Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Giving thanks for indigenous people


Friday, November 17, 2017

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I am in touch with my deeply troublesome feelings about this holiday.

I am a person of faith, more specifically a Christian, and more specifically an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ. Consequently, it is the foremothers and forefathers of my own denomination, the pilgrims and the puritans, who captured land from the native people living here when the settlers arrived, and then engaged in their displacement and decimation. Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving inspires disturbing emotions in me.

I have often wondered how the pilgrims and the puritans — devoted people of faith — could settle on land that was not theirs and brutalize the people already living there. But the fact that the pilgrims and puritans were “good God-fearing people” may have contributed to the problem. The settlers arrived on the shores of an already inhabited land and claimed it as their own, believing that God protected them and championed their occupation of native lands.

Because the pilgrims and puritans considered themselves Christians and worshiped God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they looked down on the indigenous people, who did not worship a Trinitarian deity. The puritans and pilgrims convinced themselves that the indigenous people lacked religious beliefs.

They ignored the indigenous people’s spiritual beliefs and considered their spiritual practices unworthy. The settlers tried to force the indigenous people to abandon their beliefs and practices, treating them as children to be instructed, molded, and converted into followers of the only true faith.

The indigenous people believed they had a legitimate claim to the land they inhabited and relied on for their survival and so resisted the settlers taking their land and proselytizing to them about their God. The settlers believed that the indigenous people had no rights and when the indigenous people resisted, they were fought and killed.

Years ago, I drove to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to participate in the ceremony held at Plymouth Rock every Thanksgiving. I was told, at that time, that the ceremony, led by Wampanoag Indians, was called “Thanks/Grieving.” Today it is called a “National Day of Mourning.”

When I arrived at Plymouth Rock, two circles were being formed. The inner circle was a close, tight knot of indigenous people. The outer circle, where the white people stood, was out a ways surrounding the inner circle at a respectful distance.

Throughout the ceremony, it was difficult to hear what was being said in the inner circle, but that was appropriate. The white people were there to witness; it was not our event, we were not meant to hear what was occurring within the inner circle. We were there to stand in silence.

The indigenous people held hands and there was much crying; there was also some chanting. After a time, the indigenous people broke from their circle and went down to the water. The white people were asked not to come. The indigenous people threw things on the water. Several went down on one knee at the water’s edge. There were more tears, and there was more holding one another.

Then the indigenous people came back to the circle, ended the ceremony and left together as a group. The white people were asked to remain standing in silence until all the indigenous people had left.

Thanksgiving is a painful day for many indigenous people. While many white people gather with family and friends, say prayers of gratitude, and feast on turkey, squash, potatoes, and pie, many indigenous people reflect, fast and weep.

I have kept in my files an article published in The Progressive in 2009 by Mary Annette Pember, an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. She writes this in her essay titled “As a Native-American, I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving”: “This Thanksgiving, as an Ojibwe woman, I will grieve for what Europeans did to Native people here … I will grieve because Europeans killed most of us quickly and directly at first and later resorted to more cunning means of forced assimilation, such as boarding schools and discriminatory land allotment. I will grieve because it is estimated that there were between 7 million and 10 million indigenous individuals inhabiting what is now America at the beginning of European contact in the early 15th century. But by 1900, there were only about 230,000 of us left.”

As a Christian, I believe that all non-native Christians in this country must confront our past and recognize that the early Christians who came to this country used their faith and the Bible to justify stealing land and slaughtering people. This history is especially relevant on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a good day to ask for forgiveness for the ways our ancestors participated in the loss of life of the indigenous people who lived on this land for centuries before the Europeans arrived.

Thanksgiving is a good day to give thanks for the courage of all indigenous people and their strong souls and spirits. It is also fitting to lift up the sorrow, suffering and exploitation that continue today.

Thanksgiving is a good day to remember that is a day of grief and mourning in many indigenous communities. It is a good day for white people to grieve as well and pray for forgiveness for past harm and sins.

Thanksgiving is a good day to give thanks for the wisdom, power, and endurance of indigenous people.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is part of the ministerial team of the Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield. She writes a monthly column on the intersection of faith, culture, and politics, and can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.