Updated: Mar 12
Which holidays and traditions we participate in as a family define the very fabric and identity of our family. They affect us spiritually, culturally and emotionally. Often humans do things simply because it is the way that family has always done them. But when we find within ourselves a desire to be molded like clay into the vessel that the Great Potter desires us to be, reflection and consideration of what is automatic is a beneficial pastime.
The purpose of this article is neither to encourage nor discourage the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is to provide you with information for you to make your own assessment. Social media is full of videos in November with native people decrying Thanksgiving, calling it "A Day of Mourning" or "Celebrating Genocide". It is unfortunate that the younger generations of indigenous people are being filled with hate-mongering narratives of early American history in order to revise and rewrite recorded history. Yet again, another example of how "modern thinking" is destroying the traditional custom of native people to see the beauty in all things, seeing the best in another human being, and to focus on what is good rather than what went wrong.
It is not that we forget, because we never will, but we do the history of our people a great disservice when choosing to cherry-pick what we remember because there is an inconvenient truth in the narrative. In the end, we will share our view since many folks ask us whether we, as a First Nations family, celebrate it or not. The questions we ask when evaluating whether or not our family will allow the practice or celebration of a holiday include the following:
1. What/where are the origins of the holiday?
2. Are there any pagan associations with its origin? (Is this a redecorated event birthed in the worship of a god other than The Creator?)
3. What is the original intent behind the holiday?
The Origins of Thanksgiving:
When examining a holiday to determine if our family should put our stamp of approval on it, we look at its foundation. Is its foundation build upon solid ground? Does it have any grounding in the Word? Does it conflict in any way with living a pure, set-apart life for The Creator? So, let's look at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday of American origin. If you research the topic, maybe you've ended up a little confused. There are what seem to be conflicting reports on the origins. Here are some of the three main pictures painted of Thanksgiving origins:
A. The welfare line for pilgrims. Some say it began when an Indigenous tribe fed a starving settlement of colonists. The Pilgrims, unaccustomed to living close to the land and dealing with crop failure, found themselves next to starvation.
B. The welfare line for Indians. Just for the record, this picture does not hold up under commonsense scrutiny.
C. Others say it dates back to a day when a “Thanksgiving Day” was first proclaimed by the Governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. He made an official proclamation to commemorate the massacre of 700 men, women and children that were celebrating Bvsketv, The annual Green Corn Festival kept by many eastern woodland tribes. Another tribe massacred in 1637 was the Pequot. Why is it that a very important detail of this horrific event is left out by native people? Like the Narragansett and Mohegans who were part of carrying out that massacre? That's right, Natives helped to massacre other Natives. The inconvenient truth hurts. (Mason)
If Thanksgiving is truly a day that began with the slaughter of Indigenous people, who would want to celebrate such an atrocity? But we believe the origins actually go much deeper and when examining the historical evidence you will find it did not begin with slaughter or a massacre of First Nations people. It began with a covenant of peace by sharing a meal between two nations of people who loved The Creator. In both historical accounts, we find the Pilgrims and later Puritans being involved in what many historians believe was the Bvsketv Harvest Festival and some scholars believe it was Succot.
Jamestown, VA was founded in 1607 and there was peace between the indigenous people and the new settlers. In 1620 Puritans set sail for a new life and after being blown off course they landed off the coast of present-day Massachusetts. They were helped by Samoset and Squanto who knew how to speak English and taught them how to survive in their new surroundings. Later in the year, the settlers encountered the Wampanoag people. While there is no record of the exact date of when the first gathering took place between the Wampanoag and the new immigrants, we do know that it happened in the year 1621 sometime between September and mid-November. These months coincide with Bvsketv, The Green Corn Festival which is the traditional harvest festival still celebrated by many east coast tribes. This same festival happens to coincide with the biblical Feast of Tabernacles.
“No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the Hebrew nation,” (Gabriel)
According to their own records, The Puritans were a group of Believers who were escaping persecution by the Church for their beliefs in not mixing pagan traditions and holidays with their faith according to the LORD's commandments in The Bible. They followed a strict observance of the Sabbath instead of adhering to Catholic doctrine. They even made a public proclamation banning Christmas deeming it" residual papist idolatry" and the selection of the date was merely the Catholic hijacking of a pagan Roman festival. They likened their persecution to that of the Jewish people in Egypt, viewed King James I of England as Pharaoh, and saw leaving England as an Exodus to a Promised Land. They were well versed in the Biblical Holidays. After the Puritans came the Pilgrims which many historians believe were celebrating the biblical festival of Succot. (Klein)
“The origin of the harvest festival in England by the time the Pilgrims decided to leave was rooted in the Biblical practice of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot),” ( Jehle)
The only historical record we have of this gathering between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims in 1621 is from a letter written by Edward Winslow, Governor of the Plymouth Colony. It is this letter that many scholars believe is the origin of the first Thanksgiving gathering.
“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” E.W. (Heath)
Massasoit (Ousemequin) was the sachem (leader) of the Pokanoket Wampanoag. Things went so well between the Wampanoag and the English settlers that he told Winslow he would return to plant corn to the south of the settlement. This hardly sounds like the reaction of a Chief whose people were massacred or mistreated.
The Indians in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in this historic encounter, and they had been essential to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year. The Wampanoag were a people ...for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life. (NMAI)
Bvsketv-The Green Corn Harvest Festival
Now that we have established the first settlers were not celebrating a pagan observance and were already celebrating Sukkot aka The Feast of Tabernacles lets examine the claim that the native people were celebrating a pagan celebration. I must note that there are many aspects of this ceremonial gathering that are closely guarded secrets. However, what I am sharing has become open knowledge for teaching others and not in violation of the elder's rules. One of the most common traditions found among native people is giving thanks. Every time a deer hunted, fish caught, crops harvested, a baby is born, or an elder dies thanks is given to The Creator. There is hardly an event in a native persons' life that doesn't merit giving thanks. Even when waking in the morning, facing the east, and praying as the sun rises it is thanks that is being given to The Creator for a new day and before going to sleep thanks is given for the events that took place during those waking hours.
When you rise in the morning give thanks, give thanks for the light, for life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself." Tecumseh-Shawnee War Chief
A few weeks ago we celebrated the Bvsketv with Muscogee Creek at their ceremonial grounds. It is a continuation of an ancient tradition of thanksgiving as the days of darkness (winter) approach. In almost every aspect of the Bvsketv, what seems to be Hebraic biblical traditions and customs can be found. The Bvsketv is normally held for seven days, arbors are built with thatched roofs and the grounds prepared for the last Stomp Dance of the winter. Each clan lives in one of the thatched roof homes for the duration of the ceremony.
Leviticus 23:42 "You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths." (NKJV)
The Square is considered sacred ground and you must be invited to enter in through the gate which is guarded by a gatekeeper. He ensures that you are of the right mind and spirit before entering. Traditionally, if you have been around a dead body there is a purification that must take place that takes seven days otherwise you are not allowed onto the grounds.
Numbers 19:11 "He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days." (NKJV)
The women are with the Clan Mothers preparing their prayers ribbons while the men begin to enter into the square. The Head Elder carries in a sacred bundle that is made up of four elements. In some tribes, this bundle is raised up and waved to the four directions. (the bundle has a specific name which I cannot share).
Leviticus 23:40 "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days." (NKJV)
Once the men are seated in their respective areas based on rank within the tribe, warriors and guests the Head Elder retells an old story, shares a teaching about the grounds, and sometimes speaks about prophecies of things yet to come.
The Yahola (Singer) calls the men to come out from under the arbors and begins to sing a calling song. The first song and dance is calling upon The Creator to bless and make the grounds holy. Depending on the tribe Creator's name is sung while dancing at least four times and in some cases twelve times. In every aspect of native culture, The Creator comes first in everything because we would have nothing if it wasn't for Him.
Psalm 69:30 "I will praise YHWH’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving."
Ye-Ho-WaH, the men cry out while stomp dancing counterclockwise around the sacred fire to a particular step and rhythm. This ancient dance is done around the fire whose logs are placed in the four directions as a reminder of when The Creator will call us all home. This fire is surrounded by a wheel within a wheel made from a specific type of wood which is found in the description of the construction of The Temple in The Bible.
Shortly thereafter the women arrive with shell shakers around their legs which provide the rhythm to the songs. There is a perfect balance between the men and women with the men singing and the women keeping the timing. Together the two sounds become one in a sacred dance of life, hope, and thanksgiving to The Creator for everything that He has provided over the past year.
Psalm 95:2 "Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song." (NIV)
The Stomp Dance songs and dance can go on for hours or long after the sun goes down. The seventh day is the last day of the celebration and after the ceremony is over a great feast is held followed by more singing, prayers, and rejoicing with everyone who attended. Venison chili, stews, stuffed pumpkin, squash soup, acorn bread, fire-roasted corn and plenty of desserts are served up with an abundance of leftovers. One particular traditional meal that is still made today is "SUCCOTash" which is a Naragganset recipe of corn and lima beans, sometimes with other ingredients added. One can't help but notice the word "Succot" in the name of this traditional native meal.
After reading this brief yet censored glimpse into the Bvsketv how can anyone say this observance is pagan? I suppose it can be easily spoken by people who have never experienced or been allowed to enter into this ancient and beautiful native celebration of giving thanks. There is much more to what happens during the Bvsketv Green Corn Festival that I cannot share but I can assure you there is nothing pagan or heathen that we have observed at the Stomp Dances that we have attended. It is quite the opposite with many of the protocols of the sacred grounds being similar to what is found in the services of the Tabernacle of Moses as well as the 1st and 2nd Temple found in the Old Testament.
That is what Thanksgiving means to us as a family. We can focus on the hurt, the pain, the atrocities or we can remember how it all began. Remember those dates from before? 1607 - 1637? The first massacre, which included Natives killing Natives, did not take place until 1637. That was 30 years of peace between the native people and the new settlers. Undeniable proof that two worlds were able to come together in peace and love for one another as human beings made by the same Creator. For that we are thankful.
Not only do we celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional native way we also come together as a family on Thanksgiving Day. We remember the bounty Creator has blessed us with this past year. We strengthen the bonds of family and our love for one another that will carry us through another year. We remember and are thankful for every good thing in our life that Creator has blessed us with.
Is Thanksgiving pagan? not from what the evidence reveals! To be thankful is to be appreciative and grateful instead of spoiled and entitled. To be thankful is to be indigenous, to be thankful is part of our walk as a Believer, and most important to be thankful is to give honor to The Creator who gave His only Son, Chief CornerStone Yeshua so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. May your Thanksgiving be filled with happy memories, moments of beauty, abundant love, peace in your homes, bellies full of warm food and hearts full of joy as you gather and celebrate this year.
2 Corinthians 4:15 "All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God." (NIV)
That's What the Old Ones Say: Pre-Colonial Revelations of God to Native America
These are stories that were told before missionary contact and I realized with each story that I listened to I had heard them before…not from my tribe but from another ancient tribe who has left an impacting legacy on the earth called The Bible. The Creator planted the seed in my heart to write this book as a way to help build the bridge of reconciliation between the nations.
You might laugh, cry, sing for joy or wail from the deepest parts of your soul. Betrayal, love, reconciliation, unity, sacrifice, joy, peace, history, archaeology, science, the perseverance of the human spirit and the longing for Creator to heal our land and broken hearts. A longing for our spirit to be uplifted from the only One who can give us Hope in the face of utter defeat and despair.
I was humbled by being entrusted with hearing these stories and was given permission to retell them so they can be shared with the world. Seneco Kakona (Many Blessings). - Chief Joseph RiverWind
(CLICK ON THE BOOK IMAGE TO ORDER )
NMAI, American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving, National Museum of American Indians, (2002)
Sivan, Gabriel, The Bible and Civilization (New York Times Library of Jewish knowledge), New York Times Book Co; First Edition edition (1974)
Jehle, Paul, Plymouth in the Words of her Founders, The Vision Forum (2003)
Young, Alexander, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, (1841), Cosimo Classics 2005
Winslow, Edward Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, (1986).
Klein, Christopher, When Massachusetts Banned Christmas. History (2015)
Mason, John A Brief History of the Pequot War, Creative Media Partners, LLC (2018)
Photographs, Saints and Strangers, National Geographic (2015)