A feeling of appreciation for the good fortune of life, family and the
fecundity of the natural world is inherent in the human being. For American
Indian peoples it is a central tenet of the spiritual connection and
regularly intoned in ceremonial cycles.
As things can nearly always be worse, it is possible to take stock and feel
the important ways in which life brings us happiness and satisfaction. If a
great measure of forbearance is always necessary - life is constant
sacrifice - so the occasional reward of that feeling of happiness, that
"state of pleasurable content of mind," as the Oxford English Dictionary
defines it, is cause to express thanksgiving.
Unity of mind and unity of spirit is the greatest source of health.
Capable, healthy communities and nations, much like healthy individuals,
seek the bases of unity that minimize conflict and provide the greatest
achievable return to the group for its resources and labors. In the Native
context, this is true for relations among people and peoples, as well as
for human relations with the cycles of nature.
One contemporary analysis has it that the bases of Indian unity reside in
the shared history of oppression that all Native peoples have endured;
certainly, there is a lot to that theory. The history of contact - the
denial of nationhood via the European "doctrine of discovery" and the
subsequent war, pandemics, enslavement, rebellions and re-assertions of
rights to survival, to culture and education, to lands and self-government
- repeats itself throughout the Western Hemisphere. In many respects, the
pattern carries to other parts of the world. The problems of land tenancy
and retention of land title as tribal entities is common, as is the
struggle to retain traditional culture in light of the attempts by
proselytizing religions to diminish Native spiritual traditions and
The positive idea of striving for a self-determined presence in the world
is central to the Native response to that history of oppression and
conflict. Twenty-eight years ago, this was the theme that pulled more than
100 delegates from traditional and self-representative indigenous
communities in the Western Hemisphere to the United Nations headquarters in
Geneva. That hallmark 1977 conference lent voice to the aspirations of
Indian nation governments and communities via a formal "Draft Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples," a document with a now long and
still-perilous trajectory within the United Nations - but with the
potential force to institute new covenants of international law.
In this international context, common definitions stress the impetus for
survival among indigenous peoples. As defined by Jose Ricardo Martinez
Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur to the Sub-Commission on Prevention
of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, indigenous communities,
peoples and nations are "those which, having a historical continuity with
pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their
territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies
now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present
non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and
transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and their ethnic
identity as the basis of their continued existence as peoples in accordance
with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems."
Most succinctly, Article 3 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples states: "Indigenous peoples have the right of
self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their
political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural
No doubt the drive to self-determination among Native nations, a shared and
unifying force, responds on political and economic levels. Deeply cultural,
spiritual unity, however, is equally present in the international discourse
and, in searching the bases of unity among Native peoples, the expression
of thanksgiving is central.
"Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our
children," is a famous quote from Hunkpapa hero Sitting Bull. "Mitakuye
oyasin," or "all my relations," a Lakota oration, announces and seeks unity
with all of nature for the human being. Haudenosaunee clanmothers have been
heard to say "use the good mind" to a young person seeking to solve a
particular problem. In the tobacco-burning that characterizes the
Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, as the orator drops the tobacco in the
fire, having thanked each portion of creation, he says, "Now let us put our
minds together in giving thanks to ..."
The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address suggests a message and a structured
thinking about the world that is deeply indigenous. Utilizing tobacco as a
sacrament, this oration centers the human beings in the four directions of
the universe to send a message of appreciation for the interrelated forces
that assist the continuity of life on Earth. Many species and elements,
from the life of the soil itself upwards to the shrubs, trees, animals and
birds and, further, to the cosmic forces of sun, moon and stars, are
dutifully acknowledged and thanked in ceremony so that such forces can hear
this human message and "feel appreciated."
Hundreds of miles to the south, at a Taino ceremony in the Cuban sierras,
during the reburial of Cuban Indian remains repatriated by the Smithsonian
Institution in 2003, participants heard a prayer to the "seven potencies."
The voice of a cacique from the mountain intoned a thanksgiving for the
bounties of mother earth, the four directions, the winds, water, father
sun, grandmother moon, the ancestor stars. As with the Haudenosaunee, the
cacique of the mountain used tobacco to carry his prayer - in the form of a
rolled cigar, which is called tabaco in Taino and is the origin of the
English and Spanish word. At other times, among the Maya in Geneva, for
example, the elders spoke of "heart of the earth, heart of the sky,"
another living expression with a similar concept, as was the expression
"pachamama" and "inti" from the Andean Quechua.
The Thanksgiving Address was heard in its totality, in Seneca and in
English, in the 1977 Geneva conference. There, Seneca Chief Corbett Sundown
burned tobacco in an open courtyard early one morning, bringing the minds
of the various Indian delegations together. As that week of meetings
progressed, all - from the Mapuches of Chile (which is to say, Tierra del
Fuego) to the Arawak and Maquiritari of Venezuela, to the Central American
Maya and Guaymi and Nahua, to the Hopi and Lakota and Cheyenne and Kiowa
and Northern Cree and Algonquin of Canada, and the Inuit from the
circumpolar regions - in some way spoke to their beliefs and practices
among their peoples in this type of thanksgiving ceremony.
Nearly all of the delegates declared their spiritual sense of these same
fundamental elements: the centering (four, six, eight) directions; the use
of the tobacco (or corn pollen, or copal) as sacrament; the appreciation of
how the elements of nature work together for the benefit of the people and
all creation; the reverence for the corn and other foods, for the medicines
and the work of agriculture; the love for the land; the relationship to
animals; and the attachment to a distinct sense of tribe and nation, the
memory of a creation story rooted in particular places.
The world is in dire need of Native peoples' philosophy of thanksgiving,
with its emphasis on sincerely giving thanks to the living world around us.
Some kind of new international unity, based on this kind of appreciative
approach to the natural world, is perhaps the most required lesson for the
modern world from the heart of the cultures of the Native peoples.
Achieving a sense of contentment is nearly impossible in the modern world.
The ensuing agitation is adding to, and perhaps even causing, a seriously
conflictive atmosphere across the globe. In this sense, the meaning of
giving thanks (and Thanksgiving) is not just centered on a holiday, which
would be a pitiful limitation, but signals a whole new and ancient
philosophy of how to live properly on Earth.