Thirteen Thanksgivings: And not a pilgrim hat in sight

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The beloved traditions surrounding Thanksgiving are one of the reasons why Americans hold on to the myth of this most iconic American holiday, despite the inaccuracies. The first Thanksgiving as an official holiday was in 1637 when Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the massacre of over 700 Indigenous men, women and children of the Pequot tribe. Puritan New England saw proclamations of “thanksgiving” to thank God following what they deemed auspicious events, among them the defeat of Indigenous peoples in bloody massacres and wars. In fact, the Thanksgiving holiday was not tied to the meal shared between pilgrims and Wampanoags in 1621 until after 1890 as representations of the pilgrims and Wampanoags sharing a harvest celebration began being used to represent American freedom and good citizenship.

Think about what we do on Thanksgiving that we enjoy so much. Family and friends come together to share a meal of all our favorite foods. Perhaps you hold ceremony, saying a blessing before the meal or go around the table, each one in turn naming the things they are most thankful for. Afterward there’s always great entertainment with football games and TV specials of our favorite stories. In truth, there are many Indigenous Americans who also celebrate this holiday, but not in recognition of the myth.   

Many of the traditions surrounding the modern Thanksgiving holiday have long been held in Indigenous North American communities. Only we didn’t have just one thanksgiving, we had 13. Roger Williams in his observations of the Narragansett remarked that “They have thirteen Moneths according to the severall Moones; and they give to each of them significant names.” We indeed had names for each moon and during these cycles, we held celebrations of great significance, our “thanksgivings,” a time in which communities gathered together to hold ceremony with feasting and stories and games, and most importantly to give thanks. These celebrations fluctuated, as they adjusted to the movements of the seasons and weather patterns, which no one can perfectly predict. These ceremonies differed from tribe to tribe so there’s no saying exactly what 13 thanksgivings were celebrated annually, but here are 13 commonly recognized within New England tribal communities:

Storytelling Moon was honored during the deep winter, recognizing our oral traditions. Stories are celebrated for the passing on of our history, traditions, values and just for fun. Maple Sugar Thanksgiving was held when the sap of the maple started to flow, in recognition of the gifts from the maple trees. In early séquan (spring) we celebrate the time of rejuvenation, celebrating the arrival of the flowers, honoring the Thunder beings who come with the spring rains. This is usually followed by the Fishing Moon as the rising water temperatures signal a return to spawning grounds. Aukeeteámitch, planting time, is a seed ceremony where a blessing is prayed over the seeds being laid for the year’s crop. Strawberry Thanksgiving celebrates the wuttáhimneash — the heart berry, a gift from creator and a symbol of love. Green Bean Thanksgiving recognizes the summer growing season as the fields begin to yield their fruit. Green Corn Thanksgiving pays homage to our most important life-sustaining crop. The thanksgiving for the gathering of the Cranberry ushers in the time of harvest. Taquontikéeswush, the fall harvest time, celebrates the final gathering of all the gardens before the winter frosts. Hunters Moon was a time of ceremony to honor the animals who give up their lives for ours. Nikommo, one of our most important thanksgivings of the year, is a time for showing gratitude for all our blessings. It is celebrated with the largest feasts and give-away ceremonies, where community members outdo themselves in their extreme generosity to one another and in turn, bestow prayers for health and prosperity upon each other. Finally, with the coming of the Big Snow Thanksgiving, we celebrate as the Earth Mother goes to rest under a blanket of snow to replenish herself for another year.  

In this way, we recognize the seasons and give thanks to the creator for all his many blessings. Why celebrate one thanksgiving when you can have 13 opportunities to give thanks all year round?

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