THANKSGIVING DAY: It’s Roots, and other Commentary
[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 hopefully “give thanks.”
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 or so 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 recorded evidence that wild turkey or wild cranberries were part of the menu. And we tell and re-tell this particular American story as if it is all about food!
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. The “competition” was more likely the men on each side doing their shows of bravado with weapons and physical feats before sitting down to eat.
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?
Not widely known is that this “first thanksgiving” feast had mostly political overtones, which seem to have largely backfired. Tisquantum (“Squanto”) was 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, because his own group had been so reduced from disease. Massasoit would permit the European newcomers to stay as long as they liked, as long as they aligned with Massasoit against the Narraganset. (Read all about it in your history books). Tisquantum spoke English because he’d been to England and back, and had his own plan to re-establish his home-town village near what became the Plimouth colony.
Though Tisquantum successfully helped Massasoit broker a pact with the newcomers from across the ocean, Tisquantum died about a year later. The truce that Massasoit hoped to cement lasted perhaps another 50 years until there were too many Europeans flooding into Massachusetts and all of what was to become the eastern United States.
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 blessings.
But we should not confuse “giving thanks” with “eating a lot of really good food.” “Giving Thanks” is an enlightened 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 indigenous peoples 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.
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).