Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 25, 2004


Thanksgiving is one of our family's favorite holidays. We've hosted the family's turkey feast ever since Katie was born 12 Novembers ago, and this year will be no different.

For most Americans, the day reminds us of our bountiful blessings. It also brings to mind images of Native Americans sharing their harvest with Pilgrims.

Some Internet research on the holiday refreshed my memory and gave me some new insights on how we came to celebrate it. "Thanksgiving: Memory, Myth and Meaning," a Web site for an exhibit at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., describes the role of the Wampanoag tribe in what we have come to know as the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Through the years, inaccuracies and misconceptions have all but erased the Wampanoag from the story of Thanksgiving. The Plimoth Plantation exhibit explains that giving thanks has always been a sacred and integral part of Wampanoag life:

"If an animal was hunted for food, special thanks were given to the Creator and to the spirit of the animal. If a plant was harvested and used for any purpose, or a bird or a fish, if an anthill was disrupted, gratitude and acknowledgment were given for the little ones' lives. To this day it is the same with most Native people."

My recent visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. gave me a new appreciation for Native American traditions. It is the 16th of the Smithsonian Institution's buildings on the National Mall.

The five-story building, which sits on more than four acres, is a testament to Native Americans' reverence for nature. More than 40 Grandfather Rocks - so called because they are "elders of the landscape" - welcome visitors to the grounds and serve as reminders of Native peoples' close relationship to the environment. The museum faces due east to greet the morning light. The building, made of limestone, looks like a natural rock formation carved by wind and water. Inside, a dome of white rings rises toward a sun-shaped skylight. Circles have a powerful place in American Indian culture as does the sun, which gives light and life to all.

Tribes from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America are represented by thousands of photos, art works, clothing and artifacts. Hundreds of words meaning "welcome" in Native languages from throughout the Americas are projected on a Welcome Wall at the entrance: Haho (Ho-Chunk), E peva tse vooma tsema (Cheyenne) and Boozhoo, Aanii miigwetch qii-bi-zhaayelc (Ojibwe), among many others.

The different languages speak of a unique past for each tribe. Then the white man came, adding yet more tongues to the mix. The meeting of these peoples often was hostile, but sometimes was helpful. When white people were struggling to gain a foothold on this continent, the Wampanoag helped them make it through the harsh winters. During World War II, the Navajo code talkers helped save our country.

Our histories are intermingled and it makes us richer to hear their many voices as well as our own. It helps us see how connected we are in the circle of life.

For the Wampanoag, this season is called Keepunumuk, the time of the harvest. And on this one day during Keepunumuk, we partake of the bounty of that harvest with friends and family to give thanks for all we have.

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