Wincing and Walking On, with Thanks

It's a long wondrous way from fake feathers to real gratitude. Let's go there together.

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Thanksgiving has rolled around once again. Conveniently, November is also national Native American History Month, a time when Americans take time to celebrate the indigenous peoples of this nation. This would be the perfect time to teach youngsters about contemporary American Indians and the interesting and exciting work many tribes are doing to preserve and revitalize their languages and cultures.

In Southern Ohio, my neck of the woods, however, the celebration of indigenous culture takes the form of pre-schoolers dressing up as pilgrims and American Indians. They make wide brimmed black hats and headdresses out of construction paper, decorating the headdresses with fake-colored feathers, and sit down for some version of the first Thanksgiving meal eaten by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims in 1621. This is the season when school children learn about the Indians who “used to” live here “long ago.”

I saw the first pictures of these events in my local newspaper Monday and, as usual, winced and wondered what the community reaction would be if children dressed up as slaves or African tribal folks to recognize Black History Month. Thankfully, however, the years have taken the edge off my irritation with such things; I write today about my hope for Thanksgiving and what it could mean for all of us.

In general, Indians are really big on gratitude. Ceremonies, feasts, activities great and small all begin with giving thanks to the Creator for letting us enjoy life on this earth. Those old time Indians, famous for their long winded oratorical skills, thanked the Creator for things most folks take for granted: the sun, the moon, the air, the earth and finally for the gift of life, that great unfathomable force that sweeps us all forward. This has always been our way.

I sense that Indians and non-Indians alike are hungering more and more for this connection to the earth. We are witnessing growing mainstream interest in indigenous ceremonies and knowledge. People seem drawn to indigenous ways and practices. In the news and via my social network of Indian friends, I often hear of non-Indians engaging in all manner of native ways and ceremonies, some genuine and some outlandish and misguided.

For years, I felt angry and disgusted hearing about non-indigenous people expropriating our ways. The New Age trend, for instance, felt like the final and ultimate humiliation and depredation. Recently, however, I’ve begun to look upon the growing interest in native ways as a good sign for all of us here on earth. The growing awareness of the environment brought about by news of global warming has piqued interest in a spirituality and worldview that celebrates connection to the earth.

Mary Annette Pember
Full moon over Spirit Lake, North Dakota.

Not long ago, I interviewed George Sielstad, an Earth Systems scientist who taught for many years at the University of North Dakota. Sielstad is one of a group of scientists who work with NASA in its growing efforts to collaborate with indigenous peoples for answers to the problem of global warming. “In the Western world, people think they’re not part of nature unless they’re out camping,” Sielstad said. “They have forgotten that we are all a part of nature even at home in the city. Indigenous peoples understand this.”

The acknowledgement of the human spirit’s relationship to the earth is at the heart of the native way of knowing. This knowledge, noted Sielstad, may be among the greatest gifts that native peoples have to share with scientists and the world.

Typically, Western religions do not celebrate this connection, though today, more than ever, people hunger for it.

Earlier this year, the New York Times Magazine printed an article called, “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?” The author spoke of a newly discovered psychological condition called solastalgia to describe the “pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” The author noted that this condition is well known among indigenous communities that have been displaced from their lands. He expressed surprise that this “place pathology” might not be limited to native peoples. Non-Indians, e.g. modern middle and upper class white folks might actually feel it too! I immediately sensed that all the Indians reading this had to be doing a collective eye roll while voicing an exasperated, “duh, ya think?”

Mary Annette Pember
A heron on Spirit Lake, North Dakota.


Indigenous peoples have no deep, dark ancestral secret revealing the meaning of life. The only thing we have is the knowledge that we are a part of this earth, not apart from it. Our spirituality and ceremonies celebrate this simple, profound awareness.

In a recent essay called “Amazon Awakening,” writer Andy Isaacson relates his recent cultural tourism experience among the Achuar tribe of Ecuador. During this spendy, exclusive vacation he hung out with indigenous people who still live on their traditional land and practice their ways, culture and language. A shaman invited him to participate in a ceremony in which he drank brew made from ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant that the Achuar call, “vine of the soul.”

Andy cried, barfed his guts out and had his dreams interpreted by the shaman who in the end simply told him, “You came here to learn about the culture, the rain forest and the reality of the Achuar people. Now you’ve done that.”

Isaacson could only hear this simple message in the form of a purchase from a preconceived notion of suitably exotic and “authentic” indigenous peoples. He could have saved himself a lot of money and gained similar insight by simply turning his phone off and going for a walk in the woods. The great and exciting news, however, is that even writers for fancy publications like the New York Times are seeking this simple message.

I recall how watching the footage of the BP oil spill and those great plumes of junk spewing into the ocean made me queasy and sick at the stomach. All the Indians I spoke to felt the same. There were many ceremonies and gatherings throughout Indian country recognizing that we felt sick at heart for our earth and needed to pray. I can’t believe that the rest of you humans out there didn’t feel the same.

Mary Annette Pember
Sunset at Ft. Totten Days powwow in North Dakota.

American Indian traditions and spirituality celebrate the earth and our connections to it. Solistigia is simply a fancy name for something we’ve always known: that we suffer when we mistreat the land, our home. In our traditional ways, we know this unquestioningly. I’m thinking and hoping that non –Indians may be beginning to learn this too. You don’t have to go to a sweat lodge, purchase crystals, take an Indian name or spend money on a vacation to the Amazon. You can make that connection right at home.

And we can all work on giving thanks, not only on Thanksgiving Day, but everyday, for our lives and our precious home, the earth. From this Thanksgiving, I’m thinking we might gain the courage to work together on taking better care of our home and each other. We might move away from the habits that created the BP oil spill and the tar sand mines of Alberta and we develop a mindset that will not tolerate these disasters.

On Thanksgiving Day, go outside and breathe in the great gift of air. Walk on the earth. This time of year, it is fairly humming as it prepares itself for winter and its great period of rejuvenation. Poignantly full of death, it also promises rebirth. Hereabouts, I visit the waters, the Ohio River and the Little Miami River. Watching these waters fills me with awe at the great flow and force of life. I am reminded and renewed. In the Ojibwe tradition, women care for the water. Although Southern Ohio is not my Ojibwe homeland, I feed the waters of my new home. I feed them and give thanks and I am fed. Abandoning the illusion of control and separation from this process, I step into the flow.

 

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