Harriet Maxwell Converse was born in 1836. Her father and her grandfather were both traders who had been adopted into the Seneca Nation. Her bio page at PBS tells me that in later life she became a political advocate for the Six Nations, that the Seneca Nation eventually recognized her efforts by adopting her into the Snipe Clan, and that in September of 1891 Converse became the first white woman ever condoled as a Six Nations Chief. Below, I share one of her poems, a translation of a traditional Iroquois prayer of gratitude. Among the Six Nations, giving thanks was a daily practice, not a once-a-year occurrence. I try to make thanksgiving a daily practice, too, so her rendering of this prayer speaks to me.
I also want to honor a different take on Thanksgiving. Hence the second poem in this post. Heid E. Eridrich is an Ojibwe poet whose work I first encountered when my son was an infant. (I borrowed one of her lines as inspiration for one of my mother poems.) The poem of hers which I share below is full of righteous fury. It riffs off of Robert Frost's The Gift Outright, which I have long loved -- but now that Erdrich has shown me the manifest destiny at the core of Frost's poem, his poem becomes problematized. I still love it, but I see it through different eyes.
Just so, the story of Thanksgiving. There's something in the narrative of the grateful Puritans feasting with the Wampanoag which still appeals to me; I'm moved by the idea of people coming together across their differences to break bread together and to express thanks to something beyond themselves. I learned that story when I was a child, and it still speaks to me now. But as a grown-up I have to acknowledge that narrative's biases and erasures, even as I enjoy this national festival of food and gratitude. The story of the Puritans coming to these shores is also the story of the beginning of a vast and painful paradigm shift for this country's Native peoples. I don't want to forget that, this Thanksgiving.
by Harriet Maxwell Converse
Translated from a traditional Iroquois prayer
We who are here present thank the Great Spirit that we are here to praise Him.
We thank Him that He has created men and women, and ordered that these beings shall always be living to multiply the earth.
We thank Him for making the earth and giving these beings its products to live on.
We thank Him for the water that comes out of the earth and runs for our lands.
We thank Him for all the animals on the earth.
We thank Him for certain timbers that grow and have fluids coming from them for us all.
We thank Him for the branches of the trees that grow shadowsfor our shelter.
We thank Him for the beings that come from the west, the thunderand lightning that water the earth.
We thank Him for the light which we call our oldest brother, the sun that works for our good.
We thank Him for all the fruits that grow on the trees and vines.
We thank Him for his goodness in making the forests, and thankall its trees.
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, the moon.
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us signs,the stars.
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge of our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of this pleasant occasion.
We give thanks for the persons who can sing the Great Spirit's music, and hope they will be privileged to continue in his faith.
We thank the Great Spirit for all the persons who perform the ceremonies on this occasion.
The Theft Outright
by Heid E. Erdrich
We were the land's before we were.
Or the land was ours before you were a land.
Or this land was our land, it was not your land.
We were the land before we were people,
loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,
or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—
What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?
Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands
swimming being from women's hands, we originate,
originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.
Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by,
possessed by what we now no more possess.
We were the land before we were people,
dreamy sunbeams where sun don't shine, so the stories go,
or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—
Dineh in documentaries scoff dna evidence off .
They landed late, but canyons spoke them home.
Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don't know.
What's America, but the legend of Stop 'n' Go?
Could be cousins, left on the land bridge,
contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll.
In any case we'd claim them, give them some place to stay.
Such as we were we gave most things outright
(the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes
and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)
We were the land before we were a people,
earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go,
or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—
Thse land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,
still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.
Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.