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This Thanksgiving, as an Ojibwe woman, I will grieve for what Europeans did to native peoples here. But I will also give thanks for life.
I will grieve because Europeans killed most of us quickly and directly at first and later resorted to more cunning means of forced assimilation, such as boarding schools and discriminatory land allotment. It is estimated that there were between 7 million and 10 million indigenous individuals inhabiting what is now America at the beginning of European contact in the early 15th century. By 1900, there were only about 230,000 of us left.
Some might wonder why a Native-American woman would give thanks on a holiday that highlights the beginning of the end for many tribes. I give thanks because that’s what we Ojibwe do. We express gratitude for the great gift of life given to us by the creator.
Traditional Ojibwe religion is deeply rooted in the understanding that life, ever moving, ever changing, is a tremendous gift. This understanding dates way back before the days when the Wampanoag Indians sat down with the Pilgrims for that now famous meal.
We also understand that there is no escaping life’s relentless nature. We are leaves on a tree, in various states of growth. At some time, we will turn color, fall from the tree, swirl colorfully around some kid’s feet and join the soil once again.
We Ojibwe know that we have absolutely no choice but to celebrate this fact. We begin all of our prayers, for all events, big and small, public and personal, with “migwiich” — thank you. We thank the creator for letting us be here and for giving us the gifts that allow us to live this life.
I’m not sure the Pilgrims really “got” this concept. In reading historical accounts of interactions between early Europeans and Indians, I note that the Indians wondered at the childlike, greedy nature of the visitors who seemed to have a strange fantasy that they could permanently “own” the Earth. The Indians laughed at the notion that life’s inexorable movement might somehow be staved off by owning stuff.
As the Europeans’ true intentions began to emerge more fully, the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians quickly deteriorated. Years of bitter fighting ensued. After one battle between the Powhatan Indians and the settlers, members of the tribe stuffed the mouths of the dead settlers with dirt, a potent message.
In many ways, not a lot has changed for the American psyche that allowed early settlers to kill off Indians who got in the way of their plans. Americans still really lke to buy and own stuff. Unfortunately, pretty much everything takes second place to that same mission of owning — of eating — the Earth.
Here at my house on Thanksgiving, we will offer up our gratitude to the creator before digging into a “traditional” meal of turkey and all the fixings. We will say migwiich for our food, our family and the day off. On “Black Friday,” we will sleep in late and loll around in bed with our kids.
You see, Ojibwe know that when we look back on our lives, nobody ever wishes they had gotten up earlier for the sale. We may wish we had embraced life more fully and celebrated it more enthusiastically.
So on Thanksgiving, we do say migwiich, and we definitely eat the pumpkin pie.
Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She currently lives and works as an independent journalist in Cincinnati. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.