The meaning(s) of Thanksgiving

All Things New magazine | Spring 2010 | Circulation: 2,000

KENORA ON – “What does Thanksgiving mean in Canada?” asks Anna, a North Carolinian fellow delegate with Christian Peacemaker Teams, to the server at Ho Ho’s Chinese Restaurant in Kenora, Ontario. A moment of puzzled thought, then a shrug. “I don’t actually know. I think it just means be thankful.”

Anna has asked this question to many people we’ve met here in Canada – other delegates, passers-by, even a police officer. Nobody here seems to know the origins. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is frequently told as the commemoration of a welcoming feast between Indigenous peoples and European settlers. But as a Canadian, I have never been taught this. The U.S. version has always seemed like a racist myth to justify the Europeans’ conquest of the land.

Last night, Anna and I prepared supper for our group and several friends connected to Grassy. During the feast preparations the meaning of Thanksgiving again loomed in importance, especially because we would have Anishnaabe friends sharing the meal with us. Have we forgotten the meaning of Thanksgiving? Or have we in Canada never drawn Indigenous peoples into our colonial/genocidal history? Have we merely forgotten over the last few centuries? Most pressingly, would our preparations offend our friends because of our ignorance of their history and culture?

Everywhere we look on this delegation, all the Anishnaabe people we have heard from, all the horror and beauty we have struggled to understand and come to terms with – suggests to me that we in Canada and especially in the churches simply refuse to look reality in the eye and will continue to do so without some massive change of worldview. We are so scared of the truth that we have sung ourselves to sleep with lullabies of ‘Home and Native Land’ while completely ignoring the irony of ‘Native’ in that line. Whose native land?

Sweet potato pies with raisin turkey art. Curry butternut squash soup. Mash potatoes with vegan mushroom gravy. Tabbouleh salad. Crepes for dessert.

Over supper, Mariah and Maryann told stories about their and others’ experiences in church-run residential schools. It was, as one delegate reflected, a ‘sacred fire’ experience for us, a deeply humbling listening, full of both suffering and a biting humour, despairing honesty and surprising trust. Stories of pain, not only of people’s trauma from abuse, violence and loss of culture – but most devastatingly they described being deprived of their parents’ love as a result of being kidnapped by the state.

I knew all of this before, but it has not struck home for me as it has during this last four days. And framed in the context of white privilege and colonialism, I am forced to confront my own indifference, by own well-intentioned lack of solidarity or awareness, and even more my ability to be “progressive” yet at the same time oblivious day-to-day as to how my entire privilege and success is built on the backs of oppressed people.

And to top all that off, we have the gall to claim “Canada has no history of colonialism” (Prime Minister Stephen Harper, September 2009).

So I don’t want to whine here. I’m feeling personally anxious about how to challenge colonialism without it being problematic as a white/settler. Every option seems to raise more questions, more doubts. All I am certain of now is that the difference between right relationships and oppression is a matter of life-or-death.

And yet, hearing the stories of Grassy Narrows inspires something to stir in my heart. As Mariah said, “Once the blockade started, suddenly doors opened that were closed. I couldn’t think any more only about the reserve, or even my nation. This was about the whole world, about the Earth itself.” Her experience of the empowerment and strength of blockading the logging roads to stop the clearcutting of their forests helped her begin to heal from the trauma she experienced in the schools.

I have heard this message from others up here – how crucial taking direct action was to healing from the abuses. Though I may not know all the best ways we – Canadians, and SCMers – can be in better solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, it is clear that our actions must be informed by relationships and council with them, and not be simply out of our own indignation and rage. Too many good intentions have been twisted by colonialism. And how can we not cause harm, having been raised and taught in what is essentially a white supremacist, colonial system? It is our legacy.

We are planning a direct action for Saturday – some kind of a prayer walk to “Honour the Treaties” and challenge colonialism both at sites of oppression but also within ourselves. But more than the actions and the plans, the ties built here over meals and over stories will resonate and reverberate in our minds and communities indelibly. That, at least, is my hope. If I were to reflect more, I would make it my commitment, even.

So the Thanksgiving feast is served. Hands are held. An awkward tension. Which Thanksgiving do we “celebrate” today? And like the prophet Jeremiah standing at the gates, watching resentfully as the oppressors party it up, it is hard to celebrate knowing the truth; it makes me sick.

The soup comes out first. Hands are held. We pray to the Creator, for repentance and for justice. Our thanksgiving is for the land, for friendships across cultures, for the strength and courage to resist when that takes all our energy.

Sweet potato pies with raisin turkey art. Curry butternut squash soup. Mash potatoes with vegan mushroom gravy. Tabbouleh salad. Crepes for dessert. If we are to have Thanksgiving at all, let us be at very least be thankful for the chance to be changed.

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