s hope that Thanksgiving would become a unifying holiday bore much fruit. The Pilgrim/Indian/Thanksgiving story became instilled in greeting cards, plays, and eventually the Thanksgiving Pageant, in the 1890s. It played a key role in the process of acculturation and assimilation.
The country at the time was experiencing multiple waves of immigration. Older Americans were uneasy: what was America becoming? They turned to their colonial past for inspiration and to shape the new generation of immigrants. As Baker writes in Thanksgiving:The Biography of an American Holiday, “The Pilgrims, refugees from religious persecution in Europe, were perfect models for new immigrants…. Sober, hardworking, God-fearing.” Many immigrants could also see themselves in the Thanksgiving story, and the hardship the Pilgrims faced, and their hopes for a friendly welcome from the “Natives” of America.” Thanksgiving became institutionalized in the educational system as a form of inculturation and Americanization. By 1926, it had become a “suitable day for worshiping the memory of the Pilgrim fathers.”
Today, we can offer far more criticism of our “Pilgrim fathers” and their theology, which contained within it the blatant cultural superiority of the Doctrine of Discovery. We are far more able to recognize the many “isms:” racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism, amongst others, that they carried, and which subsequently became baked into our country’s DNA.
As these are my own ancestors, I have to say that though I admire their courage, tenacity, oratory skills, adaptability, entrepreneurship, and path-breaking spirit, I certainly don’t worship them. And I know and frequently publicly share how much their survival was dependent on other people whom, more often than not, they described as “savages.”
What if those of us descended from European settlers actively tell more truthful histories, and respond to the very real invitation of Indigenous peoples today to join in movements of healing and justice with land and with one another? How might we direct our settler longings in these directions toward truth and healing, and step back to see what gifts might be shared?
If we look at the history of Thanksgiving, we find that reconciliation is very much at the heart of the holiday itself. We also find that who is being reconciled has changed over time. Today, we have the possibility of moving closer to the reconciliation that America yearns for, even as she is terrified of it.
So long as this longing is projected into the past and enacted in the present (ie, around the Thanksgiving table), we are collectively immobilized to act on that longing to change the present, and thus to create the future we long for.
We believe that some kind of reconciliation, some kind of shalom, is possible, if those of us who are settlers learn to tell the truth and actively seek the way of repair. To do so would enable us to gather at the table — or perhaps not at a table at all; perhaps we might gather around a fire — and share the fruit of our collective labor together.
This is what Dr Martin Luther King Jr dreamed of: the beloved community, where all the children, black and white, could sit down at the table together.
It is a dream, a longing, that is possible with greater truthfulness about the harm that has happened, and a willingness on the part of those who have benefited from the harms to take responsibility and seek to make amends.
Those of us brought up in religious traditions know that undeserved grace bears fruit in work for justice. And in the circular way of the divine, work for justice sometimes is gifted with undeserved grace. Never forced or expected, tastes of real reconciliation may only come as a gift and as integrally intertwined with reparative action on the part of beneficiaries of harm.
There are so many ways we can, with the support of the Divine Spirit, grow towards repair. We hold out the possibility that there will come a time when the celebration of Thanksgiving is done in ways that honor both what Indigenous people have lost, their survival, and their flourishing.
A day may well be possible when the image of peace, kinship, and re/conciliation between settlers and Indians painted out of what some refer to as the imperial longing of the mid-eighteenth century can become a reality.
Such an occurrence is possible, and the work of repair is one of spiritual growth for those of European descent and all those who are grafting themselves into this country’s history. Including a better understanding of the contentious role that reconciliation and gratitude have played in this history of this uniquely American holiday.
What might happen if we once again leaned into the desire for reconciliation: towards a real reconciliation between settlers and Native peoples? What spiritual growth would be possible if we un-link our national gratitude with our histories of stolen land and the dismemberment of Native peoples from our collective histories, and started re-linking our holiday of gratitude with the opportunity to participate in collective healing?
3. The Time Has Come: Moving Towards a Different History, Infusing a Different Celebration
Since the Indian Religious Act of 1978, when Native people were (finally) permitted to practice their own religious/spiritual practices, Native movements have blossomed. So too have larger BIPOC and settler support of Indigenous voices, perspectives, and sovereignty.
In the last few years, statues of Columbus have been taken down from Washington State to North Carolina. President Biden became the first U.S. President to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has launched the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, looking into the traumatic histories of the Indian Boarding Schools. All of these are indicators that we are increasingly preparing ourselves to move towards what our ancestors were unable to do: to create the conditions of a ‘real’ Thanksgiving.
One of my teachers, Indigenous theologian Randy Woodley, writes about this possibility:
“Our elders knew that many of the “Christian” settlers did not act like the Jesus whom they claimed to represent. They also knew that in our histories we shared times of peace and friendship that reflected something better than unhappier times. Without ignoring the centuries of injustice, together, we should celebrate those times of friendship and build upon them. After all, isn’t the point of a myth to set a good narrative that can be built upon in the present? To me, this is the point of Thanksgiving. It is a time to share stories of both joy and pain and still be thankful for all life. Thanksgiving is a time for us all to share our mutual humanity. If we can use the Thanksgiving holiday as narrative for peace and friendship, then let’s build upon that part of the myth without ignoring the historical truth of the big picture.”
What kinds of steps might we need to take to help this myth evolve?
Taking Steps Towards Our Soul’s Desire
I want to offer some steps to help move us toward reconciliation around Thanksgiving. (These resonate with Cultural Survival’s 9 Ways to Decolonize Thanksgiving, which offers further excellent resources.)
First, let’s acknowledge that there are still many people who want the (false) story to be true. Who don’t want to deal with the ugly history. Who want the Indian character in the Pageant play to simply say, “Welcome, Europeans! Let’s celebrate your arrival with a feast! We can all be friends!” Who want to ignore the European’s genocidal killing of the Indians a few days later, in the wee hours of the morning.
To those who don’t want to deal with the truth, especially not on Thanksgiving, we say: you are on Native land. You are eating foods that have been cultivated by Native peoples for thousands of years. Your Thanksgiving meal is possible because of other people. Settlers owe an immense debt to Indigenous peoples. Extend your sense of gratitude to include them. Not as figures in the distant past, but as people alive today: with businesses, music, dance, legal systems, sovereignty, and power.
The Thanksgiving Pageant: Stop It.
Let us start with a big one: we need to stop the Thanksgiving Pageant.
The Thanksgiving Pageant in schools across the nation is unquestionably a continuation of practices that perpetuate racist, colonialist, puritanical and harmful attitudes towards Indigenous peoples. First, the pageant acts as if the Indians (like the Pilgrims) are a figure from the past, instead of existing with real lives in the present. When Native children — whether in the city or on the reservation are forced to watch and participate in these pageants, it enforces the overarching theme in contemporary American education that their existence is invalid. Second, the creation of, for example, the Indian headdress out of craft materials for the pageant acts as if the paper headdress is a children’s toy, instead of a sacred object imbued with generations cultural meaning that neither the child nor their educational system can understand. As Wieck beautifully shares in her collection of resources around undoing the racism around Thanksgiving in schools, dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians does not increase inclusivity while perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
A call to stop this harmful pageant is not a call to stop celebrating Thanksgiving. Gratitude, at the heart of the holiday, is a state of being we increasingly recognize as one of the most important, powerful, and healing states of beings we have. Enacting gratitude and peace through coming together across differences around food, family, faith, and yes, even football(!) is a powerful way of enabling peace to occur. Children’s pageants are also important. Harvest festivals, especially those that celebrate local, native foods, grown with care outside of the industrial food system, connecting people to land, are critical, ancient ways of holding communities together and reconnecting humans, foodways, waterways and land.
We suggest that to enable this holiday to develop away from its current perpetuation of a harmful meta-narrative that ends up disMembering Indigenous experiences towards something that both increases our gratitude and can lead towards right-relationship with indigenous peoples, we need to tease out the (misplaced) theme of reconciliation present in this experience. Including the theological relationship between reconciliation and gratitude.
Here are some further aspects that we can see.
We need to re-write and re-member different histories all year round. Part of what makes the Thanksgiving story as it is told now so very dangerous is that it is one of the only stories told about Native peoples in our collective narrative. Native history is dis-membered from history books, place-names, national and local monuments, maps, local and national museums.
Revitalize collective moments of prayer and sharing stories. It used to be common to integrate solemn prayers and moments of reflection into Thanksgiving. Let us revitalize that tradition, including opportunities to listen across different divisions, especially between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In some ways, this is what the sunrise Indigenous Peoples Thanksgiving on Alcatraz Island in California has come to do: mourn what has been lost; celebrate Indigenous history, honor thanksgiving festivals held on the land prior to colonization, give thanks for the survival and continual revitalization of indigenous cultures, and find ways for mutual support between and amongst our peoples. Afterwards, everyone focuses on their own family celebrations.
Keep listening to the stories of first contact as told by Native peoples, including but not only the Wampanoag people, who have created a rich collection of resources about the Mayflower, the first few decades of their engagement with Europeans, and Thanksgiving from their perspective. Research the stories being told by Native people in your region. Share positive stories of indigenous peoples today, such as the ones lifted up by Iluminative, which works to end the continued erasure and negative stereotypes of Native peoples.
Incorporate into your thanksgivings a land acknowledgement. Thanksgiving — and this history — is very much about land and food. What is the history of your particular place? If you don’t already know, you can find out more about whose land you are on here.
Tell stories about the foods on the table; start the process of decolonizing your Thanksgiving meal. Feasting is important. Local food, ‘organic’ food, connection to the land: this is all part of indigenous cultures. Chef Naphi Craig (White Mountain Apache and Navajo) has a fascinating suggestion: rename Thanksgiving as Indigenous Foods Day. This keeps the much-loved tradition of a national, federally recognized occasion to gather together and to eat with our families, and invites us to go much deeper into native foodways.
For many indigenous cultures today, recovering indigenous foodways becomes a powerful part of decolonizing their culture. Healthier ways for people and planet stems from decolonization, and that can start at (any) dinner table. As Chef Nephi Craig says, if we consider our food sacred, then we need to let our foods — corn and squash, tomatoes and turkey — tell their stories, which are deeply intertwined with colonization.
What part of the country are the foods from? How much can you source locally and organically — and what are the ecological mythologies of those foods? What stories have been told about them in the past? What Native peoples cultivated them? What stories do your ancestors tell about these foods — or other foods? This is one of the most obvious and important ways we can practice and enact our longing for a reconciliation with Earth and all of her peoples.
Play together. For many, football is a critical part of Thanksgiving. Competitive play has long been an antidote to war: from the Haudenosaunee game of lacrosse (“the little brother to war” is one translation) to the ancient games at Athens to the contemporary Olympics. Finding way to play together across the differences that matter helps to set the stage for greater healing.
What new Thanksgiving rituals can we create? Might we lean into religious traditions such as the Jewish Seder/Passover to incorporate stories of loss and mourning as well as stories of celebration into our Thanksgiving meal? In what ways can we lean into diverse traditions of communion?
Re-member different ecological family histories and origin stories from your own ancestry. What role did your ancestors play in these larger histories? What traditions and in what ways did your ancestors honor land and food and celebrate the harvest? What ecological family histories — stories about your ancestors’ relationships with land, waterways, foodways, fire, food, salt, sugar, and medicine and the people who taught them and shaped their relationships with land/waters might you want to learn about and share?
Engage with current ecological regeneration and Native sovereignty movements. There are so many options and so many pathways here! To name a few:
- Support the Anishinaabe struggle to protect their homelands from Line 3, an Enbridge-built tarsands pipeline that will devastate watersheds along its route, including wild rice growing areas. For more info, see: https://www.stopline3.org/
- Get engaged with the Apache Stronghold in their resistance to the land transfer of their sacred site, Oak Flat, from the National Forest Service to a copper mining company. See http://apache-stronghold.com/.
- Pray with the Winnemem Wintu on their annual Run4Salmon in Northern CA. They are praying and advocating to bring their salmon home to the McCloud River and resisting the raising of Shasta Dam.
Contribute a reparative offering to Indigenous groups working for justice. In the spirit of gratitude and also of reparative justice, those of us who have benefited from unjustly taken land and family inheritance can return some of the wealth. Here is a great starting place for contributions: Turtle Island Indigenous Peoples and Land Rematriation Projects.
Find ways to support Deb Haaland and the movement towards some form of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Honor a Day of Mourning. Even as we incorporate Indigenous histories more fully into the national narratives, providing greater space for interweavings, we will still most likely need to find a day of mourning. Mourning and thanksgiving can and often do go together. We can also collectively create a stand- day of mourning can be especially powerful and healing. For those who want to integrate a Day of Mourning into Thanksgiving, there are opportunities both online and in person at Plymouth.
Practice gratitude - all year round!
What might be possible as we do these things?
I have engaged with the actions above in the small context of my own life and have found that new things have emerged.
Last year was my first year having Thanksgiving with my then-girlfriend, now-partner, who is an Indigenous woman, and some of her family. This year, we are having (at least) four Thanksgivings (which has more to do with multiple family obligations and friends’ celebrations than an intention to have multiple thanksgivings). Our first one was the first week of November, when my mother was visiting us from the historical homeland of the Ohlone people (California East Bay Area) to where we currently live in the historical homeland of the Mohigan/Mahican and Mohawk peoples (Hudson Valley, New York).
Even as I was preparing the turkey, I could feel something would be different for us about this meal, the first one which included her family, my family, and some mutual friends, both settlers and Indigenous, all of whom have been working on Indigenous-related and ecologically-related issues for many years. I was right.
We had all the traditional foods. We had picked up a turkey the day before from a local farm, chatted with the farmer, and met some of the other birds, cows, and goats at the farm. We know the farmers who grow our sweet potatoes and our celery and our carrots — we buy from their farm store just down the road every week. I must admit that we overcooked the turkey, and my partner salvaged the gravy that I managed to almost completely ruin. We lit candles made from local beeswax and everyone shared blessings and thanksgivings. The conversation meandered, as these kinds of conversations so often do. As the evening went on, though, two critical “problems” were identified in our area and our communities, including the need for a link between a newly fledged indigenous non-profit to find a fiscal sponsor and the need for different conversations around land stewardship and indigenous knowledge of forest scapes. Within a few days, a fiscal sponsor was found and a new set of conversations had begun. Both emerged easily.
Something had, indeed, shifted.
When I think of really good Thanksgivings I’ve participated in, this most recent one is at the top of the list. Not because of the food, though my mom’s cranberry sauce was even better than I remembered. It wasn’t the biggest, nor was it filled with the most laughter. But the depth of the relationships and the sense of togetherness — the sense that we were doing something my ancestors might have occasionally done but was lost to the history books–was so powerful. The sense of viable collaborations with real potential was so strong. And I admit, I too doubt some of it. I’ve done this work long enough that the memory of the generations of broken promises sits heavy with me, and I don’t expect “good intentions” or written contracts to be sufficient. It’s going to take a lot of consistency to repair the trust that has been broken. But it is possible.
And that is something to be grateful for.
We invite people to join us to discuss these topics before Thanksgiving to brainstorm on what can you do differently this year and then again after Thanksgiving, a kind of “bone gnawing” conversation over left overs.
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