Shucking Oysters: Thank You Weekend
By Alex Allen
Thanksgiving. Most of us celebrate this day with family and friends. My claim to fame is that my mother, for some reason or another, did not like turkey. Never cooked a turkey in her life. Maybe it’s because turkeys are the size of small children. In school, I was the only kid who was eating chicken sandwiches after Thanksgiving. I felt odd, yet the family tradition continues.
Following Truth and Reconciliation Day last weekend, I wondered about how First Nations feel today about Thanksgiving and all its trimmings. It’s no surprise, that the holiday is one with deep significance in history and culture — and controversy. While Canada was the first country in North America to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have been holding annual fall harvest celebrations way before the arrival of European settlers.
Brian Rice, an assistant professor in the department of religion at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Mohawk nation, said “All of our ceremonies, all of the things that we do, have to do with giving thanks. So it’s part of a continuum of something that’s been practised for thousands of years.”
It’s common for young Indigenous people to feel some discomfort toward Thanksgiving, said Jacqueline Romanow, a Métis from the Red River Settlement area and chair of the Indigenous studies department at the University of Winnipeg. “It supports the myth that this land was discovered. It creates this idea that the Indigenous people here just simply handed over everything to the new sort of arrivals, that there was no conflict, that it was a very peaceful and happy encounter — which, in fact, is the exact opposite of what happened,” she said.
It is a dark history indeed, about how the Indigenous people on the East coast saved those early colonialists from starvation, and then the following year, those same colonialists would murder the Indigenous people and take their land. It’s no wonder the Indigenous feel “ambivalent” towards the holiday.
“Every day that we wake up, every day that we have another opportunity to walk on this beautiful gift, which is our mother the Earth, to experience life, we give thanks. And that is our world view,” Indigenous educator, Biindigegizhig Deleary said. “So for Canadians and for all people, I think we really have to get to a place in the world where we appreciate what we have, and by appreciating what we have, we begin to take care of it better.”
Theresa Sims, elder and educator at the Ska:na Family Learning Centre, added “We always celebrated the harvest and what creation has provided for us. Mother Nature has provided everything that we need, but we have to learn how to respect it and care for it, and also keep it for the next seven generations.”
Sharing went beyond food on the table, it extended to knowledge and technique. Sharing in the Indigenous community is a virtue. As Jordan Wheeler, a Cree from the George Gordon First Nation said, “The sign of wealth is not how much you have but how much you give away. On paper we should be quadrillionaires.”
“In my culture we give thanks every day. We thank Creator for allowing us to be on this Earth for another day. If we pick berries or hunt an animal we offer tobacco and give thanks for their sacrifice … Plants and animals aren’t commodities, they’re family.” Wheeler adds, “But to roll all those daily thanks into one day of the year and think you have it covered? Too easy and convenient — and people call ‘Indians’ lazy!”
And then I read in the news, that food insecurity is an “urgent public health crisis” for Indigenous kids. As families across Canada struggle with the increasing cost of groceries, a new study says First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth have been disproportionately affected by food insecurity for years. Family physician Dr. Rebekah Eatmon sees parents in tears, frustrated that they can’t provide enough healthy food for their children. “I’ve never met an Indigenous parent that doesn’t want to do the best for their kids,” said Eatmon, who works at an Indigenous clinic in Vancouver and in two remote First Nations in BC.
Many Indigenous children have obesity, but are nutrient-starved, because their diets consist largely of more affordable carbohydrate or fat-heavy food, the study said. “Families know what the best things are for their kids.” Eatmon said. “But the reality is the blueberries will spoil in a couple days and the Eggos will stay for months inside their freezer.”
The long-lasting effects of colonization are driving factors behind much of the food insecurity Indigenous people face, because of the disruption of their sources of healthy food, such as traditional hunting, fishing and gathering. “Over thousands of years, Indigenous populations have adapted to a diet suitable to their environment,” the study said. That diet included animals and plants harvested locally. Adding to that, the cultural sharing practices involving potlucks and ceremonies were banned and the loss of inter-generational knowledge of traditional foods soon followed.
There is hope. Programs are re-establishing traditional foods within Indigenous communities to fight food insecurity. Other examples include community greenhouses and community freezers.
Meanwhile, Romanow said Thanksgiving in Canada should also be a time of recognizing First Nations. “I think that if the Canadian government is really sincere about changing the relationship with Indigenous Canadians, that this would be a start, that it isn’t just Thanksgiving … [it’s about] thanking Indigenous people and recognizing them, quite frankly, as one of the three founding nations of this country.”
With files from CBC News and Black Media Press.