As a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day is a commemoration of what in school we used to call “The First Thanksgiving.”
Of course, that was not the first Thanksgiving feast at all. Celebrating the end of the harvest season and giving thanks to the Creator for the blessings of food, and the beauty of the world, and life, and each other, have been part of people’s lives all over the world for more centuries than any of us can say. Certainly it was a tradition in the lives of the Native people whose kind-heartedness saved the lives of the Pilgrims.
In my view the four basic Ojibwe values are gratitude, modesty, generosity, and respect. We understand that everything in our lives has been provided by the Creator, that these blessings have made us rich, and that the Creator wants us in turn to be generous with each other. A good Ojibwe is thankful and endeavors to develop a generous spirit.
One morning, the feeling of my littles girls’ fine, rather wispy hair in my hands as I braided it, then crossed and tied the braids behind her soft, fragile ears brought to mind that she was the age my grandmother had been when she left home for boarding school, just five years old. My own precious five- year-old would be walked a few blocks to school by me, her mother, and we would see each other, and her nine- and ten-year-old sisters, that very afternoon after school and work.
In that moment I appreciated more fully the struggles and tenacity of my family as well as all Indian people, who in valuing family and culture made it possible for people like me to live with our own families and for our generation’s children to experience an education that is in so many ways so different from that of our grandparents.
The Indian boarding school era officially lasted from 1879 to 1934; however, some boarding schools existed in America since before 1600, and the dismantling of the system, which began under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, took decades to more or less complete.
So many effects of the historical trauma, which is also called by a more fitting name, intergenerational trauma, caused by the Indian boarding school experience, are still with us. However, I believe that such upheaval and loss led our tenacious ancestors to pass on to us a profound appreciation for children and for our extended families. From time to time as I pass family stories along to my young relatives, I mention some of our grandparents’ (and my parents’ and my own) experiences at school. Sometimes these stories have simple and happy endings. More often they are complicated and filled with the untidiness of life here on Mother Earth.
All have a common, unspoken thread running throughout: the survival of a people and the continuity of our collective story and knowledge through the oral tradition. Children are the gift that makes this possible. Our task is to care for them and treasure them in preparation for the day they will become the tellers of the story to new generations.
Excerpts from “Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year” by Linda LeGarde Grover (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by Linda LeGarde Grover. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press. Her latest novel is “In the Night of Memory.”