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What do Presbyterian Native Americans really think about Thanksgiving?

A time to celebrate a harvest of memories

By Danelle Crawford-McKinney | Presbyterians Today

Squirrels remind us of the importance of respecting all life. Getty Images

I was talking to my friend from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma one time about how squirrels can signal to us what kind of winter we could look forward to. He said that when the squirrels dig holes in the ground to bury their harvest, we can expect a mild winter. If squirrels carry their harvest to their nests, then a heavy snow would be expected, as snow would be more difficult for the animals to work through to get to the food.

This conversation reminded me of another time when I heard one of the grandmothers of the Dakota community talk about the importance of respecting all life, including the squirrels. She was taught that the Dakota could dig into the squirrels’ holes and pick out the nuts that they had gathered for their harvest. Before they could just take the squirrels’ food, though, the Dakota would have to offer corn as a replacement to help the little animals through their long winter as well.

Thanksgiving is a time of reflection, and there are most likely many who reflect on Thanksgiving as a time when the Native Americans shared a meal with the settlers to celebrate the good harvest. For me, though, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on memories that taught me the importance of honoring and respecting life and land — such as the stories of the squirrels.

Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, but not in the sense of celebrating as an American tradition. (Turkey, for example, was never the go-to food for the Native Americans. For Native Americans in earlier times — and even today — the harvest involved deer and elk. Turkey was always viewed as a novelty because it was what the mainline American culture would prepare.)

Dinner differences aside, a Native American Thanksgiving celebrates the fact that we are still here, despite the historical atrocities that have occurred to each sovereign nation throughout the history of the United States. Many people still believe that the Native Americans are a conquered people. Native Americans, though, gather around tables and celebrate that we are survivors.

Thanksgiving represents a time when we can turn to our ancient teachings, reflect on the issues before us and try to look for ways in which we can keep those teachings alive.

We still remember to honor all life, even when those atrocities still exist today. We are reminded of those tragic stories every time we turn on our water. We remember that there are Native Americans who risk their lives every day trying to bring awareness to the pipelines being built on land and over water. The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone pipelines in the middle United States have created much controversy, and many Native Americans have been at the center of the protests.

In 2016, protesters who called themselves “water protectors” peacefully protesting the Dakota pipeline were arrested, forced into dog kennels and shot at with rubber bullets. Although the pipeline continues, so does the fight for clean water. We also continue to pray that the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast water source beneath the Great Plains, will remain clean for the generations to come.

While many Native Americans from many different nations and histories have many ideas of how the world could be a better place, the one common thread at the Thanksgiving table that we can count on is the relationship with Creator God.

Psalm 118 says, “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.” At the heart of Native American culture, gratitude is a value among the nations.

Native Americans have much to be grateful for: survival, perseverance and a strong connection to the land, water, plants and animals. Our connection to the Creator and all life inspires us to be strong, yet peaceful, with all life.

Danelle Crawford-McKinney is the first Dakota woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is the student rights specialist at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, where she and her husband, Ron McKinney, a teaching elder, reside with their three children and two grandsons.


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