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 that time. Still, like most who lived through the depression, he appreciated the wonders 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 because they feel it is a day that commemorates the sealing of their oppression by the first illegal immigrants. In addition to agreeing with them, I felt it was also 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 the up to fifty guests who joined us, my attitude toward Thanksgiving changed.
In the Bear Tribe we celebrated most holidays with prayers, ceremony and feasting. Although the ceremonies varied depending upon the occasion, there were some things we always did, which helped me learn to appreciate holidays. I’m going to share with you here ones I think could be useful in many circumstances to give Thanksgiving a deeper meaning.
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 – elemental, plant, animal, human and spirit - upon the Earth Mother.
Second, ceremonies were times for generating positive energy, not for arguing or being depressed or contentious. How we established positive energy was to begin with a smudging ceremony which encourages people to let go of negativity and invite in good energies. I will explain what we did and then give you some alternatives that you could use in contemporary situations. 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 your 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. 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.
Third, participants would join their energies together allowing human energy to flow with the energy of the universe. We did this by asking people to join hands, left palm up, and right palm down because you receive through your left side and you give through your right. If your Thanksgiving group would be comfortable joining hands, this is a lovely thing to do. If they would not be, just skip this step.
Fourth, an elder would make the first prayer of thanks to all our relations upon the earth. 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 are 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.
Fifth 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. It also would feed the animals who lived on the mountain with us.
Sixth, we would honor the elders by making sure they were the 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. We always made sure to have plenty of food so that everyone could eat their fill.
Seventh, after we ate, we would gather to tell stories or play games, honoring the importance of enjoyable fellowship. This was before everyone had smartphones, 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. Through this 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.