A New Look at Thanksgiving

Ben in Suit

A Reflection by the Very Rev. Benjamin A. Shambaugh, Dean

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love gathering with family. I love Thanksgiving hymns and prayers and the story of Indigenous peoples helping European settlers to survive their first winter here and the celebration of that in a feast. A film from Sacred Ground changed that Thanksgiving forever.  Now, I have been familiar with Native American and Native Americans for my entire life.  I have nieces who are members of the Paiute tribe in Arizona. Shari and I spent four summers working with the Arapaho people on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and I worked with what was then called the “Indian Desk” at the National Church center to establish an ongoing conference for Anglo and Indigenous congregations in partnership with one another.  I was honored to be part of the deputation from Maine at the General Convention in which the Episcopal Church voted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery (a resolution which came from Maine) and at the most recent General Convention in which the Episcopal repented for its involvement in Indian Boarding schools. Despite all that, it was the film from Sacred Ground which opened my heart. The film began by showing Indigenous people walking on the beach, picking up clams, building a fire, and gathering together.  It was probably supposed to be somewhere around Cape Cod or Plymouth, Mass. For me, it looked exactly like Maine, exactly like the beaches I walk every week, the place I go to pray, the place my wife and I go to talk, the place I found home. I think of it that beach as “mine.” The film made me realize that it was someone else’s first. The image of Indigenous people on the beach brought home the reality that “Indians” weren’t just out west. As our territorial acknowledgement reminds us, they were, in fact, right here.

I have had some complaints about the territorial acknowledgement. Just a week ago one person said “You know, when the settlers came here, this land was empty.” To this,  I would respond, “If it was empty, have you wondered why? Do you know how epidemics in 1586 and 1616 wiped out 90% of the native population in some part of New England? Are you aware of the impact of the global conflict between the English, French and Spanish, how the Mayflower settlement quickly devolved from its lofty ideas and how King Philip’s War began and had battles fought just a few miles away? The second critique was, “You say this acknowledgement every week. When is the church going to do something?” To this, I would respond saying that the institutional church is doing something – look at the resolutions at October’s diocesan convention on sovereignty, indigenous rights, and boarding schools. The more important point is that the church is not an institution or a building but a people. This means that rather asking others, we need to ask ourselves what impact saying the Territorial Acknowledgement or learning new information about the truly tragic history of Indigenous people in Maine inspires us to do. The land on which the Cathedral sits was once Wabanaki land.  Though I still love Thanksgiving, I am still figuring out the impact of that reality on me.   

For diocesan resolutions, see https://episcopalmaine.org/resources/convention/resolutions/

For Sacred Ground information, contact the cathedral office.

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