977: The universe calls upon us to do the work of pushing and pulling toward justice
Day 977: Friday, November 18, 2022: The universe calls upon me and you to do the work of pushing and pulling toward justice so that together we can create the beloved community that has enough room for us all.
November 18, 2022
The Thanksgiving Stories we share
The stories we tell about ourselves and where we come from have powerful impacts upon where we end up. This certainly applies on an individual level, but on a broader collective scale, the cascading effects of the stories we tell are the very essence of our cultures and our histories. Have you ever heard the story of Skywoman?
So goes the Iroquois legend that was passed orally from generation to generation. Skywoman plunged toward the vast waters covering the earth, but the animals conspired to catch her. First, the geese broke her fall with their soft feathers. Then all manner of birds and fish came to inspect the new arrival who, unlike themselves, needed land in order to make her home.
Recognizing her need, a large turtle offered Skywoman a place on his back. She climbed aboard his shell as the animals deliberated how to help her, then took turns diving to the muddy depths below. One after another, the animals would return gasping and empty-handed until just one contender remained.
The muskrat, who was an unassuming diver, volunteered himself. In his attempt, the muskrat perished. But to their astonishment, Skywoman and the animals found mud cupped in the muskrat’s little fist. As Skywoman spread the mud across the turtle’s back, Turtle Island which we now call North America was formed.
I first learned this story from a Chumash man while working on a farm in the ancestral Chumash lands of present-day Ventura county in Southern California. Skywoman has recently resurfaced in my life as I read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a professor of Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Kimmerer compares the story of Skywoman to the Judeo-Christian story of Eve:
On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low.*
I often think about these two stories and the intensely divergent cultures that formed as a result. The legend of Skywoman contains mutualistic relationships between animals, humans, and the earth. Meanwhile, the descendants of Eve inherit exile, toil, and--depending on the interpretation--a charge to dominate the earth.
We are fast approaching Thanksgiving, the commemoration of an important encounter between the children of Skywoman and the children of Eve. I find myself wondering, what are the stories embedded within this particular holiday? How do we narrate the origins of Thanksgiving and what are the consequences of the stories we choose to tell? In the simplest terms, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast in 1621. That feast was the basis for the Thanksgiving feasts that take place each year at the end of November. But that’s just one abridged version of a much more interesting and complicated series of stories!
The story in which the Plymouth colonists are the main characters goes like this: An eclectic bunch of religious separatists suffered an arduous journey across the Atlantic ocean while battling scurvy, contagious disease, and the elements. The colonizers reached their “New World” just in time for the brutal northeastern winter which would claim half their lives.
The spring brought relief and a miraculous visitor who changed everything for the colonists. Tisquantum was an English-speaking indigenous man who is remembered in US history as “Squanto”, a nickname selected by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford. Tisquantum aided the Pilgrims in communicating with the Wampanoag and taught them how to cultivate corn, extract tree sap, and fish. After the first successful corn harvest, in November 1621, Governor Bradford arranged a celebratory feast. He invited the Wampanoag, who hunted alongside colonists in order to sustain three days of feasting. For the next fifty years, a relatively peaceful alliance formed between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims.
But what about the mysterious Tisquantum? Where did he come from and what happened to him? Tisquantum was actually Patuxet, belonging to a small band within the Wampanoag. Many years earlier, he had been kidnapped by an English explorer who trafficked him to Spain where he was purchased by monks and forcibly converted to Christianity. Tisquantum returned to the Americas in 1619, but found his Patuxet village’s population decimated from disease. He joined another nearby Wampanoag village, where his English language skills would eventually make him invaluable to the Pilgrims. Tisquantum would die of disease one year after the first Thanksgiving feast.
What is the Wampanoag telling of the Thanksgiving story? Wampanoag means “People of the First Light” or “People of the Dawn.” In the early 1600s there were some 50,000-100,000 Wampanoag people who lived in a confederation spanning approximately 70 villages. Around 1615, English explorers and traders began interacting with the Wampanoag. In the process, they contaminated Wampanoag communities with smallpox and other foreign diseases. Furthermore, some Wampanoag were kidnapped, enslaved, and trafficked back to Europe. For the next several years, the Wampanoag population suffered immense losses--nearly two-thirds of the entire population, including Tisquantum’s village.
Yet when the Plymouth colonists arrived in 1620, the remaining Wampanoag did not perceive them to be a threat because there were women and children among them. The Wampanoag entered into an alliance, or treaty of mutual protection, with the colonists. However, they weren’t invited to the Thanksgiving feast organized by Governor Bradford. On the contrary, upon hearing an astounding amount of gunfire from the Pilgrim’s hunting party, the Wampanoag inferred the colonists were under attack and went to offer help! When they arrived, they were invited to join the feast, but because there wasn’t enough food for the ninety Wampanoag warriors in attendance, the Wampanoag went out to hunt deer which they offered—potluck style—to the colonists.
Rather than memorialize that exchange as a “Thanksgiving”, thousands of indigenous people gather near Plymouth Rock on every Thanksgiving Day to observe a different tradition: The National Day of Mourning.
Mourning for the broken treaties, the genocide, the enslavement and betrayal that indigenous Americans have suffered at the hands of colonizers. It may be uncomfortable to sit with the gravity of those atrocities, especially if--like me--your ancestors are settlers. But as we near Thanksgiving, let us reflect on the reality that there are many different stories about what Thanksgiving represents, as well as if and how we ought to observe it.
There’s one more story we need to consider. It goes like this: Colonizers arrived and committed terrible crimes against indigenous people, including stealing the land we inhabit today. Those events were tragic and terrible! But it’s in the past, things aren’t like that anymore, and we can’t change it. So let’s just eat the turkey, cut the pie, and have a good time with our families. The trouble with this story is that it simply isn’t true!
Indigenous communities and individuals are present throughout the entire United States, fighting for their rights as I write these words. In many cases, that entails fighting to be recognized as sovereign nations with legal claims to their ancestral lands and the right to self-governance. But that battle includes human rights as well; for example, the average life expectancy of an indigenous person is twenty years lower than that of a non-native American.
Indigenous communities have dramatically high rates of incarceration, illiteracy, addiction and unemployment. The injustices delivered to indigenous Americans are far from resolved or “a thing of the past.” They are on-going and we can do something about them.
Because one belief that is central to my personal story, and the Starcross story, is that the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice. The universe calls upon me and you to do the work of pushing and pulling toward justice so that together we can create the beloved community that has enough room for us all.
Isabella Hall is a staff member and resident of Starcross Monastic Community. She co-founded an intentional community centered around racial justice and community service in Charlottesville, Virginia following the Alt-Right rallies in 2017. She earned a BA in Religious Studies as well as BA in Social Ethics and Community Development from the University of Virginia.