Published November 23, 2017
Editor’s Note: This guest commentary was originally published by Native News Online on Thanksgiving 2015. The relevancy of this commentary continues as Thanksgiving is celebrated today.
As Native people, we are all aware of the true story of Thanksgiving. We know that the quaint stories of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a friendly meal are nothing more than a whitewashed version of history that has been designed to hide the horrific truth that marked this country’s ignoble beginnings.
The first “official” Day of Thanksgiving was held in 1637, when Governor John Winthrop called for a day of thanks following the massacre of more than 700 men, women and children from the Pequot Tribe. This massacre took place in Mystic, Connecticut, during the tribe’s Green Corn Festival. While tribal members slept, men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony crept into their camp. After tribal members had laid down their weapons, the colonists killed the men, burned the women and children in their dwellings and sold the rest into slavery. When they returned, Governor Winthrop called for an official day of Thanksgiving to celebrate their success. This event marks the beginning of a holocaust that lasted for centuries on this land, leading to the slaughter of millions of Indigenous peoples. This factual history contains countless acts of genocide that have continued into the modern day. This is why Indigenous people, and many of our friends and allies, recognize this day as a National Day of Mourning. This day of mourning is not just for the tragic events of the past, it is also for the ongoing suffering that our people continue to endure.
While death rates for infants and children have plummeted for the mainstream population, mortality rates for Native infants and children have increased by up to 15 percent. Suicide rates among Native youth are 3-4 times higher than the rest of the population. According to Amnesty International, Native women are ten times more likely to be subject to violent sexual crimes than any other population group. The removal rate for Indian children from their homes is statistically higher than any other group. We have been and are still being subjected to environmental genocide, as a result of toxic waste being placed on the outskirts of our lands and into our waterways. And, our lands are still being taken, and our way of life is still being threatened.
Despite all of this, we are still here and we still have a lot to be thankful for, including the continuity of our cultural and traditional way of life; the way of life that our ancestors died trying to protect. We can honor them by living that way of life and keeping its truths alive. In Wabanaki territory, we call that way of life skijinawe bamousawakon, which literally means Native tools for living. This way of life is in harmony with the natural world and the Creator’s natural law. It is maintained through our oral history, our songs, our traditional practices and our ceremonies.
The ceremony that is associated with this time of year, the Green Corn Ceremony, is a harvest festival that honors the renewal of life provided by the abundance that comes from the land. This is a women’s ceremony that honors the nurturing and replenishing aspects of Mother Earth, which are reflected in the women, as they nurture and replenish the life of the Tribe. All of our ceremonies are reflective of our ongoing relationship with creation. When we engage our traditional way of life we are affirming that relationship and our original agreement with the Creator, to live in harmony with all life.
Today, there are many people that have awakened to the truth of our history and the value of the way of life that our ancestors died to preserve. They realize that mankind has gone astray, and lost their connection to the sacredness of creation. People from all corners of the world are beginning to realize that we must return to a state of reverence. We must restore the sacredness within ourselves, within our families, within our communities and within our Nations. We must respect, follow, and uphold the Creator’s natural Law as a foundation for all of our decision-making.
People are also beginning to realize that we, the Indigenous Peoples of this land, have the tools to help them find their way back to this sacred way of being. These tools are held in our way of life; skijinawebamousawakon. It is this way of life that provides a pathway that will lead us all into the future.
I heard a story recently where a participant in a repatriation ceremony was given a message by the ancestor that was being returned. He told her: “we dreamed you into the future.” Our ancestors lived, died and dreamed for us. They imagined us into being. They held our image in sacred space until we were able to walk into that space on our own, as flesh and blood.
We now hold the right and the responsibility to dream our future generations into being. When we are able to connect with the truth that lives at the heart of our way of life and put that truth into action we are imagining ourselves forward. We are transporting ancient truths out of our collective past and birthing them forward into the future. What we create out of those ancient truths is an extension of who we are, and of all those who have come before us. And, it is a life line for all those who will follow.
As you sit down to share a meal with your family today, remember to tell the stories of your history, sing the songs of your people, and breathe life into your images of the future. On this day of grief and gratitude, don’t forget that you are the dream of the ancestors come to life, and that you are now responsible for dreaming future generations into being. Bring forward the dreams that live within you. Dream those dreams for yourself, and hold them in sacred space for all those who will follow.
N’Dilnabamuk – For all my relations.
Sherri Mitchell (Wena’ Gamu’ Gwasit) was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney, writer and teacher. She’s been an adviser to the American Indian Institute’s Healing the Future Program and the Spiritual Elders and Medicine Peoples Council of North and South America. Sherri speaks around the world on issues related to Indigenous rights, nonviolence, and the traditional Indigenous way of life. Sherri is the Director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization committed to protecting Indigenous Rights and the Indigenous Way of Life.