What unexamined assumptions or unrecognized biases might be buried in our holiday traditions and rituals—the ways we give and receive gifts, the shared stories we tell, our hopes for the future? As we look back on Christmas and the season of Advent, Luke Winslow (MA in Theology & Culture, ‘18) invites us to consider how our rituals of gift giving and receiving might reflect something of our relationships with the land and people around us. This long-form essay was written in conversation with Stephanie Johnson’s Thanksgiving meditation, “We Are Wrestling with Severe Gifts.”
Which story? Whose thanks?
In the days surrounding Thanksgiving, I was practicing mindful listening to Native and indigenous activists whom I follow on social media. As a kind of bookend to the emotional harm Native American communities re-experience every fall when the dominant culture still acknowledges days like Columbus Day (rather than its increasing replacement, Indigenous Peoples’ Day), followed by the colonial version of Thanksgiving, I find myself searching for language weeks later for how to translate what I’m hearing back to my own communities.
Although each holiday focuses on different themes (one could say, American and Christian identity formation, respectively), perhaps Thanksgiving and Christmas need to be viewed together, not separately, that with a retrospective, deconstructive view we can look at the ways these holidays mutually inform how and what we celebrate at the end of the year. In short, what does giving thanks and giving gifts mean in the specific context of—for we white and settler communities—being guests on stolen land?
Last month, calls for renaming, such as Truthsgiving or Thankstaking, led me to examine the ways in which our whitewashed history isn’t just diluting our celebrations from what could be a much more fulfilling time together, but is continuing to re-enact harm in our own communities as well. Even for those of us who are aware of the colonial distortion of this history, and who would readily oppose actions such as our current administration’s removing tribal status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe—among the first indigenous nations to help starving European settlers survive—I wonder, what dynamics are we holding onto when we celebrate while others are mourning? A constant theme has emerged for me throughout this Advent season, namely: how are these holidays, as culturally framed practices around categories of gift and gratitude, shaped by deeper cultural understandings of the categories of guest and host?
I began asking these sorts of questions a year ago this same week, at The Seattle School’s 2017 Thanksgiving Vespers meal. Students and faculty were invited to share stories of gratitude as a way of opening space for reflection, acknowledgment, and spending time together around a communal meal. I joined our former financial aid counselor (who retired this spring), Carolyn Christmas (Mi’Kmaq, Pictoe Band from the Red Wing Clan), and her friend, Raymond Kingfisher, a Northern Cheyenne water protector and activist, at a table. Carolyn had recently been incredibly gracious to share conversation with me in the early process of beginning my integrative project in exploring decolonial theologies of food sovereignty, and I was honored to sit with these elders.
After an opening liturgy, we passed around bread, soup, and cider at our tables. My friend Stephanie and I noticed that Raymond, visibly uncomfortable, wasn’t eating. He told us that the food hadn’t been blessed properly, and that he didn’t feel he could eat. Carolyn suggested we hold a prayer just with those of us sitting next to each other. Raymond prayed for all the relations of reciprocity—human, animal, water, and the land—that went into this food in front of us, naming the ongoing struggles for water and food sovereignty in Native communities throughout the country, and thanked the Creator for blessing us with these relationships. This prayer—this space opened in one corner of a table in the Commons during a community event—transformed my experience of that night and marked a new trajectory in my integrative project process for the rest of the year and, indeed, my life.
A table in the presence of our enemies
In my reflecting after this moment, I have often thought back to the Vespers meal the year before, wherein Student Leadership invited Dan Allender to share a homily on the theme of Psalm 23:5, “You have prepared for us a table in the presence of our enemies.” The 2016 presidential election had just concluded a week earlier, and we as a school were reeling in the reckoning with all its implications for our communities. In our liturgy planning in the month leading up to this event, we as a Sacred Space team were exploring many challenging conversations around how to creatively, therapeutically, and pastorally unpack the deeper meanings behind those diluted and, let’s be honest, colonized holiday buzzwords like “gratitude.” What does “being grateful” during this season look like for those of us whose comforts, privileges, and securities are the result of stolen land at the expense of Native communities? While we feasted on Thanksgiving, some Native activists chose to fast. How can one group of people give thanks on a day that has been the source of another’s mourning? This is an unsettling question.
When I think about this, I can recognize the bravery and strength of our friends Carolyn and Raymond who showed up in this nonnative community at a holiday meal which often symbolizes pain, trauma, and injustice in theirs. I wonder about the emotional labor it can take to be in spaces where over and over again one’s cultural needs are not met, nor even thought of, and not have the energy to speak up. I can recognize the ways that their presence and words that night were completely missed by many of us in our community. In Native communities, elders are honored first and foremost at any ceremony. But, with our best intentions, we missed them and the gift that they offered. And it was only because of their willingness to share that moment with a few of us sitting by them—and Carolyn’s incredible graciousness to process with me in weeks afterwards—that I was and am able to become more attuned to the gifts around me that would otherwise go missed.
I realize that if we reflect with empathy towards the experience of others—in this case, our Native and indigenous neighbors—then the way we frame gatherings on this day, while surely nonsensical to the conscious intent of our celebrations of gratitude, re-enacts an impact of erasure and exclusion. That is the experience of a dominant culture that first took and took without giving back, and then talks about gratitude for what they are able to enjoy due to this history, all on a holiday that supposedly celebrates peace and togetherness. It is we who brought enmity to that table. With Thanksgiving, we might not be the ones actively taking land now or dressing up as “pilgrims and indians,” but our decision to frame these categories in ways that do not radically prioritize the ongoing struggles for survivance and healing of Native communities might as well be justifying those same behaviors. It normalizes that very fantasy behind Thanksgiving that colonial settlers and indigenous people overcame differences, learned to coexist, and ate happily together. This is still not the case today—we are still not eating at a shared table and land is still being stolen. We are not bystanders. We can choose how we tell these stories, especially as we reflect on incarnation and revelation in this Christmastide season.
Suffering the gift
I’m reminded of another of Dan Allender’s talks, this one a video of a Donor Appreciation Dinner in 2012. Day says, “When we’re in the presence of that which is unfathomably good, in the very face of that which is unspeakably horrible, we’re caught by a paradox we really can’t explain. And, yet, in the midst of that, what we’re often left with is this phenomenal desire to say thank you.” He was describing a deeper gratitude within the language of grace as that which does not come about because of our works or efforts, but comes from outside of us. In other words, a gift. And Dan had a very clear memory and example of this: a meal. He tells the story of a meal shared with him by a host family in Ethiopia after a week of working there with practitioners engaging trauma. To paraphrase Dan’s narration, the meal lasted several hours, not concluding until well after midnight. He was told that it took the family three days with little sleep to prepare. The meal was shared with such exquisite care and intention that, in its glory, when asked afterwards “well, did you enjoy yourself?” Dan was utterly lost for words. I would like to quote at length the exchange that followed:
What do you even say [to that]? ‘That was great’? No… I said, “I don’t know what to say.” She said, “Do you know what it cost this family to provide this meal for you?” As a fairly typical middle class, white, American male, it had not even passed my mind. I said, “No, I don’t know.” “It cost that family one tenth of their year’s income to feed you.” When I heard that, there’s a part of me that wants to weep, and there’s another part that’s furious. As soon as I heard that, my face must have become ferocious. She looked at me and said, “Don’t.” I said, “I have to.” She said, “Then you will ruin the gift. […] You must suffer the goodness of this family on your behalf.”
This idea, suffering the gift, is something I have come back to over and over again with many experiences since seeing this video years before. It is a kind of bearing the weight of goodness shared with you who cannot repay it, given your relative privilege and power, to someone whose giving came at great cost. The way to honor this family was not to balance the ledgers and “repay” them, which would have been easy, but to sit in the costliness of a gratitude measured by the costliness of its gift. The indebtedness one might feel, as when Dan felt it was wrong for the family to sacrifice so much for him, is not a move into true reciprocity, perhaps, but is a turn away from the gift’s invitation to experience goodness outside what our power dynamics usually “give” us unjustly and too easily. It is a reciprocity of mutual bestowal of honor, rather than an economic calculus of what’s owed. Our whiteness shows up in predictable ways when we don’t know how to be good guests, let alone if we don’t even know we’re guests in the first place. Christmas, in this way, might be an invitation for we settler disciples and communities to also look at how, being celebrated on stolen land, such a nationalized holiday can call us to re-examine the ways the dominant culture has presumed itself “host” culturally and theologically over and against indigenous cultures—and repent.
“Our whiteness shows up in predictable ways when we don’t know how to be good guests, let alone if we even know we’re guests in the first place.”
I remember the words of a Native elder to me this past summer when I was volunteering with the Canoe Journey Herbalists project on this year’s annual Tribal Canoe Journey. She was next to our medicine bus in the vendors area, breaking down her art and jewelry table at the end of the day. She asked us to help her as it would take her a while to do it alone with the heavy boxes, and offered to trade us an item of our choice in exchange for the favor. I respectfully declined, happy to help out, but she chided me and said, “In our culture, you never say no to a gift.” It reminds me of what Yakama decolonial scholar Michelle Jacob says when she writes, “A main teaching within traditional culture is that one must acknowledge that receiving a gift is an honor, and that one must be respectful of both the gifts received and the gift giver, who is honoring the one receiving the gift. Gifts serve an important function within [Native] culture. They bring relations together in a cycle of reciprocity” (27).
For Dan in Ethiopia, or for me at Canoe Journey and a Vespers meal…these are moments where I realize both that I have not been taught how to receive gifts well, and I do not know how to give good gifts. Where previously there was no relationship, I can work on imagining how to bring myself as a gift into that space so honor and reciprocity can become possible once again. And for our Native hosts and neighbors on whose land we live, learning to listen and mourn seems the first step. We all have our own unique memories and experiences with gifts and gratitude in this holiday season. My hope is that, in discovering the ways giving and receiving differently invite us into different ways of relating with one another, we can begin seeing ourselves and others in a new way, one that desires to live honorably with those whom we have ignored and avoided relationship with.
“Such a nationalized holiday can call us to re-examine the ways the dominant culture has presumed itself ‘host’ culturally and theologically over and against indigenous cultures—and repent.”
In search of an honorable feast
So, I’m thinking this week about the implications of these insights. I want to learn more about the capacities of attunement for recognizing when a gift is before us, so that we don’t miss it and the one offering it when we’re unaware of the responsibility and reciprocity to which gifts call us. I also want to remember Dan’s words that we cannot create by our own efforts these encounters in institutions, practicums or classrooms—we can only open space for goodness to come knocking in unexpected moments. In the context of unpacking the history of Thanksgiving, the invitation seems to lead us to reflect on how the dynamics of settler and indigenous, guest and host, are still being played out among us. Desiring to say thank you in a deeper way, as Dan’s story suggested, would call us to acknowledge the ways our actions in this relationship do not resemble true gratitude, but look more like being thankful for the privileged entitlement we enjoy; or, when we are in the position of some form of giving, is that a giving rooted in mutual honoring, or the reification of power that is charity?
Colonization has been whitewashed for far too long by a people unable to face its historical and ongoing violence. Feeling sorry for our history isn’t enough—as Anishinaabe scholar-activist Winona LaDuke insists, apology without action does not bring redemption. The promise for us is that in uncovering the shame hidden in our denials, our avoidances, our distances, we are led to a meal. A particular, precarious kind of meal where, through naming and mourning, the ability to truly say “thank you” emerges. It is no accident that all these stories here are centered around a table experience. That’s what meals do—invite us into deeper belonging, truth-telling, and practicing reciprocity. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas centralize gift giving in the form of sharing food and spending time together. With Advent and Epiphany inviting us into reflection upon incarnation and revelation, at this time more than any other, let us not stand away from this real and metaphorical table, but take a seat courageously so that accountability, reparation, and solidarity come into being.
In my experience, I have found that three questions in decolonization work seem central for settlers engaging this process: reckoning with what has been lost, what we are missing out on in the here and now because of that loss, and, then, what desires come up for us in these answers and what do we do with them? We have so much to learn from our Native hosts who invite us to practice a posture of humble guests, and there are many calls for support as they lead the way in this work. The extent to which we do not pay attention to the deep lessons they have to teach us during this holiday season of deep cultural formation is the extent to which our claims to being good neighbors, supporters, and allies remain uncredible. May we heal and liberate our collective amnesia about where we come from so that where we are going together as a culture will, one day, be a feast worthy of the name.