Beyond One Day: Understanding Thanksgiving through Native American Heritage and Traditions

Since 1990, November has been recognized as Native American History Month, a time to celebrate the diverse histories, cultures, and contributions of the Indigenous peoples of the land now known as the United States of America. However, Indigenous peoples have not always been accurately portrayed or honored in the United States and many people are still not aware of true American history as it pertains to Native people or are only aware of a narrative based on deficit. There is a long, storied history of false narratives and “marketing” that contributes to current inequities. Popular culture has focused on retellings of history that do not portray the impact of government treaties, federal programs, and often forced urbanization and appropriation. Last year’s Learning Café, “Beyond Pilgrims and Mascots: The True Meaning of Native American Heritage Month with Patina Park” covers more details on misconceptions throughout history.

In recognition of Native American Heritage Month this year, ECLC invited Pete Hill to our monthly Learning Cafés in October and November to share history and knowledge of how Thanksgiving is more than a one-day celebration.

Pete Hill is a citizen of the Cayuga Nation, Heron Clan and is currently the Special Initiatives Director at Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, Inc. (NACS).  NACS serves the Native American community who live off-territory, which includes the Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Longhouse,” as well as many more Native nations and tribes. Pete has worked at NACS for over 31 years in many areas of youth development, HIV risk reduction, substance abuse and suicide prevention, and health and wellness promotion. He has devoted several years and efforts to not only understand the impacts of trauma and historical traumas but also to develop culturally infused programs that have helped communities move beyond the impact of these traumas to help restore the health and vitality of Native Americans. In his presentation, he made an important point that not all Native Americans and their families observe various holidays the same way, as the diversity of Native peoples, nations, and tribes throughout the US is extensive. 

The modern one-day Thanksgiving observance in much of American society is a day to gather and appreciate the bounty of food with loved ones. In many Native American cultures, there is a stronger emphasis on giving thanks as a daily routine for each day, rather than giving thanks on only one day of the year. There are many variations of how Native people observe or do not observe the American holiday, which is also consistent with recognizing the tremendous diversity of Native cultures, celebrations, and ceremonies. These may include some people going hunting for deer or visiting “back home” to see family and elders. For some, this is also a time of mourning or sorrow in recognition of family members no longer at the table for various reasons.

In general, many Haudenosaunee people have a deep understanding of the importance to express our thanks and appreciation every day, which is often demonstrated by offering the Thanksgiving Address at the beginning of community events, ceremonies, gatherings, and even some meetings.  These and many other teachings come from their Creation Story that tells of the intertwined relationship of all things in the world to each other and to Mother Earth, while recognizing that our health and wellbeing as human beings is totally dependent on the health of the natural world.  The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is a cultural protocol that many people observe as we express thanks for all people and all things, the human relationship to the universe, and the summation of Haudenosaunee traditional cosmology.  All people and elements of the natural world are acknowledged and thanked, including the people, Earth Mother, the waters, fish, plants, and all elements of the Natural word, and of course, Creator.

The Thanksgiving Address personifies and expresses love towards the natural world. Another key aspect is the encouragement to “let us bring our minds together as one,” as that demonstrates the power of the collective when people using a Good Mind work together to support the community and their families. There is an intention to respect each creature and take the time to appreciate how everything is purposeful, meaningful, and connected.

These teachings from Haudenosaunee and more Native cultures, histories, and traditions can inform activities or practices of gratitude in your daily life or classroom, including Native and Non-Native people. As schedules get busier and many people travel to gather with loved ones this holiday season, we encourage you to take a moment to be grateful for the experiences that led to these present moments and reflect on our interconnected stories, and what can be learned from Indigenous Native peoples.

ECLC hosts a Learning Café every month as an opportunity for members, early care and education professionals, and others who are interested to engage in dialogues around racism and equity. We have held discussions with local experts and shared TED Talk-style webinars. Learn more at ECLC’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging webpage.

Jessica Havens

ECLC Community Education Coordinator