Willow Wonderings

Rethinking Thanksgiving

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Each Thanksgiving, I give gratitude for the earthworms.

Think about it: none of your food, or your body, could exist without vital decomposers such as these slimy creatures. They eat all the dead material of the earth and transform it to nutrients for another generation to be born anew. Earthworms are nature’s original recycling masters – continuing the cycle of life through their humble existence.

I recognize, however, that most Americans do not focus their celebration of Thanksgiving on earthworms.

As a child, I saw Thanksgiving as a ritual of remembering my ancestor’s settlement in North America and their peaceful joining with the Indians. I enjoyed the opportunity to gather with my extended family, to make turkey-themed arts and crafts, and to play football with my cousins late into the afternoon. Thanksgiving has always been – and always will be – one of my favorite holidays.

Since leaving the U.S., however, I realized my view of Thanksgiving had been sincerely limited as a child. When I left the country to celebrate in Canada, I realized that I had never considered the other side of the story: what about the Native Americans who, according to mythological legend, sat at the first Thanksgiving table in 1621?


Image from the Library of Congress

The more time that I spent around impoverished Native American communities in New Mexico this summer, the more I realized that “peace and sharing between Pilgrims and Indians” is a mythological fantasy. The turkey commercials of white families gathered around the table capture a distinctly privileged imagination of the holiday; from many Native American’s perspectives, eating with the white pilgrims connotes conflict, a loss of land, and a cultural genocide. Today, food insecurity and health crises fall upon Native American reservations with disproportionate significance.

As Native American Tim Giago writes in the Huffington Post about Thanksgiving, “There are few Native Americans who believe this day meant that peace and harmony had become a reality between the Indians and the Pilgrims. Most Natives know that this was just the beginning of an onslaught that would reduce the number of Indians from more than one million to about 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th century.”

What can I do, then, as a white American celebrating Thanksgiving? I cannot simply volunteer at a food bank this one day of the year to ease away the guilt of privilege. I also cannot ignore the importance of the holiday to my family and my culture. I feel like an outsider caught between worlds of blissful childhood ignorance and real world conflict. There seems to be no simple solution to easing this tension.

I am learning, therefore, to reimagine how, and why, I celebrate Thanksgiving. First, I realized that I owe my celebration of the holiday in part to American Indian culture; as Giago writes, “The idea of a day of Thanksgiving has been a part of the Native American landscape for centuries.” From this perspective, giving thanks is an ancient ritual that connects me to the human family as I gather around a table with friends once a year.

Now, I see Thanksgiving as a powerful and important opportunity to return gratitude for the harvest, to join hands with the cosmic life cycle, and to ceremonially begin the winter season. From the perspective of nature-based spirituality, Thanksgiving is not just about consumption and football – it is a return of thanks for the blessing of Life in all its sacred formations.

“There are two ways to live: You can live as if nothing is a miracle, or you can live as if everything is a miracle.” – Albert Einstein

Image Source

My challenge on this Thanksgiving, then, is to honor its true and sacred meaning by giving thanks to God and the Earth for all the gifts of existence. I am grateful for the earth worms, and the falling snow, the ability of my body to breathe and produce tears and digest food. I am grateful for all the children being born and all the bodies that are returning back to the Earth. I am grateful for phone calls to my family, stories, fires, sage rituals, and the hospitality of the Vilen-Kwochka family. I am grateful for education, for community, and for the lives of my ancestors.

Though my American cultural heritage of Thanksgiving may be confusing and conflicting, I am celebrating today to reawaken and reinvision my imagination of the holiday. As I share in a meal with friends today, I hope that I will remember that my life is ephemeral, and I owe everything to my Creator and my ancestors. I hope to embody gratitude by nourishing my body and applying my gifts to feed others. I will eat in remembrance of the lost histories of native peoples across the world, and I will remember God’s favor for the poor as who hunger for a just order. I will take heed to Jesus’ words, as he says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Today, I give thanks for the vitality of the human imagination and our hunger for justice. I give thanks that I share in the history of America so that I may be part of a movement for social transformation.  I give thanks for holidays like Thanksgiving that humble us and reconnect us to nature’s cycles, to each other, and to the earthworms.

For the resilience and strength of the Earth and her peoples, for the power of gratitude, and the infinite blessings of life, I give thanks.

PS: Check out my friend Erickson’s new album from New Mexico that inspired this post!

A poem by Joy Harjo, Native American poet

For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars (For we remember the story and must tell it again so we may all live) 

Beneath a sky blurred with mist and wind,
I am amazed as I watch the violet
heads of crocuses erupt from the stiff earth
after dying for a season,
as I have watched my own dark head
appear each morning after entering
the next world to come back to this one,
It is the way in the natural world to understand the place
the ghost dancers named
after the heart breaking destruction.
Anna Mae,
everything and nothing changes.
You are the shimmering young woman
who found her voice,
when you were warned to be silent, or have your body cut away
from you like an elegant weed.
You are the one whose spirit is present in the dappled stars.
(They prance and lope like colored horses who stay with us
through the streets of these steely cities. And I have seen them
nuzzling the frozen bodies of tattered drunks
on the corner.)
This morning when the last star is dimming
and the busses grind toward
the middle of the city, I know it is ten years since they buried you
the second time in Lakota, a language that could
free you.
I heard about it in Oklahoma, or New Mexico,
how the wind howled and pulled everything down
in righteous anger.
(It was the women who told me) and we understood wordlessly
the ripe meaning of your murder.
As I understand ten years later after the slow changing
of the seasons
that we have just begun to touch
the dazzling whirlwind of our anger,
we have just begun to perceive the amazed world the ghost dancers
crazily, beautifully.


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