Honoring the wisdom of Native Americans on Thanksgiving

Before I understood the real history behind the American tradition of Thanksgiving, I used to just innocently enjoy the chance to gather with family and friends to share a delicious meal.

I believed the story taught to me in grade school, about how the Pilgrims and their Native hosts sat down to a feast together, and lived happily ever after.

Such innocence, once lost, is impossible to recapture.

Now I know that the same Pilgrims who gave thanks for their delivery from starvation by the generous Native people of the region that would come to be known as New England would be the ones to turn on their benefactors and do their utmost to exterminate them.

My own ancestors were still fighting their own battles back in Europe at this time, but as an American, this is a shameful legacy that I need to confront and acknowledge.

As I wrote in my Thanksgiving post last year, the holiday of Thanksgiving should really be more of a day of atonement than a celebration of abundance, especially as we begin to realize that the abundance of food and natural resources that Americans have enjoyed over the past 500 years is not endless.

As we hit up against the limits to growth predicted years ago by Donella Meadows and others, we must recognize that the Native peoples who were so unceremoniously shoved aside during the Conquest of the Americas had so much more to offer Europeans than corn, squash, beans and turkey.

Indigenous worldviews, the world over, privilege balance over growth and accumulation, and this is the wisdom we need to pay attention to now.

Some argue that such a conservative position would not support the kind of technological innovation in which Europeans have excelled.

But I would ask whether our technological innovations have succeeded in making us happy as a culture, or as individuals within our culture?

Isn’t it true that the vast majority of our technological inventions have been used to foment and practice ever-more violent warfare?

Even our vaunted advances in medicine are primarily used, these days, to try to heal us from the sicknesses and imbalances our own technological inventions have afflicted upon us, by the poisoning of our food, air, water and earth with toxic chemicals and the byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

This image, from the PBS series “American Experience,” depicts members of the Wampanoag tribe meeting a white settler.

Before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and started their inexorable push west, the indigenous people living here were happy, healthy, strong and long-lived.  They enjoyed the abundant food stocks of the ocean, rivers and forests, and lived in harmony with the land.

Yes, there were territorial skirmishes, but there were also strong intertribal councils and confederations, in many cases led by matriarchs who valued peace and did not want to lose their sons and grandsons to needless warfare.

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks that the Native peoples of this continent are still with us, despite all the brutality visited upon them by the European conquerors.

This Thanksgiving, I pray that all Americans begin to honor indigenous people as they deserve to be honored, by giving credence to the Native value of harmony with the Earth, and actually trying to live it.

Leave a comment


  1. As much as we would like to believe it, the “Noble Savage” sentiment is as false as Thanksgiving mythology.

    The “value of harmony with the Earth” did not exist until we invented it in the Twentieth Century. Indigenous peoples in North America modified their environment and used natural resources to their best advantage. When Europeans arrived on the eastern shore, they found vast areas of forest cleared and kept cleared with fire for very large cornfields, which were cultivated, protected from predation, and irrigated with extensive modifications of natural drainage.

    Many indigenous peoples exhausted the land through agriculture and moved on to new areas, where they cut and burned the forests and planted extensive crops. They modified the existing landscape to their advantage, creating and maintaining new ecosystem relationships, such as open parks and cultivated fields.

    The difference between Native peoples and encroaching Europeans is that here were far more Europeans after Native American populations were decimated by 16th and 17th Century European diseases, to which the Natives had no immunities. This allowed the European immigrants to take over already established cornfields and cleared lands.

    17th and 18th Century armed conflicts between Native Americans and European immigrants originated and were continued on both sides of the racial divide. Neither had a monopoly on peaceful or warring relationships with the other. We tend to sympathize with the underdog in our culture, in this case the Native inhabitants oppressed by interloping, high technology white folks, but the reality was much less, well, red and white.

    Please read “The first frontier : the forgotten history of struggle, savagery, and endurance in early America” by Scott Weidensaul.

  2. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  November 21, 2012

    Yes, I’m aware of this history, Michael, and I don’t want to over-romanticize the indigenous people of the Americas. But having studied many indigenous cultures, I have been struck by one thing they have in common, which is a much greater respect for the natural world than the Europeans and Eur-Americans, who saw (and continue to see) the natural world as a) a backdrop for the much more important activities of humans, and b) an inexhaustible source of raw materials to be converted to cash in various ways. Of course the population pressures on the land were much less prior to the European invasion, which made things easier for the native people. But if you read indigenous stories from many parts of the world (I am familiar with many from Africa, Asia and the Americas) you find over and over a respect for Mother Nature–and this is the wisdom I want to invoke on Thanksgiving Day 2012.

  3. Jennifer, thank you for this article. It is an excellent reminder to offer our gratitude and our respect to the indigenous peoples who were here first. You make excellent points about the healthy cultures that thrived here long before European immigrants arrived. Yes I too give thanks that they still exist, and I do pray that all North Americans offer them the respect that they deserve. I admire their way of life and deep respect for nature, and I do try to live that way myself. Thanks again. A terrific read! ~Gina


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