This essay was originally published as part of our Thanksgiving package in the October 2020 issue of Cottage Life.
In these politically charged times, honoured beliefs and themes are changing at an incredible rate. Sports teams—I’m looking at you Washington, Cleveland, and Edmonton—are having to reassess their names and history. Even statues of historical figures are now standing on uneven ground. But few things are as wholesome and beloved as Thanksgiving, or as threatened. Within some areas of the Indigenous community, it too is in trouble.
Beginning in America in 1621, those first so-called celebrations of harmonious coexistence between Indigenous people and the Pilgrims originally included tables full of cooked swan, lobster, and seal. Not sure how they pair with cranberry sauce. During those early years of colonization, it was the Wampanoag people who assisted the Pilgrims near present day Plymouth, Mass., newcomers who had little idea how to survive in the so-called New World and were dangerously close to starvation. Those same Pilgrims and, later, the Puritans brought to the table a cornucopia of religious intolerance, greed for land, and several different horrific diseases that gave us a lot less to be thankful for.
In Canada, the conversation is a little bit different. Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1879 (16 years after it became an official holiday in the U.S.), intended to celebrate more the fall harvest than religious zealots marking their territory. But it’s not fair to say that Canada’s early days have had a happy ending. We too have had—and still have—our share of intolerance and misunderstanding. A rose by any other name still stinks.
So, whenever this time of year rolls around, you can hear certain grumblings grow amongst some in the Indigenous community. For those more politically aware, it sometimes goes by the term “Thanks-For-Nothing Day.” Or even “You’re Welcome Day.”
But if truth be told, many Indigenous people past and present honour the culinary habits of Thanksgiving Day, including my family. Some Indigenous people go out of their way to avoid the usual tabletop culinary accoutrement, and try to replace it with more traditional fare, such as wild meat, fish, the ubiquitous turkey, and very frequently, a wide assortment of wild rice casseroles.
For me, it’s not about celebrating history: it’s an occasion to meet with my family and have a good meal. Personally, I cannot remember a single year where it has gone unenjoyed by my family. And I have a huge family—my mother was the oldest of 14, so when you add on marriages and cousins…it becomes at least a two-, possibly three-turkey gathering, not to mention ham and other assorted culinary wonders. (No seals or swans in recent history though.)
At the end of the day, Indigenous people, regardless of their specific nation, are a people of tradition. And Thanksgiving, in whatever form, is indeed a tradition.
A tasty one.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and writer. His most recent novel is Chasing Painted Horses. He is a member of the Curve Lake First Nation.