In First Nations traditions, we are expected to give thanks daily, remembering always to be grateful for our lives. One of my Kanien’gehagaa friends says the Creator gave us all we need. From his perspective we are never to ask for more. If there is an unequal distribution of resources resulting in hunger or cold, we are responsible and must address the problem. That is not the job of the Creator.
When we conduct healing ceremonies we ask the Creator and the Spirits to take pity on us, and to bring healing. We ask for a return to balance within our bodies and communities. Thanksgiving Day is in need of such healing.
For many First Nations people it is both a day of gathering with family and friends to celebrate the harvest, and a national day of mourning. The mourning arises from more than 300 years of genocide against First Nations people. Early on, the Pilgrims, refugees from religious persecution in England, and the First Nations of the region that is now Southeastern Massachusetts, got along reasonably well. In fact, the Indians took pity on the Pilgrims who were not prepared for the harsh winters of the region, and helped them survive. Thanksgiving Day commemorates the generosity and compassion of those First Nations people.
Unfortunately, need turned to greed as the population of Pilgrims, and other European settlers, increased. Greed soon turned to genocide. There had been many acts of genocide, including ethnic cleansing via biological warfare, in other areas along the Eastern Seaboard prior to the Pilgrims’ forgetting the great debt they owned Indigenous people. Yet, the forgetting and subsequent brutality of the Pilgrims stands out as particularly painful for First Nations people in the Northeast.
Thanksgiving as a national holiday remains a time of denial and forgetting for many Americans. Last Sunday we attended two Thanksgiving services, one at the local Unitarian Universalist church, and the other, an interfaith community service, at the synagogue. Both services acknowledged First Nations people without giving us our space to speak our own prayers. In neither service was the plight of Indigenous people in the Americas given context. We were angered and saddened by this.
Forgetting is not limited to those who came to this continent and displaced First Nations people. Forgetting erases history within Australia and Hawaii, indeed, from many countries around the world. Sometimes, as is the case in Canada and Australia, governments have acknowledged the traumas of the past, asked for forgiveness, and quickly returned to genocidal business as usual. Often, this determined forgetting, greed, and suffering appear endless.
I am reminded of the words of the Pesach (Passover) Seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer is that at Pesach we acknowledge the bondage of Israel and the journey of the Jewish people to freedom. Might we also ask, “What makes this Thanksgiving Day special?” Might we remember the servitude, bondage, and genocide that filled the lives of First Nations people following contact with colonial powers all over the world? Might we join together, as we do at Pesach, in calling for an end to slavery and genocide everywhere?
At Pesach we are called to remember. We recall that Israel was once in bondage and that other people remain so. We are asked to remember that slavery has many forms, and that all are evil. We are invited to see the ways we, too, remain slaves. On this Thanksgiving Day might we notice that many Americans are forced to work rather than be with their friends and families? Might we see the links between our unceasing hunger for things and suffering elsewhere?
Perhaps we might, as individuals and a culture, remember the true origins of Thanksgiving, and its terrible aftermath. We might look around and notice the racism, poverty, rape, and illness that still haunt First Nations people on Many reserves, and in urban centers. We may also acknowledge the ongoing theft of Indian land and sacred sites for “resource extraction”.
It is an old axiom in healing traditions, including Western Psychology, that what is forgotten arises to unsettle us, often creating great misery. May this Thanksgiving Day begin a new tradition, one of welcoming the discomfort of remembering in the service of healing. May we consciously integrate conduct ceremonies of remembrance, gratitude, reparation, and healing into our Thanksgiving rituals. For soon, says much prophecy, it may be too late.