Artwork by Dawn Dark Mountain, Oneida Nation.

Doug George-Kanentiio: Thanksgiving represents an indigenous gift to the world

Native Thanksgiving Rites: A Gift to All People

By Doug George-Kanentiio

A summation of Iroquois life can be expressed as the ongoing expression of gratitude for the infinite gifts of life, beginning with birth and beyond the demise of the physical self.

Our Iroquois people follow a lunar calendar of 13 months in a given year with communal rituals set aside to give thanks to the natural world and the ability to experience its rhythms.

There are 13 major ceremonies beginning with Midwinter, a seven day celebration to mark the growing light of day. This takes place seven days past the first new moon following the winter solstice, usually in mid January. The first day of Midwinter marks the beginning of the Iroquois New Year.

One of the most joyous ceremonies is the Maple, held when the sap begins its first run. It is a most welcome sign of the coming spring. The Iroquois invented the conversion of sap into syrup and then sugar, one of our many gifts to the world. During the ceremony a special drink made of strawberries and maple sap will be drunk while each person stands in turn to give verbal thanks to the maple tree.

Our Iroquois people are convinced there is a direct connection between the human voice and plants. By speaking words of gratitude to the plants, by singing special songs to them and by imitating their movements in communal dances.

Other thanksgiving ceremonies follow the cycles of the plants: seeds, strawberry, green beans, green corn. Food is shared during each ritual all of which begin with the poetic narrative called the "Thanksgiving Address" or, in Mohawk, the "Ohenten Kariwatekwen" which means the "words which come before all us." No Mohawk gathering: social, political, spiritual can begin or conclude without expressing specific words of thanksgiving to the earth, waters, insects, plants, foods, animals, rain, thunder, winds, sun, moon, stars, teachers, elders. It is not an expression of worship but an affirmation of kinship, a vocal, communal way of weaving the natural world deep within the hearts and minds of the human beings, the "onkweh" who have been given the duty of caring for the planet in trust for those yet unborn.

Doug George-Kanentiio. Courtesy photo
There is an autumn harvest ceremony which takes place after the crops have been brought from the fields and placed in underground root cellars and in lofts on the beams beneath the longhouse roofs. The harvest ceremony is universal among Native nations in the northeast and was observed and then shared with the refugees from England, the Puritans. The earth and its bounty was not meant to be the possession of any individual or class but shared according to need. The colonists were deeply impressed by the health of the Native people which was the result of the agricultural skills of the Iroquois. They were also struck by the lack of artificial castes within Iroquois society and the remarkable equality between the genders.

Since women were "life givers" and earth custodians all food was distributed by them and all property matters were within their powers. From the planting fields to the longhouses women were the "owners" and the adjudicators of any and all disputes involving property.

So when the "time of plenty" came about, before the long nights of the winter and before the men went on their hunting expeditions, the people gathered to sing and dance in a three day Harvest-Thanksgiving ceremony. There were many reasons to be grateful and our people continue to show our happiness by having the gift of life.

This is what Thanksgiving means to our people. It is good to see our neighbors adopt a Native ceremony and to see upon their tables the foods we developed: corn, beans, squash, cranberries, potatoes, pumpkin pie and that remarkable bird, the indigenous turkey.

When the North American families come together we hope they will acknowledge the roots of this tradition, a truly indigenous gift to the world.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: or by calling 315-415-7288.

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