Thanksgiving has roots, complicated history in Indigenous communities, prof says
'All of our ceremonies … have to do with giving thanks,' says U of W prof and Mohawk nation member Brian Rice
For many Canadian families, Thanksgiving means getting together with family, sharing a meal, and perhaps stressing out about plans.
For Indigenous people, the holiday is also one with deep significance in history and culture, as well as controversy.
Brian Rice, an assistant professor in the department of religion at the University of Winnipeg and a member of the Mohawk nation, said Thanksgiving is originally an Indigenous ceremony.
"All of our ceremonies, all of the things that we do, have to do with giving thanks. So it's part of a continuum of something that's been practised for thousands of years," Rice said in an interview on CBC's Weekend Morning.
Many people are familiar with the story of the "first" Thanksgiving in 1621, celebrated after British colonists arrived in Plymouth, Mass. Rice said they were starving and unfamiliar with the land and how to find food, and received help from members of the Wampanoag nation.
"It was a coming together of Indigenous Peoples really feeding the colonizers, or the colonists," Rice said.
That meal included many of the now-traditional Thanksgiving foods, like corn, beans, squash, wild turkey, cranberries and pumpkin.
Despite the positive nature of the first Thanksgiving with the colonists, relations quickly deteriorated over the next year. The colonists brought infectious diseases, which ravaged Indigenous populations. Tensions also increased when the colonists allowed their pigs to forage into Indigenous lands, eating their crops.
Today, many Indigenous people feel "ambivalent" towards the holiday, Rice said.
"Because for a lot of people, it isn't a celebration and certainly the original people who had that first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoags and all of those other groups, the Powhatans, obviously not. Many of them don't even exist any longer."
Some families, like Rice's own, choose to celebrate, but it's up to the individual.
"If you are part of a traditional-based culture that still retains some of those ceremonies, like the longhouse ceremonies of harvest, you'll continue it in that way. Although, perhaps you'll be bringing in cans of corn instead of the corn that you might have grown," Rice said.