This is a Thanksgiving unlike any most of us have ever experienced. It has been a challenging year because of the pandemic, quarantines, economic problems, politics etc. While it might be hard for many of us to find reasons to give thanks, they do exist. Allow me to lead you to some of them by remembering Sun Bear and our Thanksgivings on Vision Mountain in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sun Bear loved feast days. He was born just before the stock market crash that caused the “Great Depression” of 1929. He grew up on the White Earth Reservation, which, like most reservations even today, had far more than the usual share of poverty and deprivation. His family had a garden and hunted and fished so they did better than a lot of others during this time. Still, like most who lived through the depression, he appreciated the wonder of a good feast.
While many Native people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, feeling it is a day that sealed their oppression by the first illegal immigrants; this wasn’t the case in the 1970s on Vision Mountain. We celebrated most holidays, with prayers, ceremony and feasting. Although the ceremonies varied depending upon the occasion, there were a couple of things we always did.
Ceremonies were times for generating positive energy, not for arguing or being depressed or contentious. To establish positive energy we would begin with a smudging ceremony which encourages people to let go of negativity and invite in good energies. Like many Native ceremonies, smudging is simple but profound. We would place a mixture of herbs in a large shell or pottery bowl. We usually used desert sage to get rid of the negative, and sweet grass, and cedar to attract the positive. The mixture is lit and then allowed to smolder. Someone fans the herbs so they continue their slow burn. Each person draws the smoke to their heart, over their head and down the front and back of their body focusing on letting the herbs help them get over bad thoughts and feelings and draw in good ones.
Now I know many of you are not going to feel comfortable smudging but maybe you can use one of the following to help you feel positive. Scent does affect people. Spray your house with essential oils or air scents or holiday candles or oils. But do so with the intention of having the scent cleanse out the bad and let in the good. Diffusers are quite popular today and a good combination of essential oils to bring calmness and harmony is lavender and peppermint which are readily available even in the supermarket.
We would begin the feast by asking people to join hands, left palm up, and right palm down. You receive on your left side and you give through your right. Joining in this way allows human energy to flow with the energy of the universe, always giving and receiving, always expanding and contracting. An elder would make the first prayer of thanks, making sure to mention all of the kingdoms: mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit. On a ceremonial feast day we would never make prayers of supplication but rather prayers of thanksgiving for all the blessings that we had received from all the kingdoms upon the Earth Mother. This makes sure we thank all of our relations.
We would always thank all of the plant and animal beings who gave their lives so ours could continue. On Thanksgiving, special thanks went to the turkey we had raised, and to the wide array of autumn vegetables we had grown in our summer gardens.
The first plate of food we made was a spirit plate. It contained some of everything in the feast and it was placed outside so those in spirit could join in the feast. Next we would honor the elders by making sure they were first to be fed. Then we would honor the children by feeding them. Thus we acknowledged life and the importance of both wisdom and new vision. If you are with people of different ages you could consider honoring them in this way.
After we ate, we would gather to tell stories or play games, honoring the importance of fellowship. This was before everyone had smart phones, tablets, televisions and computers. In fact, we only had one tiny black and white television. But if this technology had existed, it would have been “put to sleep” for the prayers, feast and stories. Real human contact was important to us. That is what builds family and community. I intend to digitally connect with all the people who usually share Thanksgiving with us, and some other dear ones.
Feel free to borrow any parts of what we did to help you celebrate your own day of Thanksgiving whether you are alone, or with people “in your bubble”. Remember to reach out with a phone call or Zoom visit to people who cannot join you this year, particularly those you know are alone. It is my wish it will feel so good to give thanks to all your relations, to make safe positive contact – either digitally or in person -- with family and friends that you will make it part of your daily life. Every day is a good day for giving thanks.