[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California,” “Enter the Forest” and other books. He leads courses in the native uses of plants. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance..com]
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year. Even moreso than Christmas. It is our uniquely American holiday where the family gathers, where we remember our roots, we share a meal, and we give thanks. I like it when the ridiculous Halloween images disappear in local stores, and we start to see traditional Thanksgiving images of Indians, turkeys, and pilgrims with black powder guns.
But look how quickly such simple and profound holidays get perverted. Today, we hardly know what “giving thanks” even means, and so the act of giving thanks is lost on most of us. Newscasters talk about “turkey day,” as if all there was to the day was eating turkey.
Interestingly, most folks would not know whether or not they were eating turkey, or eating crow, and most of the time we’re doing the latter, figuratively speaking. Then, when we have barely taken the time to consider the notion of “giving thanks,” we get up early on the following “black Friday” to rush around with the mobs “looking for a good deal” to help us celebrate the consumer-driven commercial craze into which we’ve morphed “Christmas.”
Wow! How did we get here? What can we do about it? Let’s take a moment to look at the roots of Thanksgiving.
In the history of North America, we are told that the first historic Thanksgiving Day was in October of 1621. After a successful harvest that year at the Plymouth colony, there was about a week of celebrations. The local Indians and the colonists joined together, with the Indians generally showing the colonists (mostly city folks) how to hunt for the meal which consisted of fowl, deer, duck, goose, and fish. Corn bread, wild greens, plums, leeks, and many other vegetables (wild and domestic) were shared in this celebration. Interestingly, there is no evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries (totally unpalatable without cooking and adding sweeteners) were part of the menu.
In fact, some (but not all) historians question whether or not there were any religious overtones at all on this “first Thanksgiving,” citing such evidence as the archery and firearms games, and the running and jumping competitions, which they say would never be done at religious ceremonies by the Puritans.
What then is it, if anything, that sets the American (and the Canadian) Thanksgiving celebration apart from any of the other myriad of Harvest Festivals?
The pilgrims experienced a severe drought in the summer. That season, they were totally dependent on wild game and wild plants, and owed their survival largely to the English-speaking Indian “Squanto” (Tisquantum). In their lack, they refocussed upon their real purpose for coming to this new land. They sought to establish a time to give thanks for their spiritual bounty, in spite of the fact that they had no material bounty that year.
Not widely known is that this thanksgiving feast had political overtones, which seem to have largely backfired. Tisquantum was actually the interpreter for Massasoit, who was the political-military leader of the local Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit was worried that his weakened tribe would be taken-advantage of by the stronger Narragansett. Massasoit would permit the European newcomers to stay as long as they liked, as long as they aligned with Massasoit against the Narraganset. (There was a short-lived peace, and you can read all about it in your history books).
Despite the varied history of this day, Americans have chosen to see this as day set aside so that we do not lose sight of our spiritual heritage, which is the real bounty.
Both Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are the times that Americans have traditionally set aside to reflect upon the concepts of “freedom” and “giving thanks.” The purpose of such special times of reflection is to see how well we have done during the past year, and determine what corrections we should make if we find that we are veering away from our chosen path. It should not be a time of merely “having fun.”
As long as we confuse “giving thanks” with “eating a lot of really good food,” the practical effect is that Thanksgiving today is little more than a Harvest Festival. “Giving Thanks” is a particular attitude which accompanies specific actions. Perhaps sharing our bounty with the needy would be a better Thanksgiving activity than eating large volumes of food. More to the point, perhaps we should use Thanksgiving to give thanks where it is due -- to the American Indians who have become the “forgotten minorities.” Rather than “eat a lot,” perhaps we could send blankets, food, or money to any of the American Indian families or nations who today live in Third World conditions.
To me, the essence of Thanksgiving was the coming together of two cultures, trying to work together under trying circumstances. Yes, they shared a meal. Food sustains us. But it was not about food, per se. They practiced with their bows and guns, a sign of mutual preparedness. And in their own ways, they “prayed to God,” in the ways that were appropriate to each culture.
By the way, much has been said about the term “Indian,” supposedly because Columbus thought he was in India when in fact he never got beyond the Carribean islands. But not everyone agrees with that linguistic conclusion. For one, India was not called “India” in the late 1400s. Some have suggested that it was the phrase “en Dios” (with God) that Columbus used to describe how the native, who lived simply and were perceived to be “close to God,” was the actual root of the term “Indians.” It is still debated.
But we really should not forget our national roots. Don’t just give lip-service thanks to the Native Americans whose land was taken. Rather, find those organizations that are actually providing real assistance to Native Americans in poverty, such as many of those living in the third world conditions so prevalent on today’s reservations. (IF you have trouble locating such organizations, contact me and I will make some suggestions).