Harvest time has always been the time when stories of the First Thanksgiving are told. Stories of when the Indians and pilgrims brought together a great feast to share with one another. That is the well-known story, but it certainly does not tell the story of how that original feast came to be for Indian people.
Being more spiritual than religious, we do not gather every week. We gather when we have a reason to celebrate or to honor something or someone.
The real first feast of thanksgiving was held long before the pilgrims came to North America …or Turtle Island, as we like to call this land.
November is the month when we get more requests to come to schools to speak about Indian people than at any other time. The rest of the year we seem to become invisible. (The clothing can trick you … we dress like everyone else most of the time.)
We have honored the turning of the seasons, and the harvest that comes along with this time, with a fall feast from the time of our earliest teachings.
Actually, we celebrate and give thanks for every one of the four seasons. All seasonal feasts have food associated with them except the spring feast, when there is no food left and the earth has not yet brought forth berries and Fiddlehead ferns.
As with most Indian gatherings, there are common threads through all -- food, fire and the four sacred herbs: tobacco, cedar, sage and sweet grass.
The day begins with a sunrise pipe ceremony, or if no pipe carrier/spiritual elder is available, we still raise prayers at sunrise, asking for a day filled with laughter, fellowship and ceremony.
The women prepare the sacred herbs which will be placed near the fire in individual bowls. (There are very few ceremonies in which we mix the herbs together.)
Once the fire has been started, anyone can come to the fire, offer one of more of the sacred herbs and make a prayer. The smoke carries that prayer up to the Creator.
In our way of life, you are responsible to bring everything you will need for ceremony with you, like a dish bag or a basket containing all your own dishes, silverware and cup. This way you learn responsibility toward taking care of the earth by not adding to a landfill! You bring medicines. You bring your own chair and a dish to share or pass.
All food is prepared on the day of the feast, and the time the women spend cooking is a special time of fellowship. Likewise, the men will build the sacred fire and they will have fellowship with each other.
(If there are any women on their moon time or menstrual cycle, they are not allowed to help in the preparation of the feast food, nor can they touch any of the food, because they are very powerful at this time. Someone will make a plate for her when the time to eat arrives. Likewise, she cannot touch any of the sacred medicines or herbs. Someone will have to add them to the fire for her. Many times these women will wear a piece of flat cedar pinned to their clothing. This is our way of letting everyone know that she is on her moon and therefore very powerful. Unlike other societies, we celebrate our moon time … but that is a discussion is for another time. The reason that they cannot touch the food or medicines is not because she is thought of as unclean, but because she is very powerful when she is in her moon time and the spirits will be attracted to her, possibly to the detriment of the reason for the feast.)
The traditional foods that we find at a feast today would include venison, fish, turkey, wild rice, squash, corn, beans and berries -- traditional foods that have been part of our history from the beginning. That doesn’t mean that other foods brought to the feast could not be cooked and eaten, quite the contrary, but we always strive to include as many of the traditional foods as possible.
While the food is cooking and doesn’t need to be watched too closely, we sit together around the fire, share stories, and talk about the state of the country, the world, our families and our lives. It is a time to share, or as I have often heard it referred to, a time to find out what the state of the Indian Nation is as it relates to us.
We like to begin the feast at noon, since it is one of the two most powerful times of the day. The feast food is laid out on the table in a particular order, beginning in the eastern direction and going clockwise around the table. Meat, fish and fowl come first, and then vegetables, breads and desserts last.
Once all the foods are arranged, we make a spirit dish. A small portion of everything that is on the feast table is put into a dish, even butter, salt, pepper, and any beverage that is being served. We generally ask one of the younger women to make that spirit dish. We do that so they learn the way things are to be done from an early age.
When we pray, we hold a bit of tobacco in the left hand -- the hand closest to our heart -- and a blessing is asked upon the food, usually by an elder. When the prayer is finished, the tobacco is added to the spirit dish and the dish is taken outside and placed under a tree or bush, somewhere out of the way. We feed the spirits before we feed ourselves, asking them to share our feast.
Once that bowl has been taken outside all are invited to partake of the feast food. Elders always go first, with the rest of the people proceeding through the line by age, from oldest to youngest. We hold our elders in a respected place in our community. We honor the fact that they have had many more life experiences and this is a way that we show our appreciation to them.
You should take a little of each food, but we always caution that you should eat what you take. Of course, there are times when there are scraps or some leftover food on a plate. That food is all gathered and must be either be put into the water, or left for the four-legged, but never thrown into the garbage.
All the food that is left over from the feast is given to the person or persons hosting the feast, but that person may choose to distribute the food to others, especially since all the feast food must be eaten within the next three days.
After the meal, we may tell some stories, since it is the traditional time, from fall through spring, when we tell stories. We wrap things up and start getting ready to travel back home. Each person is responsible for washing their own dishes, and the women take care of all the cooking pots, pans and utensils. Everyone helps clean up the location where the feast has taken place.
Although we do not celebrate Thanksgiving the same way many others we do, we join you in giving thanks for another prosperous year on our mother earth, for good food to eat, clean water to drink, and for family, friends and faith.