Whenever Thanksgiving comes around I flash back to second grade and those construction paper Pilgrim hats we used to cut and paste together. In those days, this pre-Christmas holiday meant nothing more to us than a four day weekend with a ton of food and, if we were lucky, some early snow to sled on.
Every public school in America teaches some rendition of the Thanksgiving story, but as often happens over the course of history, the facts have become skewed and much of the essence has been lost. While this late November holiday gives some credit to our Native American predecessors, it tends to overlook an important detail that is at the very heart of tribal culture.
During that cold autumn of 1621, the unfathomable hospitality that was shown by Wampanoag and Pawtuxet tribes to the Pilgrims was not a random act of kindness. It was actually the modus operandi for many pre-Columbian tribal communities when encountering strangers in need. To the early European settlers, this warm welcome was absolutely unexpected and is why we newcomers still celebrate the unlikely stroke of good fortune – but we’re missing a bigger point.
Upon encountering the frail and bewildered explorers from across the sea who were dying of malnutrition and exposure, why did the Wampanoag women so openly share their knowledge of the local flora of New England? Why did Pawtuxet men teach these desperate foreigners the tricks to hunting local game (which, by the way, was more often deer than turkey)?
It comes down to one word – respect. In many Native American communities, one of the most fundamental teachings is that we must have unwavering respect for all living things, including other human beings. This single morsel of innate wisdom has been relied upon for millennia to steer communities in the direction of good, rather than fear-fueled mishap.
At some point in our lives, most of us are taught to be true to ourselves, to have patience, and to help others in need when we can, regardless of who they are. Yet, we often forget about this last item during our young and mid-adulthood, especially in today’s fast paced, career-oriented environment. Why?
Too closed off for compassion
In a properly functioning tribal structure, each individual has built in support – children are supported by parents who are supported by grandparents who have an intimate link back to the grandchild (a sacred triad!). The elders are not shipped down to Florida to spend their golden years detached from family. They are instead elevated to an honorary status in the household or village and relied upon heavily for their wisdom and ability to steer future generations in the right direction. In this system, everyone has someone to lean on and someone to care for.
By contrast, our western world is beginning to show alarming symptoms of a civilization that has forgotten how to care for itself. We are not looking out for one another the way we used to. We know more about the nuances of sitcom characters and professional athletes than those of our own loved ones. I have friends that could rattle off the starting roster for their favorite sports teams at the drop of a hat, but couldn’t tell you the hopes, dreams, and fears of their own nieces and nephews. Who are we without the support of the parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – our true role models?
We get caught up in a daily grind that dilutes our perspective and warps our priorities. This isn’t a new story – survival has always been the name of the game – but our ancestors had something that many of us don’t. They had a close-knit family unit during their times of struggle – not only to give well seasoned perspective in times of strife, but also to keep an extra pair of eyes on the treasure that matters most – the young ones.
Something to celebrate:
More and more of us Westerners are looking to native cultures for insight on how to achieve a more conscious, connected, and healthy existence. Whether it’s through a shamanic practice, native nutrition (like the Paleo-diet), or another sacred wisdom tradition, these resurgent ancestral protocols are so innately “right” for us that they can be effective even when singled out and applied to an otherwise unnatural lifestyle.
The next step for those of us who want to take it to the next level is to begin looking at the whole picture, particularly the triangular family format of our ancestors, and apply this to our own lives.
We’re all in this thing together and what better time than now to let those you love into your heart? This is a holiday of extreme gratitude, so if you have the good fortune to be sitting across the dinner table from your dear ones tomorrow, join us in celebrating the elders who have always watched over us, and the young ones who are new to this awe-inspiring adventure called life!
They’re my children. All children are my children. I teach them the songs and whatever else I can. That’s what Grandmothers are for – to teach songs and tell stories and show them the right berries to pick and roots to dig. No better job in the world than being a Grandmother! ~Leila Fisher, Hoh Tribe
Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus should we do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World. ~Black Elk, Sioux Tribe
Everything I know I learned by listening and watching. Nowadays people learn out of books instead. Doctors study what man has learned. I pray to understand what man has forgotten.
~Vernon Cooper, Lumbee Tribe