Sun Bear loved feast days, and, through him and my time with the Bear Tribe, I learned to love them too. 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 that lived through the depression, he appreciated the wonder of a good feast. Growing up in the 1950s in a one bedroom apartment in Newark, N. J., I was used to having food at Thanksgiving. Food and fights. Not the fun food fights I see in the media today, but the family fights that were never much fun.
That combination made me easily agree with the many Native people who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving today. They feel it was a day that sealed their oppression by the first illegal immigrants. I felt that it was a day that could bring unpleasant personal experiences. But Sun Bear didn’t accept either of these attitudes in our Thanksgivings in the 1970s on Vision Mountain. After years of celebrating with him and up to fifty guests who joined us, my attitude changed. Just in case you’ve ever experienced a day of food and fights, let me tell you how my thoughts on Thanksgiving became positive.
In the Bear Tribe, 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, and these helped me appreciate the holidays. First, 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.
Second, 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. Smudging might remind you of the incensing that happens in some churches, and these ceremonies are similar and have the same purpose.
Now I know many of you are not going to feel comfortable introducing this ceremony to some relatives, but maybe you can do a form of it before people come. Scent does affect people. If you are uncomfortable with smoldering herbs, 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.
Third, participants would join their energies together allowing human energy to flow with the energy of the universe, always giving and receiving. We did this 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. Next, an elder would make the first prayer of thanks to all our relations, making sure to mention all of the kingdoms: mineral, plant, animal, human and spirit. Going in a clock wise direction (again to honor the energy flow) we would then ask each person present to give thanks and blessings for something good that had happened to them since the last ceremony. Because some people were capable of mentioning a lot of good things, often in a beautiful, flowery way, we would ask people not to repeat blessings others had given. We didn’t want the blessings to go so long that the food got cold! This also made people dig deep to find things for which to be grateful, especially those who spoke last.
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 wisdom and of new vision. We always made sure to have plenty of food so that everyone could eat their fill.
After we ate, we would gather to tell stories or play games, honoring the importance of enjoyable 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. I learned how important real, positive human contact was. That is what builds family and community. I learned people could come together to celebrate each other and life, without fights, without negativity.
Feel free to borrow any parts of what we did to help you celebrate your own day of Thanksgiving. It is my wish it will feel so good to give thanks to all your relations, to make positive contact with family and friends that you will make it part of your daily life. Then, like I have, you can realize every day is a good day for giving thanks.