a sermon for thanksgiving

Originally preached on Sunday Nov. 24 at Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I am a recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest, and I am a second-generation American, married to an immigrant with a green card. When people tell me they are fourth or fifth generation Pacific Northwesterner, I am impressed. If you are fourth generation it suggests a certain groundedness. You know some things. When your family has been here that long people might consult you on history, on your opinion about this area, on flora and fauna, who used to live in what house or own what business. Your perspective, as a fourth generation Kitsap resident, is a unique one. We express gratitude for the information that you hold, because it adds history and depth to the life of those of us who have moved here more recently.

Now in this country the common scientific theory is that indigenous people have lived here since the last glacial retreat, the end of the last ice age, over 12,000 years ago. Before the last ice age western science says this place was likely uninhabitable. So as long as humans could live here, the Coast Salish people have lived here. This science suggests something like 400 generations. Not 4 generations, but 400.

And actually, there are stories, ancient oral stories, from the Duwamish tribe that tell of life during the ice age. One of these stories is called “Epic of the Winds” and its narrative describes exactly what scientists say happened to the land during the last ice age. Recently historians have looked at this and have started to suggest that in fact, perhaps indigenous people have been here for not just 12,000 years but closer to 48,000 years, which is the end of the paleolithic era, the late stone age. 1,500 generations. One thousand five hundred.

It is impossible for my mind to grasp this, to imagine one thousand five hundred generations. It’s like looking up to the stars at night and trying to comprehend where the universe ends. It brings up feelings of awe. And that feeling of awe suggests that this is something sacred. Western knowledge ends. Western science theorizes. Anthropology grasps at objects. It deeply challenges the dominant culture’s way of knowing. And so we have the opportunity to trust a different way of knowing.

Let me quote the Suquamish tribe: “In the very beginning, there was a wonderful world here long before human beings arrived. It was a world where everything had the power and ability to take any form or do anything. A world inhabited by beings who might appear as animals, plants, human or inhuman form, or as aspects of the landscape, always shimmering between these and other shapes. Finally, a firm order was imposed on this world by The Changer, enabling human beings to take their place in the world.”

Sounds a bit like evolution, doesn’t it?

Let me continue: “As a result, the beings have been changed into the shapes of trees, plants, animals, fish, rocks, springs, and so forth, while their spirits retain their original abilities. As the most recent inhabitants of this world, human beings are believed to have the most to learn. Yet, such an education is possible because all life is related, forming a functioning whole.”

All life is related. Where have we heard that before? This is the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism. The interdependent web of all life, of which we are a part.

From the indigenous perspective, when you get into deep time, the interdependent web stretches and the lines between what is this and what is that begin to disappear. The concept of self, as an individual, begins to fall away. The Cedar trees and salmon become family. Ancestors are omnipresent, born and reborn. And awe, the awe that we feel when we attempt to contemplate eternity, becomes a way of life. Everything is sacred.

It is from this perspective that I want to celebrate gratitude.

An eternity of generations before the myth of Thanksgiving, and a colonized holiday that developed out of that myth, the Coast Salish people have celebrated their gratitude. This has been done in dance and in ritual, in song, during the change of seasons and the cycles of the moon. One of these ways of celebrating gratitude is called a potlatch. And a potlatch, historically, was many things. Not just an expression of thankfulness but an entire economic system, whereby those with the most share their abundance with those who have the least.

Perhaps you can imagine how this sort of generosity might develop. Your ancestors outnumber the stars in the sky. And they are with you, right here in this place. And in fact, they are the stars in the sky. They are the salmon in stream. And the trees all around you. You have a deep relationship to the plants and the animals, all of whom are responsible for the blessings of your life. The salmon and the deer give their life for your food. The abundance of a good harvest is brought by the gifts of the sun and the rain. The healthy birth of a child and the promise of the future are dependent on a thriving community that works together to bring all of these blessings to bear. And at the potlatch, those who are the wealthiest, the most blessed in all of these things, show their wealth and their status by giving away all that they have in surplus.

Imagine a world where wealth and status are determined not by how much you can hoard and hide but how much you can give away. How much your actions and your generosity can benefit the whole.

This is a perspective that considers thousands of generations of ancestors, and the thousands of generations to come. Generosity as survival. When wealth is hoarded, there is only death and decay. But generosity is inheritance and insurance for the entire interdependent web. And the community can only hold these blessings, the blessings of thousands, by sharing them equally. And passing them along.

When I imagine the beloved community, and how we might bring it about, I imagine that this sort of generosity is what will be required. It is an honest acknowledgement of all that has passed before, a trust in the possibilities of time, and a living gratitude for all that is yet to come.

Three years ago on Thanksgiving, 2016, I was cooking and watching the protests at Standing Rock. That day water protectors staged ten different mass actions, all around the camp, to reclaim the land in Morton County that had been taken by the police, who had been hired by the U.S. government from all over the country, to physically defend, with military force, the illegal actions of the Dakota access pipeline company.

I was glued to my computer screen as Indigenous Rising Media sent a drone up above one of the actions and streamed it live over Facebook, as snipers tried to shoot the drone down, and water protectors in nothing more than t-shirts, jeans and bandanas stood against police who were outfitted in riot gear.

I watched as water protectors built a makeshift bridge and crossed a small river holding hands in twos and threes, reclaiming a tiny piece of the bottom of turtle hill, while the police stood above and shot them with water cannons and pepper spray and rubber bullets.

I was standing there stirring my gravy desperately trying to understand Thanksgiving. How could I feel gratitude? How could I celebrate?  

I felt the same way this summer, on the 4th of July, when I heard of the killing of Stonechild Chiefstick in Poulsbo. An indigenous man who was behaving erratically at the July 3rd celebration downtown. He needed help and assistance and compassion. And instead he was killed. And despite his death that day, the celebration continued. Because as a country, we hold our national holidays as sacred.

And I want to acknowledge that some of the stories we have made up in this country, some of the stories of who we are, some of the stories we hold as sacred, they actually obscure the truth, they cause harm, and they prevent us from accessing what is truly holy.

The myth of Thanksgiving attempts to celebrate our relationship to indigenous people. But in reality it obscures a terrible history. And it prevents us from experiencing real gratitude for indigenous wisdom. The ancient wisdom of tens of thousands of years of a sustainable relationship to the earth. And the modern wisdom of what it means to live in this world as an indigenous person, what it means to live with the trauma of genocide, on land that was stolen from you. For weeks, every Wednesday night at the Poulsbo City Council, Stonechild Chiefstick’s family and friends, members of the Suquamish community and supporters from all over, have been showing up, at meeting after meeting, sharing their experience. This is indigenous wisdom, speaking its truth to our justice system, and no one in power will listen.

If we were to truly celebrate Thanksgiving, we would start by listening to our indigenous community, showing up at Suquamish events and fundraisers, paying reparations, and honoring indigenous wisdom. Honoring all of it. The truth of ancient history, the reality of life in modern times, and the promise of a future lived in sustainable relationship with the earth.

At Standing Rock the water protectors would wake up every morning and greet the day with prayer and song. They would sing together all day. And then they would close the day with ritual. This same thing is happening right now in Hawaii, on Mauna Kea, where indigenous Hawaiian people are protecting sacred land. Mauna Kea is named for the god Wakea, and it is perhaps Hawaii’s most sacred place.

The interdependent web is not just a theological construct, but a real thing. A living thing. An eternal, infinite thing, that along with our indigenous community we are called to see ourselves intimately connected to, and honor and protect. And this is done in beloved community, in prayer and song and ritual, with love. When we protect these sacred places, we are practicing thanksgiving, thankful to our ancestors for the gift of the earth and giving this same gift to future generations.

Because this is what Thanksgiving means, truly. Gratitude to our families and a gift of sacred ritual for the future. When we settle into this truth, into this perspective, the holiday becomes even more meaningful.We can let go of the myth and instead celebrate our eternal relationship to all that is. The interdependent web, our ancestors and family, and the gifts of the earth which we protect for the benefit of all life and the future generations yet to come.

2 Comments

  • Lynn Dwyer

    Wonderful and brilliant words.
    We MUST acknowledge the past generations and what we have been given, if we intend to have something meaningful to give to future generations.
    Very powerful sermon.
    Thank you, Jessica 😍

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