The first official, annual Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated on 6 November 1879, though Indigenous peoples in Canada have a history of celebrating the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers.
Potlatches and celebratory feasts were often held to celebrate a large hunt or harvest. Seasonal in nature, they were fluid events that occurred when the food was bountiful.
The first Thanksgiving by Europeans in North America was held by Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew in the Eastern Arctic in 1578. …In 1606, in an attempt to prevent the kind of scurvy epidemic that had decimated the settlement at Île Ste. Croix in the winter of 1604–05, Samuel de Champlain founded a series of rotating feasts at Port Royal called the Ordre de Bon Temps (“Order of Good Cheer”). Local Mi’kmaq families were also invited. The first feast was held on 14 November 1606 to celebrate the return of Jean de Biencourt de Poutrincourt from an expedition.
Now this all sounds fine and dandy. A bunch of celebratory feasts, what is the danger in that?
The American history is much more tainted, and Canada is no Saint when it comes to Colonization efforts.
The Following is from Ronald Trosper, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, who gave a presentation titled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” as part of Native American History Month in 2017. The event, sponsored by the Native American Student Association, discussed Thanksgiving and its ties to settler colonialism.
“When Indians harvested, the thanks went to the land and the beings that provided themselves as food. That’s a very fundamental indigenous belief, that we thank those beings that support our livelihood,” Trosper says. “Then at dinner there was no prayer, they just started eating. They already thanked the land when they harvested. And they did not thank the Lord for providing the food, because the food came from the land, it did not come from the Christian God. At Thanksgiving, people celebrate the Christian God.”
Native Americans did not pray to a Christian God, although the settlers would try to change that. One of the characteristics of settler colonialism is the settlers’ attempt to convert indigenous peoples to the settlers’ religion. The settlers, who had left England due to religious dissension, brought their religion with them to the New World.
From Lincoln’s proclamation to modern-day traditions, many Americans view Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks for their blessings, often in the form of a pre-feast religious prayer. In contrast, many Native Americans did, and still do, celebrate the fall harvest.
“A lot of people have put forth images of what Thanksgiving is really about, seeming to say that Natives were welcoming the settlers and providing them food. Well, they were generous and they did provide food, but it was not reciprocated,” Trosper says.
“Eventually in New England, where Thanksgiving was said to be, the settlers pushed the Indians aside. That’s where people lose the history. They don’t know about King Philip’s War.”
After the initial Thanksgiving feast, tensions rose between the settlers and indigenous peoples and reached a breaking point by 1675, resulting in King Philip’s War. Spanning three years, the conflict raged throughout New England, destroying 12 towns and almost completely destroying the Wampanoag tribe and their allies, the Narragansett tribe from Rhode Island.
“The settlers arrive, take control of the land, and push the indigenous people off, and often they just eliminate. It’s not a question of sharing the land,” Trosper says, pointing to another characteristic of settler colonialism.
“Very often the indigenous people said, ‘We’re happy to share the land with you if you accept our sovereignty over it and if you take care of it the way we want you to take care of it.’ But that wasn’t part of the picture.”
Another characteristic of settler colonialism is the settlers adopting a means of making a living that they have learned from the indigenous peoples. In the case of the Pilgrims and Indians, that was agriculture.
“Thanksgiving shows pictures of Indians providing food to the settlers. That illustrates there were people on the land and farming the land,” Trosper says. “Here in Arizona when the settlers came, the area around the Gila River was agricultural and the Pima Indians were providing food that they raised in their farms. They expanded their agriculture when the settlers arrived.”
In the late 19th century, settlers dammed the Gila River and diverted the water from the Indians’ farms to their own. Without life-giving water to sustain their crops, Native American communities were impoverished and their reservations had little water.
“On Thanksgiving, the settlers are celebrating the land and what the land produces, and how did they get that land? They took it,” Trosper says. “Thanksgiving seems to be a celebration of taking the land away.”
In addition to losing their land, Native Americans often paid a large price in human life, as well.
You can only imagine, the trauma that comes with this “holiday”. Settlers in North America are literally celebrating their dominion over the Indigenous Peoples of this land.
Mention Thanksgiving on a Reserve or around Indigenous people and you may get some snarky comments about how “It’s not a celebration for everyone”. I’ve heard this happen mid conversation to a Caucasian who meant no harm and was just asking about everyone’s dinner plans for that particular long weekend. Some people just have a chip on their shoulder about it. Some are legitimately offended by the holiday. Others have moved on.
My good friend Chrissie started a conversation on Facebook, asking her friends about their perspectives on this holiday. Chrissie is Indigenous and is great at starting these powerful conversations on tough subjects. Sometimes we just need a little push to look inside ourselves and really consider our thoughts on the subject.
I asked a few of her friends if I could share their responses. Keokina had responded to Chrissie by saying “Traditional food it will be, thankful that we have something to harvest from the land”. This goes STRAIGHT back to the beginning of my post. The true origins of this holiday. To be thankful and enjoy the fruits of our labour. Food that has been grown, gathered or hunted to feed our families.
Cory looks at the positive side of history “A celebration of Kous (Indigenous Peoples) saving the Mumalthnee (Literally “People who live on ships with no land” aka Europeans) from starving and perishing”. He elaborated that he knows “there’s more history towards this but we were and always will be known as a giving Peoples!” I really respect the power of this statement. To rise up and acknowledge that the way Indigenous People’s were treated was wrong, but the intention of the first Thanksgiving meals was still positive and to remember that without dismissing the rest of history. The connection to modern times is completely accurate – Have you ever been to a Potlatch? These elaborate celebrations occur still today with great feasts and gifts given away to those in attendance. To be Kous is to be Generous.
I am hoping other’s give me permission to share their words too. There are some powerful thoughts in the thread.
My own views on the holiday became more complicated when I moved to Ahousaht. As a child, Thanksgiving was one more holiday to gather as family, to eat good food and take turns sharing what we were thankful for before we began to eat. In University I always tried to travel home for the event. Once I moved to Ahousaht, it became harder to make the journey, but now Lennie and I have started our own celebrations each year.
We haven’t gone so far as to have a traditional Indigenous meal (salmon, deer and elk are a normal meal ingredient in our home), but in the future I see us producing our own chicken or turkey to eat. Self sustainability at it’s best.
Lennie and I use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to spend the day together cooking, collaborating, getting dressed up and having quality time together. In today’s go-go-go society, this time can be hard to come by and taking a day to relax and enjoy good food together is important. Often we invite family or friends to join us, but sometimes it is good to just bond with each other too. Especially this year. We have been through a lot.
On Thanksgiving I acknowledge the wrongs that were done to Indigenous People during colonization. I don’t think about it only on Thanksgiving, the holiday that seems to symbolize the European invasion, but all year long.
Whatever motivation is behind our Thanksgiving Dinner, I hope we can all be mindful of others. Of the Indigenous Nations who are the rightful caretakers of this land, who have been pushed aside for far too long. It’s time to recognize the damages that have been done and continue to make steps to reconcile.
How do you feel about Thanksgiving?