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Thanksgiving Traditions for the Sake of the Common Good

I’ve been thinking about redefining Thanksgiving traditions. During this sacred and hard time, when practically everything is in flux and open to new forms, I would like to take on some new practices that challenge the racist systems harming the United States, support a sustainable way of living on Earth and promote the common good.

In other words, while I am about to spend my first Thanksgiving alone, coping with this Coronavirus pandemic, I am eager to reimagine the “same old, same old” and make choices that are more thoughtful. I want to decolonize my thinking about Thanksgiving and learn how to eat in a way that is more friendly to the earth.

So when I heard my friend Beth Piggush, the integral ecology director of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, my religious community, mention that her family is working to decolonize their Thanksgiving traditions and eat local, sustainable foods for their celebration, I got curious.

Beth grew up in Southern Minnesota on a hobby farm where her family lived with her grandparents. She says that it was an intergenerational effort to carefully cultivate the land that sparked her interest and love for nature. Now with a family of her own, Beth shares that she and her husband “are having their own outdoor adventures, running after our three daughters while trying to avoid rain and black flies.” She practices permaculture at her home in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and loves to cook and preserve anything she can grow or forage.

I asked her a few questions.

Recent Piggush Family adventures include a brisk hike. Image by Beth Piggush

Sister Julia: What have you learned about Thanksgiving, sustainability and community that is impacting how your family imagines the Thanksgiving holiday?

Beth: I am a white woman with Polish and Irish ancestry, a mother of three, a Catholic and an ecologist. And up until recently, I took the history and tradition of “Thanksgiving” for granted. In 1621 the Wampanoag people did have a meal with the Mayflower passengers, the “pilgrims,” who had just landed on their shore. The event — “the first Thanksgiving” — was historically recorded by a person who was white. This is not the happy story I learned growing up.

What those Europeans carried with them over the sea was greed and disease and perpetuating destruction of the indiginous communities in order to take the land. I am discovering that it was almost 200 years after the Wampanoag people and the early colonists had that meal together that the idea of celebrating the first Thanksgiving really came to light. Thanksgiving, the American holiday, was not a day of national recognition until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into legislation, in part to find a way to bring the country together during World War II.

Now I imagine sharing with my children the meaning of the American Thanksgiving holiday from all perspectives. Thanksgiving for the colonists was traditionally centered around a religious ceremony. It is also my understanding that Native people practice Thanksgiving in many ways and at many times throughout the year. They have an appreciation for what Mother Nature provides and are committed to a relationship of give and take. I would like to think that in order to have a more sustainable future, my family and my community must begin to understand this relationship between plants, animals, Earth and people, and honor it before and beyond the fourth Thursday in November. Instead I feel like we are stuck in a tradition of fatty foods and football — not bad but way off the meaning of Thanksgiving for Native people and the early colonists.

I have also learned that the traditional holiday celebrated in the U.S. with a big, happy parade in New York City falls on the same day that Native people observe National Day of Mourning. When I lived in Connecticut, I always thought how cool it would be to take the train to NYC and watch the parade in person. I have recently woken up to the fact that what I really missed while living on the East Coast was the opportunity to acknowledge and show my respect for the indiginous communities. I would like to share with my family what I have learned, to show respect for the Ho-Chunk Nation and the occupied ancestral lands where I live now.

Sister Julia: How does your faith influence planning and preparation for your family?

Beth: Before every meal we share as a family, we say grace: “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.” It is simple and it is meaningful for all of us. In allowing my faith to influence my daily practice of giving thanks, I need to do better. I am finding myself drawn to scripture and reflections based on gratitude. Once I read that Thanksgiving was gratitude in action. I hope that I can continue to develop my faith and spiritual influences.

Sister Julia: What does it mean to decolonize your Thanksgiving celebration? What suggestions do you have for others who are interested in doing the same?

Beth: Decolonizing my family’s Thanksgiving holiday starts with the acknowledgement that we and many of those around us have been wrong in the way we have celebrated in the past, like the harvest dinners held at my children’s schools with kids dressed up as pilgrims and Native people. At home we are learning about the harmful stereotypes of Native people and are starting to deconstruct what we think we know about their culture. We are also looking at what we eat and learn what is foods are traditional for each Native community.

For other families, my first suggestion is to search “true Thanksgiving history” online, and the second is to avoid family craft projects like those found on Pinterest constructed to depict happy “pilgrims and Indians.”

Beth’s daughter, Anna, with a giant puffball/white mushroom. Image by Beth Piggush

Sister Julia: What recipes, resources and practices would you like to share?

Beth: It all begins with transforming the celebration of a traditional Thanksgiving into a celebration of the season. We are reading books and watching documentaries to help us better understand the true history with the intention to stop perpetuating the racist impacts of the modern tradition of Thanksgiving. With little kids at home, we are specifically focusing on eating food from our garden and incorporating wild, foraged foods that we’ve collected (an activity we’ve been able to enjoy while social distancing together), including butternut squash, kale, gooseberries and potatoes. Some of our favorites include garlic mustard for pesto, chicken of the woods mushrooms and elderberries and sumac for tea.

This fall the Piggush Family’s preserves include dehydrated golden oyster mushrooms, nettles, dilly beans and mint. Image by Beth Piggush

My absolute favorite recipe with wild mushrooms and wild rice has been published by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley in the cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.” I use wild rice harvested sustainably, golden oysters foraged from local woods and either walnuts, chestnuts or hazelnuts depending on what I can forage or buy from the farmers market.

And because being in nature is easy for my family, we are going to center more of our time outside around prayer, showing gratitude for the good gifts God has given us.

At the end of the day, on Thanksgiving and all other days, the goal is for my family to be fully aware that we are celebrating the gifts from Mother Earth, both on our table and where we live with nature.

Family foraging netted Beth’s daughters Vera and Anna these large dryad mushrooms. Image by Beth Piggush

Here are a few resources that we have found helpful:

Children’s Literature about American Indians from Teaching for Change

Thanksgiving Ideas from the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian

Plimoth Plantation Bicultural Perspective on the Mayflower

Have a happy, safe, earth-friendly, decolonized and joyful Thanksgiving everyone!

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