At some point during grammar school (attended at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth NH) I learned about the first Thanksgiving. I learned that pilgrims arrived starving in the very late fall. They were met with welcome, generosity and kindness. They were given a feast and help to survive the winter. I thought that was an admirable action.
Right after this lesson, I was taught that the second fall feast these pilgrims shared with the indigenous population went very differently. I learned that distrust arose between European settlers and indigenous people in the interim year. The settlers, whose habits were to lay claim, own and defend their “property” with violence were suspicious. Native people were confused and angry with the pilgrims’ behavior. There were scuffles and people died. Still, when the settlers invited them to a reciprocal feast, the indigenous people attended in hopes of working through disagreements. The indigenous people who attended were ambushed and killed. This was what I was taught—that Europeans took and were violent in the face of kindness. I was taught this in the military school system. I learned an honest version of European behavior and these lessons came at Thanksgiving time with the admonition that Thanksgiving ought to mean what indigenous people taught white Europeans to begin with—that generosity is a crucial principle to live by. I took away the idea that Thanksgiving is not a European concept, but an indigenous one. We Europeans used that kindness horribly once upon a time, but the sharing of feasts in gratitude and friendship cannot be tarnished by anyone’s wrongdoing. It is a quintessential human activity that keeps us seeing others as friends, neighbors and chosen family. It can be the difference between life and death. It was for the pilgrims and it is just as crucial a concept today in these times of ISIS and other human cruelty.
Many years later, in my forties, I met Uncle Ted Andrews, a Tuscarora sachem chief of the Turtle Clan. When I was introduced to this delightful man, he was one among nearly a hundred people I’d been met in a short few days, all of them amazing, bright spirits each. Overwhelmed, I smiled and said hello and listened to him joking with one of his oldest friends during lunch. Afterward, I got up and got busy helping put luncheon away and lost track of him until he spoke that night around the fire. When he spoke, his speech took on a lilting, poetic pattern and suddenly, I felt my heart and mind in direct, loving communion with his. He spoke slowly of various humble creatures of the earth and all they give to our lives each day, just by being exactly as they are, doing just what comes naturally. He thanked them with all his being for what they gave to his life. Then he taught that gratitude has power, the most perfect, most tremendous human power. Uncle Ted believed that this essential power is able to heal everything and everyone…perfectly. Here again, was another indigenous instruction about what Thanksgiving means. I cannot find words for how that changed me.
Excited about what he taught me, I spoke of it later. One of his students shared with me a tiny booklet called “The Thanksgiving Address.” It is a poetic and short written representative version of the Tuscarora ritual by that name in which all the creatures local to the homes of the Tuscarora tribe are thanked. I understand it takes six hours to complete this ritual, which Uncle Ted performed regularly for his people. That he spoke a small bit of the ritual there that day, with European people present, was a great gift. After listening to Uncle Ted, I am sure it is the most powerful ritual I could ever witness. I wish I’d had the chance to listen and see him perform the “Address” in full, but alas Uncle Ted passed away during the winter after I met him. Nevertheless, I carry what he shared in my heart.
Many people, even indigenous people, complain of the Thanksgiving holiday, saying that it is not right. I do not share their viewpoint. I think it is exactly what we need. It helps us to remember the principles of generosity, which is the substance of what indigenous people taught. We, the people of this planet, need to share a feast with others, and to take genuinely thankful actions. We need to embrace all that gratitude which Uncle Ted spoke so passionately about and spent his life in reverence to. The intimate experience of gratitude helps us to connect with the goodness in the world and in ourselves. In a world full of hatred, cruelty and fear, that’s what we need the most, I say. More than that, we need to remember the second fall feast of thanksgiving, because it teaches us of what not to do. That second shared feast, and all its betrayal and violence, would be forgotten if we neglected to hold Thanksgiving and that would indeed be a tragic betrayal of the indigenous people of North America. I intentionally remember and honor all this feast means. I especially try to remember the Tuscarora people, who teach of the healing, magical power of gratitude. It is the only holiday of the year that I find crucial to hold for many reasons, not the least of which is to honor Uncle Ted’s memory. Nyeah-weh Uncle…