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Odd Wisconsin Archive

American Indian Thanksgivings

This week, elementary school classrooms across the nation are decorated with paper cutouts of turkeys and autumn leaves. In some places kids still dress up as ersatz Pilgrims and Indians to re-enact a fictional feast about which few details survive (we gave all the slender evidence for the first Thanksgiving in this previous entry).

Thanksgiving nevertheless became the universal celebration of our nation's birth, as if the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620 had been the first Americans. The mythologizers conveniently overlooked the permanent Spanish settlements that began at St. Augustine in 1565 and New Mexico in 1598, the English themselves at Jamestown in 1607, and the French at Quebec in 1608 – not to mention the previous 10,000 years of human history in North America.

American Indians of many different nations celebrated their gratitude to the creator of the universe through their own thanksgiving cermonies. Each spring, for example, the first harvest of crops or game was an occasion for giving thanks: "They are very particular in performing their religious rites by feasts, sacrifices, &c.," wrote Prairie du Chien pioneer James Lockwood (1793-1857) of the eastern Sioux who came downriver to trade. "The first fruits gathered are set apart for the purpose of a spiritual or holy feast; the first corn or wild rice of the season, the first duck or goose killed when they appear in the spring, are all reserved for the feast."

Across the state, Elizabeth Therese Baird (1810-1890), who grew up among the Ottawa and Ojibwe, described the same practice among completely different Indian nations. She recalled that "In early Spring, as soon as the waters will float the light canoe, all the different bands assemble at a certain spot in view of the coming planting time to call upon the Great Spirit, Ki-chi-Man-i tou, to look down upon them to see, learn, and pity their wants... The first fruits of the season must be offered to the Great Spirit. A man who will eat or use in any manner the first fish he catches in the spring need expect no good luok through the year; so with the first deer or any other game, and so too with the corn; first of each must serve as an offering to Ki-chi-Man-i-tou."

In the summer of 1834 Rev. Cutting Marsh traveled among the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie) Indians. They had left Wisconsin for Illinois in the 1780s and after the Black Hawk War had been forced at gunpoint into Iowa. Rev. Marsh noted that they always held "a feast of thanksgiving when the corn becomes fit for roasting. So scrupulous are they in respect to it that a child will not touch either corn or beans although he may be hungry until after the feast is held." Rev. Marsh was invited to participate as a guest at this important ceremony but dismissed it as a pagan superstition.

It would appear that gratitude, the desire to give thanks for one's blessings, is a universal emotion -- just not, perhaps, as common as fear, greed, and lust. As the days grow short and the nights turn cold, be thankful for whatever you can, and throw a feast or two for everyone who can come. It's a tradition that goes back far beyond Plymouth Rock.

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 23, 2010

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