By Randy Woodley 11-17-2015 | Series:

What role does Thanksgiving play in our lives and our faith?

When we think about the meeting of the first pilgrims and Indians, we usually connect vicariously to one side of that old Plymouth encounter, mysteriously linking our faith journey to the early pilgrims’ faith journey. But what about those long-ago Indians? Is there a reason to remember them as more than a foil for the pilgrims?

Perhaps without realizing it, Thanksgiving, among its many other functions, is a holiday that serves the purpose of perpetuating a national myth. How often do we ask, “What happened to the Indians?” If we consider them at all, we are slow to admit that perhaps leaving the them in a frozen state of time at the earliest Thanksgiving dinner helps to make us feel better about what would eventually become the genocide of Native Americans and of their continued mistreatment.

Year after year we think warmly of that first union of the pilgrims and the Indians — and then we continue on in the supposed faith tradition of one of those peoples without another thought to the fate of the others.

Our annual celebration, mostly without us realizing it, wipes the Indigenous genocide slate clean and perpetuates the myth that everything is now okay. But it's not okay.

We should take the time to admit and lament the staggering mistreatment of Native Americans and the alarming rates of disease and dysfunction brought on by colonialism.

We lament over intentional and unintentional genocide; over stolen land; over families destroyed; over spirituality suppressed; and over the continued mistreatment and marginalization of indigenous peoples.

Yet there’s more we can do. Here are a few ways you can faithfully honor both sides of the Thanksgiving table this year.

1. Plymouth Was Not the First Thanksgiving In America

Both real and imagined descendants of the First Thanksgiving should consider the godly legacy left by the Native Americans. Thanksgiving in America didn't begin with the pilgrims. For thousands of years, many feasts of thanksgiving have been characteristic of American Indigenous tribes. These ceremonies and feasts still continue today among Native Americans, all in thanks to the Creator.

In reality, that First Thanksgiving was simply the first opportunity for the pilgrims to join millennial-old traditions among America's Indigenous peoples to thank God. Americans, both the real and the vicarious descendants of the First Thanksgiving, should consider the godly legacy left by Native Americans. It might also serve them well to remember that the Creator was already present before they arrived on the land upon which they were living.

2. The Native Americans Were the Hosts, Not the Guests

New immigrants (anyone arriving in America after 1491) should view the Plymouth feast as indigenous peoples welcoming newcomers, and as a result take the opportunity to express gratitude to local Indigenous peoples and all creation — especially those plants and animals that provided the feast and extended others' lives another day by sacrificing theirs.

Settlers should view themselves as good guests of the land, and rethink their social posture with humility. They should express gratitude today to local indigenous peoples and all creation, especially those plants and animals that provided the feast and continue to sacrifice to provide for us all.

As America's host people, Native Americans are the covenanted keepers of the land, and view its care as a sacred duty. Our land-keeping responsibilities include bringing the land, the people, and the rest of creation back into harmony. Traditionally, we have done this through prayer, ceremony, and special festivals. If people are willing, Thanksgiving can be a time of reconciliation and healing of the land.

3. An Invitation To Be Hospitable

The holiday can also be used to promote a new grand myth or metaphor for hospitality to the poor, the disenfranchised, the newest immigrants, and those who we consider "the cultural other." How? People throughout the whole world who have been the recipients of the devastation brought on by the dominant myth of colonialism and unfair capital theft should be invited to Thanksgiving tables everywhere in order to cultivate new friendships. We cannot hate, or even ignore, one another and expect to heal the land and please God.

By thanking the Creator and showing love to one another, we can actually begin restoring harmony in the land. This can begin with a simple meal.

Our Indian elders knew that many of the so-called “Christian" settlers did not act like the Jesus whom they claimed to represent. They also knew that in our shared histories we sometimes enjoyed times of peace and friendship that reflected something better than the many unhappy times.

Without ignoring the centuries of injustice, together we should celebrate those times of friendship and build upon them. After all, isn't the point of a myth to set a good narrative that can be built upon in the present?

To me, this is the point of Thanksgiving. The holiday is a time to share stories both of joy and pain and still be thankful for all life. Thanksgiving is a time for us all to share our mutual humanity. Without ignoring the historical truth of the big picture and the fate of the Native Americans, we can use the Thanksgiving holiday as continuous narrative for peace and friendship.

Let's build upon that part of the myth.

Dr. Randy Woodley is author of Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Eerdmans); his podcast, Peacing It All Together, can be found at peacingitalltogether.com. Dr. Woodley and his wife, Edith, operate Eloheh Indigenous Way/Eagle's Wings Ministry near Portland, Ore., where he is distinguished professor of faith and culture at Portland Seminary. 

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