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Thanks Giving for Harvest or Celebration of Colonial Conquest?

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.

Indigenous peoples in North America have a history of holding communal feasts in celebration of the fall harvest that predates the arrival of European settlers.

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.

This was 17 years before what is often recognized as the first American Thanksgiving — the Pilgrims’ celebration of their first harvest in Massachusetts in 1621.

The first national Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated in the Province of Canada in 1859 [and] appropriated [from] the holiday of American Thanksgiving, which was first observed in 1777.

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.

1. Different ‘thanks’

“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.

2. False friendship

“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.”

3. Stolen land and lives

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?

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Reconciliation in a Colonial World

If you live in Canada, you have likely heard the word “reconciliation” thrown around a lot in the past few years. Some nod their head in agreement, others scoff with derision. “It wasn’t me”, they say. “Why should I atone for things other people did?” Because that is what reconciliation is. To reconcile, you need to admit there was a problem. That there IS a problem. That our colonial system continues to oppress Indigenous Peoples in Canada and our silence firmly puts us at fault too.

So use your voice! Speak! Become an ally to those who are pushed aside and unjustly let down time and time again.

I grew up in the Cowichan Valley. There is a strong Indigenous presence within the community. I had classmates from the reserve. I got to know youth my age. Youth who were surely victims of inter-generational trauma due to residential schools. I carved and painted alongside them on a totem pole created by my high school with a master carver from Cowichan Nation. I had an appreciation for their culture, and through that, a vague understanding of the historical atrocities they had been subjected to. But I did not know the full extent of what the Canadian Government and the Church was guilty of.

Throughout my teenage years, my family volunteered at monthly community dinners. I remember being very aware of the much higher volume of Indigenous patrons, than any other Ethnicity. “Why?” I asked.

Residential Schools were explained to me in more detail then. The trauma and abuse. The disrespect over the years which had, in a way, broken the pride of these families. Others in the community may have been in just as much need as the ones who did come sit down for a free meal, but pride kept them shuttered in at home. Choosing to be cold and hungry than to ask for help.

This stuck with me for all the years since. How could a Nation’s pride be broken so severely? Why? How?

It was all part of the Canadian Government’s plan to “kill the Indian in the child“. It almost worked. But these Nations are rising again. We can help them. Reconciliation. Admit what happened was wrong. Have Empathy. Build. Strengthen. Grow.

I attended the University of Victoria and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Education in 2014. One of the required programs for teachers at UVic is “Indigenous Education”, taught by an Indigenous community member. We cover Residential Schools, the potlatch bans, modern culture, and even Indigenous Sports and games. It astounded me how few of my classmates knew anything about Residential Schools. Most had no clue. Until VERY recently, this era of Canadian History was not mentioned in Canadian grade schools. Those teachers who did know about it were afraid to broach the subject. How do you teach a subject so large and so sensitive with so few resources?

Currently, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all Provinces and Territories include information about Residential Schools in their curriculum, but it is not mandatory, nor is the coverage extensive. We need to continue to push this as a priority across Canada. No one will care about something they don’t even know happened. Our Youth are the Future, but the change must start with us.

When I graduated, I specifically looked for jobs in First Nations schools in remote parts of the coast. I applied in Kingcome Inlet and Ahousaht. Teachers in these remote communities are expected to participate in cultural events. What an honour to even be able to witness such things, after the strong efforts by the Government to smother them out.

I moved to Ahousaht in the summer of 2014. Here I was able to witness and encounter the very raw and real trauma from Residential Schools in modern times. I talked with survivors. People say Residential School is old history. Get over it. Do they realize the survivors walk among us? The last school closed in 1996. That was during my lifetime!

When Lennie and I started dating. He had rules for me. In any other scenario, I would have “Noped” my way right out of there. But I knew there was a deeper reason behind it. I wasn’t allowed to touch him in certain ways. A hand on his shoulder makes him jump at times. The echoes of horror still ring in his head. He has many humorous stories of his time at Christie Residential School – a testament to his ever-present troublemaker personality. But the other stories aren’t shared as easily. They bring me to tears. Every time I hear them, a part of me dies again. MY CULTURE did this to him. So yes, I am responsible. We all are. But our actions today can be our redemption.

I didn’t gain a complete understanding of the scope of the Cultural Genocide Canada committed until I was fully engulfed in the culture of an Indigenous Community. I had to live in Ahousaht and truly know the people to have this perspective. You can’t just stay for a weekend and talk to a few people here and there. You need to sit and listen and get to know the community.

Active listening is something we are all taught in school, but I swear, in this time of smartphones and headphones, we forget how to really listen.

“Active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening – otherwise the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener. Interest can be conveyed to the speaker by using both verbal and non-verbal messages such as maintaining eye contact, nodding your head and smiling, agreeing by saying ‘Yes’ or simply ‘Mmm hmm’ to encourage them to continue. By providing this ‘feedback’ the person speaking will usually feel more at ease and therefore communicate more easily, openly and honestly.”

If you ever get the chance to talk to a Survivor, their family or their offspring, LISTEN. Hear their stories. Hear how they are impacted. Hear how the system is still stacked against them.

To me, Reconciliation is acknowledging the wrongs that were done, and recognizing your place in the greater community that committed these atrocities. Reconciliation is having the empathy and respect to listen to Indigenous Peoples and how they are still affected, today, due to these traumas. Reconciliation is spreading the word, joining movements and supporting initiatives to move Indigenous Peoples forward at a pace and in a direction, THEY want to move.

To become a better ally, follow the steps of Reconciliation above. Learn whose Traditional Territory you live in. Talk with members from the Nation. Visit their Administration Office and ask to learn more – Maybe they have programs you can attend – Language, arts, dance. I am sure they would welcome you with open arms if your heart is in the right place.

Listen with an open heart and open mind. It’s hard to go wrong from there.

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I would like to graciously thank my friend Zan who posed the questions of What reconciliation means to me? and How can Non-Indigenous community members become better Indigenous Allies? I really appreciate the chance to write out my thoughts on the matter.

For those interested in further information, I urge you to check out the following websites:

Beyond 94

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

First Contact (Ahousaht is featured in one of the episodes!)

MacLeans Residential School Article

Indigenous Foundations

We Are The Children

Canada’s Dark Secret

National Post Residential School Article

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