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THE LONG READ | The history of Thanksgiving — An Indigenous perspective

How Canadians can pay respect to lost culture BY KALEB MEEKS Special to the VOICE A s an Indigenous youth born in Toronto in 1995, I always had always mixed emotions regarding Thanksgiving.

How Canadians can pay respect to lost culture


Special to the VOICE

As an Indigenous youth born in Toronto in 1995, I always had always mixed emotions regarding Thanksgiving. In my immediate family, the celebration of Thanksgiving was like many others celebrating the holiday in Canada: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and comforting mashed potatoes. A typical holiday meal — when we could afford it.

As a child, I was awed by the food, and the houses decorated cozily with fall fruits and paper turkeys I’d made in class. To my younger self, the celebration meant welcoming the beautiful fall season and all it had to offer.

Despite the happy little smiles on the paper turkeys, I would eventually discover that there were ominous layers to the festivities. While my family’s ways were “traditional” in regards to a modern Thanksgiving, there were many people in the community that would consider us untraditional culturally. Many members of the community carried an opinion of hostility and resentment towards the holiday.

My family was rather disconnected from our culture, so it came as no shock to me later in life that there were things younger Kaleb didn’t understand. We knew we were Ojibwe and where we were from, but the dilution of our bloodline, and the untraditional city life we lived caused us to modernize and abandon most, if not all, traditional Ojibwe ways of living.

The only ties that bound us to tradition and the learning of it were the community and the school I attended, Eastview Jr. Public School, in which the teaching of Anishinabek ways was a prominent focus for the Indigenous population.

I wanted to know more about my family’s past and why not everyone was happy to celebrate Thanksgiving, especially those in my community. So, with the help of Nokomis Cindilee, a respected knowledge keeper (amongst many honourable titles), I set out to investigate the origins of Thanksgiving and what it meant to my people, and what it actually means to me.

To those unaware, Nokomis means grandmother in Ojibwe, a First Nation Anishinabek language. To be a Nokomis does not simply mean to be old. It is a respected title, much like that of the title “Elder,” or more appropriately put, “Knowledge Keeper.” A knowledge keeper is one that holds traditional Indigenous knowledge, as well as traditional ecological knowledge, and plays a large role in maintaining traditional ways and passing said knowledge along to generations to come, ensuring its preservation.

Nokomis Cindilee explains: “There are knowledge keepers in many nations, and in specific ways. A story teller may know the stories of family, migration, creation, and story of lessons and teachings, whereas a knowledge keeper may know the plants, the healing properties, and how to use the plants in healing. Knowledge keepers may also know the language fluently, the connections to the culture and the language as one, the ways of being, knowing, doing, and seeing.”

My first question was: why do Canadians celebrate the version of Thanksgiving that was popularized by the European settlers? What is the history of Thanksgiving in Canada and how did it shape into what it is today?

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the first official, annual Thanksgiving in Canada was held on November 6, 1879, and was declared to be held on the second Monday of October. To the European settlers, it was a way to give thanks for the fall season and the harvest that it brought by feasting on its bounty amongst the people.

The symbol of the harvest brought about by the European settlers was the cornucopia, otherwise known as the horn of plenty, and was meant to give thanks for their good fortune and abundance of food.

Although this is the first official, annual celebration of Thanksgiving, it was not the first celebration of giving thanks for the fall harvest. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, earlier settlers are recorded as holding similar celebrations, such as Sir Martin Frobisher and his people in 1578, as well as Île Ste. Croix, in 1604, all of which were to serve similar purposes, to give thanks for their bountiful harvest.

In fact, Indigenous people long throughout history have held seasonal celebratory ceremonies as well, meant for giving thanks to Gichi-Manidou, The Creator in Indigenous culture, for the fall harvest and the survival of the seasons.

Patty Inglish, reporter for Owlcation, writes: “The native thankfulness for crops and months later for surviving the winter, all shown in Feast Days, is thousands of years old — 12,000 to 48,000 or more years old in America.”

Indigenous ceremonies of the fall harvest included a community feast of the seasonal gatherings, and high spirited drumming, dancing and singing, similar to many Indigenous ceremonies that have been and still are practiced by all nations of Turtle Island.

“Harvest ceremonies in general will depend upon that which is being harvested, the cycle and time of the harvest,” says Nokomis Cindilee. “Community connection, gratitude, celebration of life, good life, good way of life, bounty, and plenty.” These are all aspects Nokomis Cindilee says would be traditional celebratory parts of any harvest ceremony held by Indigenous people.

Long before Europeans set foot in the Americas, native peoples sought to ensure a good harvest with dances and rituals such as the Green Corn Dance of the Cherokees, according to the Smithsonian.

Many Indigenous ceremonies are held in circles as the circle is a vital part of the culture, symbolizing all things in life from the entering of life to the return to the spirit world, and can be found in the medicine wheel, which contains the four directions of life and their respective colours. Many other sacred aspects lie within the circle, so respectively, many aspects of the Indigenous celebration of giving thanks may have taken place in the circle as well.

“In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation; and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished,” wrote Black Elk, a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and highly revered Indigenous leader.

“The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.”

It became clear to me as I learned more about the true roots of Thanksgiving, that the importance for myself and all Canadians to educate each other about the real history behind the celebration of Thanksgiving is becoming quite apparent, including the impacts the people of its origin have had on Indigenous People. In this way, we can still celebrate the positive aspects of Thanksgiving while paying respect to the truth behind the holiday, and acknowledging the darkness of its origins.

“There have been discrepancies that indicate that possible Thanksgiving [USA] was rooted in a celebration of overthrowing an Indigenous nation, based on time of year and area of such,” notes Nokomis Cindilee.

So what does Thanksgiving really mean to Indigenous people? How is it currently celebrated and what are the views of giving thanks, something that has been done for many many years by our people? And even more so, who are Indigenous people?

“I have seen this to mean to me, and then to my family, a day of giving thanks for all that has been given from the earth. Through harvest, through gathering, and that each day is of thanks giving...and is not just one day,” says Nokomis Cindilee. “However, the original gathering, the coming together of the settlers and that of the Indigenous people, the meaning of giving thanks and celebrating the bounty is rooted in old English and tradition in the old country to celebrate the harvest at that time of year.”

Indigenous people in Canada are the original people of Turtle Island, presently known as Canada. To the knowledge of myself and my family, the history of Canada is widely known to have had dark and horrific ramifications for Indigenous people. Through colonization and battle, such as the war of 1812, following which the Indigenous Confederacy largely disintegrated, Indigneous people across Canada lost an immense amount of their land.

To this day, Indigenous people have fought for the rights and respects of the agreements that were once made to maintain the last of the land that was taken away.

Although each tribe has unique variations of traditions, from Ojibwe to Miq’Mak, Mohawk, Haudenosaunee, Metis and many others. However, the respect to Gichi-Manidou, creation, the four directions and the circle remain constant.

So the question remains: how did the celebration of giving thanks for the fall harvest become so widely popularized by the settlers of Canada and not the original people of this land?

This is largely due to colonization and the destruction of traditions this brought about. Indigenous people were forced to remove their Regalia, which is the word for traditional clothing, head pieces and other sacred articles that were highly respected in their communities and were told not to wear their “costumes.”

“’Costume’ reminds me of Halloween, in that one is in the act of wearing something that may not be that in which they truly are, spiritually, culturally, language. It is an opportunity to only be of another for a shortened time of superficial experience,” says Nokomis Cindilee. “Regalia, traditional clothing, has connections to specific cultural, land-based location such as bead work, colours, style, quill work, birch bark work, and wampum. These are specific and connected to the nation that one is from, the land that they are from.”

The head pieces of Indigenous people were highly regarded symbols, and there is much pride in receiving something of this honour. To forcefully remove something of this regard is cruel and dishonourable.

The head pieces are varied, dependent upon nation, each will be different, representing differences, and connections to the land, says Nokomis Cindilee. “Various nations have varying head wear, and is also dependent upon what is worn at the time, and for what is the reason. Some are passed, some are dreams, some were earned and some could be transferred.”

Owning any cultural clothing was made illegal by the Canadian government. Going against this rule and refusing to remove your regalia, whatever sort it may be, was often punishable by death by colonial settlers and the governing bodies that chose to enforce such laws.

“Over time, wars across the country were waged against Native tribal groups, forcing the removal of entire tribal nations to different regions,” writes Eryka Charley, Ph.D., Navajo, Director of NASS. “Schools were erected to assimilate young Native children into EuroAmerican culture. It was literally illegal to be Native American in the United States. Owning cultural items was illegal, as was performing ceremonial practices. Native children were violently disciplined for speaking their indigenous language or for demonstrating cultural practices.”

Traditions were removed, culture was banned, English language was forced and traditional language was denied. Children were stolen from their families and forced into residential schools where they were treated brutally and often murdered with no notice to the families. These crimes would be denied and the perpetrators never brought to justice, leaving families broken and traditions to be lost permanently.

According to the government of Ontario,“More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from across the country were forced to attend Indian Residential Schools, which were often located far from their homes. Many never made it home.”

The truth of what happened in historic residential schools is only recently being uncovered by the Canadian government, revealing a horrific state of mistreatment towards Indigenous youth and their families. Other such injustices, like the Sixties Scoop, also dramatically affected countless families and to this day remains one of many injustices that formed the traumatizing effect upon the Indigenous people.

In a 2018 article written by Indigenous Corporate Training, a 2021 Indigenous Business of the Year award-winning company that strives to provide training to get everyone working effectively with Indigenous Peoples, appears the following: “The schools, over time, saw 150,000 children pass through their dark doors. That number represents 150,000 individuals whose cultural identity and cultural connectivity was severely impacted, as was their ability to contribute to their community’s cultural continuity.”

As families lost each other, they also lost their traditions — ultimately losing themselves. In place of the old ways came the ways of the European settlers. Centuries later, Indigenous families who would have celebrated Thanksgiving traditionally and with culture, instead practiced Thanksgiving in the European way. This included my own family — until recently, we did not even know about the way Indigenous celebrations ceremonies were once held. There remain countless Indigenous families who are still completely unaware of their own culture, to no fault of their own.

A 2027 CBC report stated: “According to the poll, conducted by Probe Research in March, 52 percent of respondents are ‘worried that Indigenous cultures and traditions may gradually disappear.’ That’s an increase from a 2011-2012 poll which suggested that 48 percent expressed that anxiety.”

Opinions of Thanksgiving differ widely amongst Indigenous people. While there are some that celebrate the modern way, to which has been made apparent has been solely influenced by settler colonialism and western society, there are still many that are understandably hurt by its history and prefer not to celebrate at all.

Kim Wheeler, a Mohawk and Anishinaabe radio host, says: “It doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. We don’t celebrate it. We don’t have the big dinner or anything like that. We kind of just joke around and call it the ‘You’re Welcome Weekend.’”

“The goal has always been the same for Canada and Indigenous people: it’s to remove us from our land and have access to the resources,” says Jennifer Wickham, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, fighting for the rights of the land endangered by the construction of the Costal Gaslink pipeline project. “That storyline has never changed.”

Because so much history has been forcefully forgotten and lost, it is understandable why the Indigenous community so highly regards those called “knowledge keepers”, as these are the only people they have to teach future generations what was so tragically lost, and more so, what can still be.

When asked what knowledge keepers carry and what they bring to the community, knowledge keeper Nokomis Cindilee stated: “Wisdom of experience, an understanding, language, connection to the language and culture, ceremonies, and medicine plants. The knowledge is to be passed, by way of mentors, apprentices, and family lineage. All in all, it is a big responsibility.”

Aboriginal communities must nurture their Indigenous knowledge in order to preserve it, pass it on to the next generation as they have done down through the centuries, and protect it from misuse by others, says Simon Brascoupé and Howard Mann, authors of A Community Guide to Protecting Indigenous Knowledge, written for the Indian and Northern Affairs of Canada. “A community’s Indigenous Knowledge (IK) can define a community’s uniqueness, can underlie its relation to the world, and can tie the past to the future.”

Although in the past, I have celebrated thanksgiving with the practices of the European settlers, through modern meals of the traditional feast, and all the cliched decorations, this year I have gained a deeper understanding beyond what I thought this holiday was.

I urge all of us, including myself, to consider educating one another on the traditions of Indigenous people. Consider feasting on traditional foods of Turtle Island, even if it’s one dish.

“There are many traditional foods, the challenge is where to gather, the knowing of how to gather, and how to prepare some of these traditional foods,” Nokomis Cindilee told me. Some of these foods available according to her include:

  • Fish if caught in the wild or that of farming, fish that are connected to Turtle Island such as trout, salmon, catfish, perch, bass, pickerel, pike

  • Potatoes, squash, corn, beans

  • Cornbread

  • Cherries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, black berries, pears, apples, wild grapes

  • Wild game venison, moose, duck, goose, rabbit, grouse

  • Walnuts, chestnuts

  • Dandelion for salads,

“It can be difficult to shop for some of this. It would need to be gathered by one that hunts, or there are some butchers that do offer wild game meats, but very few do,” notes Nokomis Cindilee.

Consider paying respects to those who once were denied the right to practice such traditions on the very land they came from.

Rather than giving thanks for the material items you are grateful for like your home and your car, consider giving thanks for Creation, for all living things that make this world possible, for Mother Earth for providing the harvest you will feast on and for the people who lost their lives in the creation of Canada.

Consider giving thanks for all people, all tribes, all nations, all clans, yourself, your family and everyone who still struggles today. Consider this Thanksgiving a time of respecting those who have been so unrighteously disrespected for so many years past and consider making Thanksgiving a time to respect what was lost.