A drawing of a Potawatomi Indian with a French fur trader found in Doug Deuchler’s book on Maywood. | Arcadia


It may be hard to imagine nowadays, but Thanksgiving didn’t always mean taking off work or school; watching games on TV; the one day where the smell of chitterlings, and third and fourth plates of food, are all forgiven; heated arguments about politics that covers for long-subdued family frictions; maybe taking in a church service; and the day before Black Friday.

In fact, Thanksgiving (the national holiday Americans know it to be) wasn’t created until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the holiday would be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

Of course, it had been observed in a variety of ways well before then. There was, most notably, the famous celebration at Plymouth Plantation starting in 1621 between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims to commemorate the settlers’ first harvest they considered a success.

In 1777, the Continental Congress issued the first National Proclamation of Thanksgiving, a practice of formal observance that has been followed in various forms by presidents and Congresses ever since.

In 1941, Congress, prompted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday in November, so as to leave more time for the holiday shopping season so critical to a consumer-based economy.

But before humans living on the banks of the Des Plaines River were consumers, they were Native Americans who lived on staple crops, such as squash, melons and corn (also called maize), which they cultivated themselves (without the help of Amazon or Walmart).

After each harvest, those Native Americans held festivals to celebrate the bounty produced by their labor. Thanksgiving, as we know it, is simply a derivation of this celebration, which, in fact, has been happening among human cultures for eons.

“Since the first hunter-gatherer turned their spear into a plow, humans from cultures across the world have almost universally held celebrations commemorating the conclusion of the fall harvest,” notes the website of the Potawatomi nation.

The Potawatomi were in the area before those places even had names.

The Potawatomi used the Des Plaines as their highway. They hunted and used the river’s banks to exchange muskrat pelts, mink and beaver with French fur traders.

“There were certainly celebrations held around the time of the harvest because almost every culture in the world has them,” according to Kelli Mosteller, the director of the Citizen Potawatomi Cultural Heritage Center. “You celebrate the successes of the year and feast to give thanks and bring people together as a way to signal that it was time to really prepare for winter.”

One particular harvest that was a staple of the Potawatomi diet was wild rice, or mnomen, which grew in the shallow waters of the Great Lakes region.

The Potawatomi relied on wild rice before the government systematically removed them from their native lands in the 1830s in order to make way for European homesteaders.

According to the Potawatomi nation’s website, the harvest of mnomen “was cause for celebration as the summer ended and autumn settled in.”

Notice that the Potawatomi celebrated Thanksgiving for what they had cultivated, by the sweat of their brow and with their own hands. Nowadays, our Thanksgivings are marked more by intake and spending, getting and taking.

Let this year be different by using Thanksgiving to celebrate what you’ve cultivated, as opposed to making the day all about consumption. Just some food for thought to go along with the turkey, some fodder for contemplation before the Black Friday crowds.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com

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