Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

American Indian Thanksgivings

Evidence of First Feasts

American Indian Thanksgivings | Wisconsin Historical Society

American Indians of many different nations celebrated their gratitude to the creator of the universe through their own Thanksgiving ceremonies. 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."

The Great Spirit

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 luck 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."

A Feast of Thanksgiving

In the summer of 1834 Rev. Cutting Marsh traveled among the Sauk and Fox Indians. They had left Wisconsin for Illinois in the 1780s and after the Black Hawk War had been forced at gunpoint into Iowa. 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.

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 an American Indian tradition that goes back far beyond Plymouth Rock.

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