Rethinking Thanksgiving

Psychologists have done extensive research about the stories that we tell. It seems that our memories are not completely accurate. Moreover, the more we tell a story about an event in our past, the farther from the actual facts of the event we stray. The stories we tell the most often are likely the least accurate in terms of the details. This iOS true not only of personal stories, but also our collective stories. It was not always this way. Our biblical tradition, for example, comes from a long history of oral tradition in a culture that was incredibly accurate as it passed stories from one generation to another. The process was on of collective storytelling. Stories were told over and over again by a group of people who checked each other for word for word accuracy in the telling. Studies of existing tribal people in the middle east have revealed cultures where accurate story telling has been well documented.

It may be that in general tribal societies have a better grasp on accuracy when it comes to telling stories than more individualistic cultures. This does not mean, however, that any group of people holds ultimate truth. Perspective and bias creep into all of our stories and we tell them from a particular point of view. I grew up in a place that was originally the land of the Crow people, who call themselves Apsáalooke. Their name has also been spelled Absaroka and Absarokee. Those of us who grew up speaking English as our primary language are reminded every time we pass by the highway sign for Crow Agency, which reads “Baaxuwuaashe” that we have trouble pronouncing the words of their language. Later in my life, when I lived for 25 years in the Black Hills, land sacred to the Lakota, that the two tribes tell different stories about each other and the time before European settlers arrived in the northern plains.

Now that we have made the move to the Pacific northwest, we have begun to learn more about the indigenous people of this country. Tribal names don’t yet roll off of the tips of our tongues. Tulalip, Stillaguamish, Swinomish, Samish, Skagit, Lummi, and Nooksack nations are all crammed into a small amount of space in this region. Their former lands are now occupied by settlers and retirees and tech workers who can work remotely. Some of the island people can no longer afford to live on their traditional islands, having been driven off by out of control real estate prices.

This week invites reflection on the stories we tell because we have long told stories of Thanksgiving, especially what we have called the “first Thanksgiving” that have strayed a long way from historical accuracy.

There was an even that happened in 1621 when the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe shared a harvest ceremony, but the way we tell the story probably has little similarity to the actual historical event. There is no evidence that turkey was on the menu and pie could not have been because there was no flour or butter available to make crust. The popular historical narrative of friendly Indians handing over food, knowledge and land to kindhearted Pilgrims is certainly not that way most indigenous people recall the story of the coming of Europeans to this continent.

There are plenty of indigenous people in the upper midwest whose version of the story includes the killing of tens of millions of buffalo that led to mass starvation and the nearly total genocide of plains tribes. We don’t tend to tell those stories when we sit down to our annual November feast.

This year as we struggle to find meaningful ways to tell our stories in the midst of a global pandemic, we have a fresh opportunity to look at the stories we tell, how we tell them, and how the stories of other people differ from our own. Many tribal nations have taken a particularly strong stance in efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in part because of the strong tribal memory of other diseases that ravaged indigenous people. Smallpox, measles, and other diseases were unknown to indigenous Americans before the advent of settlers form Europe. The settlers brought with them diseases that ravaged the locals. Some of the land that was taken by settlers was vacated by the deadly effects of rampant disease. This pandemic has already had a disproportionate impact on people of color in the United States, a reality that hit home personally last week as we received news of the death of our friend Matt Iron Hawk. Matt was a deeply patient teacher of Lakota ways, who invested a lot of effort in teaching us a few Lakota words. A native speaker, he was recognized as a wise elder among the people of the southwest corner of the Cheyenne River Reservation. Matt died of Covid-19 and his wife is very seriously ill. With Matt’s passing a great opportunity to learn the stories from a Lakota perspective has been lost.

Long before settlers arrived on this continent, indigenous people practiced ceremonies of giving thanks. With each animal killed for food, prayers of thanksgiving were offered. Traditions that emphasized giving rather than taking were deeply ingrained in indigenous cultures. There is much that we can and need to learn from our neighbors, but we can’t learn those lessons by taking. Pretending to be native, telling others’ stories as if they are our own, and other forms of cultural appropriation do not heal the wounds of the past. Rather we are called to be ourselves in our relationships with indigenous people, while we accept the honesty of their stories and seek to be more honest in the telling of our own.

It is a lot to think about as we prepare to celebrate the holiday with our family. Perhaps this year can be a year of telling our stories in a different way and of teaching our children and grandchildren of the importance of listening to the stories of others.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!