Special to Indian Country Today
When you live in Canada, you know the story about the Pilgrims and the first American Thanksgiving, but we didn’t make a big deal about it. We didn’t study it in school and there were no school plays.
What we knew about American Thanksgiving we learned from “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” a television special that didn’t air in Canada until the late 1970s. The most memorable scene is the opening sequence, which features one of the defining scenes in the Peanuts cartoon — when Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie, the optimistic fool whose effort is so intense he flies in the air and lands on his back.
In Canadian schools, the most important symbol of Thanksgiving after the turkey was the Horn of Plenty, also known as the cornucopia. The horn was overflowing with a variety of fruits and vegetables that our families in north and south had never seen in real life.
It didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t a lot of turkeys around, either. That was a great day for coloring, and I can clearly recall a display by an older class with a large papier mache horn and variety of misshapen fruits and vegetables. The focus on the harvest teachings may have been more specific to the curriculum in the prairie regions, but I would imagine similar themes in Ontario and British Columbia fruit-growing regions.
It took years to realize that shopping and football played a significant role in American Thanksgiving.
(Related: A Wampanoag retelling of Thanksgiving)
Although we did not study American Thanksgiving, it permeated the ether like so much of U.S. history and pop culture. We were aware of the popular American story and I think I can speak for the rest of the country when I say that we were completely oblivious to the history of Canadian Thanksgiving. According to a number of sources, including the History Channel and National Geographic, there was a Canadian Thanksgiving on Nov. 14, 1606, when Samuel De Champlain had the first of what would be annual feasts with the MicMac people.
It is surprising that we as Canadians are unaware of what should be a seminal moment in European-Indigenous relations. Not just the event, but the fact that it involves a big-time historical celebrity. De Champlain is a big name. Sure, Magellan is a Beyonce but De Champlain is at least an Ariana Grande, and if you had supper with Ariana Grande you would be telling your grandkids.
There are other early events that could be considered Thanksgiving feasts in the Americas that pre-date the Puritan story, but do the details really matter?
I grew up connected to two Métis communities — my father’s community of Crane River in the south and my mother’s in the north — and then expanded to include my wife’s family 2,000 miles to the southeast.
My father’s community in the prairies is of Saulteux Ojibway and French/Scottish descent. We were farmers and ranchers, as well as fishers, hunters and trappers.
Thanksgiving was potatoes and carrots fresh out of the ground, a ham from a pig raised on the farm, a couple of what would one day be called free-range chickens. The first jar would be popped on the mustard beans and pickled beets that had been canned for the winter.
The meal would be complete with Granny’s decadent, boiled-raisin cake iced with a thick layer of a caramel buttercream icing, made with the cream from her cows and butter churned with her hands. On top, she poured even more crème fraiche. Unassailable.
(Related: 400 years later, 'we did not vanish')
In the northern Manitoba community of my mother, the Métis people are Cree speakers and largely Scottish descent with family names like Scott, Ballantyne, Cook and ours, Sinclair. My family members were hunters, fishers and trappers, with the climate north of the 53rd parallel suitable for small gardens. There were a few horses that would have arrived by boat, and most people, like my grandfather Stanley, depended on a dog team and canoe he built.
There was fresh Bannock, the simple bread baked in the oven or on a stick over the open fire, and raisin pies going in and out of a wood-fired oven. A big pot of duck soup, made from the fat fall ducks harvested. The ducks would be cleaned and singed over the open fire by my grandfather, and then slowly boiled in a simple broth of rendered duck fat, a pinch of salt and a lot of pepper, thickened with flour just before serving.
Dip your warm Bannock with butter from Campbell’s supply store running down the edges into that steaming bit of nirvana and fill your mouth with love. The duck would be tender, with that distinct wild flavor but not overwhelming, as it can be for some palettes. Pure comfort.
— A true Native American Thanksgiving
— Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?
— The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story
— 6 Thanksgiving Myths and the Wampanoag Side of the Story
— What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale
In both families, there would be thanks given for food and family and there would be church on Sunday. Catholic in Crane River and Anglican (Protestant) in Grand Rapids, Manitoba.
In my wife’s Anishinaabe family in southwestern Ontario, the Thanksgiving feast is one of the biggest of the season, with fruits and vegetables harvested in the region that are not available anywhere else in the country. When children colored in the Horn of Plenty, they probably got marked on whether the fruits and vegetables were the right colors.
Deer is the staple of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stoney Point, and a hind quarter is required to feed a generational extended family gathered for a Thanksgiving feast.
The deer is served with a chili sauce made with fresh tomatoes, onions, celery, jalapeño peppers, vinegars and spices that is the perfect complement to eggs in the morning, and is loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. Dessert would be apple pie or freshly canned peaches and a scoop of ice cream.
A prayer and feast plate is offered sometimes to the water, sometimes to the land, sometimes to the fire. Thanks is given for food and family.
Looking at American Thanksgiving
I was not aware of the football connection to American Thanksgiving until I moved to southwestern Ontario and was exposed to American television. My only connection to Thanksgiving and football was — you guessed it — that opening scene in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”
Hard to imagine, but until the arrival of satellite TV in the late 1980s, the only television for most people in rural parts of Canada was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a government system. This is one of the reasons that Canadians are so crazy about hockey — or curling.
I only started to follow the National Football League as a fan in the 1990s, when I could watch those American channels drifting across Lake Michigan from Detroit. It didn’t take long to get the Thanksgiving football connection, because the Detroit Lions were often featured on the NFL Thanksgiving Thursday games.
(Related: Thanksgiving offers a way forward)
I got hooked but I had to give up the game. I could not stomach the Washington Football team’s former name, so I boycotted the league. I have started watching again since the name changed, but it’s not the same.
Shopping, too, crossed the border. Black Friday became a part of the culture for most First Nations along the border, who enjoyed the savings that could be found when crossing the medicine line which western tribes including the Métis called the U.S.-Canada border, as well as expressing their rights under the Jay Treaty. Stories of door-crasher specials for video game systems or first-generation, flat-screen televisions began to replace visions of sugar plums.
After 18 months of lockdown, every chance to visit with loved ones was precious. This year, our Thanksgiving was also an opportunity to have a ceremony. Apseemosis Iskwesis (Little Deer Girl) received her name from her Chapan (great-grandmother) and was introduced to her family, who addressed her by her new name.
She then made an offering of blueberries and strawberries to our small fire. Her little brother offered the tobacco he had collected from the family circle. Thanks was given for food and family.
It doesn’t change my perspective or my practice of Thanksgiving that Canada celebrated decades before the American Thanksgiving. It was the practice of the Indigenous peoples in that territory in which it was first documented and hundreds of others from time immemorial.
It is what we do.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.