The Complexity of Gratefulness: Remembering Thanksgiving
In first grade, as Thanksgiving approached, we learned the story of its origins–how the pilgrims were on the verge of dying, and the neighboring Indians came to offer corn, as well as how to cook it. The Pilgrims were so grateful, they asked the Indians to stay a while, and in the celebration of their getting along they made a feast. At the time I was fascinated. Touched too by the power of generosity and sharing. The story developed into a Thanksgiving celebration of our own, which included a project.
Each of us were given a paper pattern for making a simple three part vest. We were to lay the pattern onto burlap, cut out the scratching brown weave, and then stitch the pieces together with yarn. I loved this. The care demanded of marking the pattern, followed by the hands-on process of cutting and sewing… perfect. Hands on work was always my favorite. Once we finished the vest a new aspect arose.
The class was going to reenact that original Thanksgiving. We were to choose–did we want to be a Pilgrim, or an Indian, and then embroider icons onto our vest accordingly. Part of the pattern, it turned out, included things like feathers and corn for the Indian vests, or outlines of houses and something else for the Pilgrims. I sat for a long time confused.
My family is Alaska Native. On my father’s side we are Inupiat, which is an Inuit group that happens to be on what is now the Alaska side of the border with Canada. On my mother’s side we are Aleut. Most people haven’t heard of Aleut, it’s okay. But Aleuts are a group of people that come from along the Aleutian Chain of Islands of Alaska, up into the Alaska Peninsula, where the Islands join the mainland. The Aleut are more closely related to the Yupik and Inupiat of Alaska, than they are to the Athabascan, or Tlingit–the two major “American Indian” groups in the state–but really they are their own group of people. In Anthropological, in Linguistic, and in Census terms, neither the Aleut nor the Inupiat are “Indian.” Though “Indian” itself is a problematic usage, I’ll overlook that for now. The point is that, Aleuts and Inupiat simply are not what is called an “Indian” group, though they are Indigenous.
The challenge of the vest for me lay in having to choose my identity–Pilgrim, or Indian.
My family celebrated Thanksgiving every year. We would put together a huge meal, and I would revel in the extra days off from school to play with my stuffed animals, watch the science shows on PBS, and rearrange the furniture of my room. (I rearranged my furniture a lot.) My mom would make several pies, and homemade rolls, which were everyone’s favorite. But, honestly, she made the entire meal every year. We would start the meal in prayer, and then we would eat, without a lot of talking, but with a lot of appreciation for the food. We didn’t eat muktuk or seal oil that day, but we might have had it earlier that same week.
I remember saying aloud in the classroom as I sat deciding, “I can’t be a Pilgrim.” Well then, be an Indian, the teacher and other kids responded. “But I’m not Indian.” It took me more than a day to decide. Eventually I ended up with an Indian vest, and a construction paper feather at the back of my head. My people don’t put feathers on their head or wear burlap vests.
As small as this moment seems, Thanksgiving has made me tense ever since. It’s not that I want to talk about the decimation of Native people. I actually don’t. Nor, (please, god, no) do I want a moment of silence “for the genocide” to start the meal. It’s more that I don’t want to not talk about it as though gratefulness is a monotone focus. It is not only a focus on the positive. Gratefulness, I believe, is a complicated state that flows fullest with recognition of the blessings that come even within the challenge. As well as appreciation for what we might think is simply good.
I am deeply grateful. It’s a kind of miracle that as a Native person I am even alive, our history has been so challenged. I am grateful for the vitality of my family. I am grateful for the wealth of incredible teachers my life has included–both literal in the classroom teachers, and each one of you I meet and learn from. (My first grade teacher was honestly one of the coolest people I ever knew. She used to threaten that if we acted out she was going to pick us up “by the seat of [our] britches and carry [us] to the principal’s office.” I longed to see that happen, even as I desperately didn’t want anyone to act out.) I am grateful for my daughter, that through everything, we have persisted in joy. I am grateful for this little house I have just moved into in Sonoma, and am still unpacking. I am grateful for my sisters’ wonderful families–it does my heart good to know they have such lives. I am grateful for my mother. She is the most dedicated to me, and I learn on a regular basis what devotion means from her commitment to her family and to god. I am grateful for my father. His life is a testament to how much is possible when a person chooses well, determined to succeed.
I give thanks for my friends. I thank god for getting me here. It is my friends god has most clearly acted through. Their willingness to love me through the struggle of making change, as well as the celebration and excitement of my goals coming to fruition–that has made everything I’ve ever done in my life feel possible. A year ago at this time I was getting ready to close my last semester teaching at the university. I had given my resignation and had no good idea what I was going to do. I only knew I wanted to spend my time writing, and I wanted to decide where Rachel and I were going to move, then move us there. That’s exactly what I did this last year–another sort of miracle. Now, I want to focus on us getting settled, on celebrating the connections we’ve started with people, on continuing to grow a healthy liveable income, and on appreciating each other. She is just 13.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow. What a beautiful idea to have an entire holiday devoted to gratefulness. May each of you feel the blessing of this day. Amen.
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