By Shaneequa Brokenleg
As many of you know, November is Native American Heritage Month. As an Indigenous person and an enrolled citizen in my tribe, the fact that Native American Heritage Month happens in the same month as Thanksgiving is not lost on me. It’s a time when many people like to harken back to the first Thanksgiving, thinking about settlers and Indians enjoying a meal together, in some sort of romanticized version of history. It is one of our quintessential “American” holidays.
Unfortunately, those who colonized North America saw the First Peoples of the land as other and not American. In fact, the right to vote, something citizens do, was originally restricted to White-land-owning men. Native Americans were not declared citizens until 1924; and until 1957, some states still barred Native Americans from voting, whether we owned land or not.
From an Indigenous perspective, the land was never something that we “owned.” We see the land as our relative, sibling or mother; it is something that we all have to care for. Relatives aren’t something that you own. In Western culture, we often think of ourselves as being autonomous individuals and having “rights.” In Lakota culture, we think of ourselves as part of a community, being related to all of creation. We don’t think of ourselves as having “rights,” insomuch as we see ourselves as part of the family of creation and having responsibilities and obligations to that family.
We have a phrase in Lakota, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which means “all my relatives,” “we are all related,” or “God bless all my relatives.” It’s what we say when we end a prayer. When we say “we” and “relative,” we aren’t just talking about people but about plants, animals, rocks, and all of creation. As citizens of creation, we are called to be good relatives and care for it all…to build right-relationship with all.
God sent her son, Jesus, to show us how to be a good relative, how to build that right-relationship. Throughout his ministry, that is what Jesus was doing. Building relationship, bringing reconciliation, bringing healing, and calling us back into that sacred relationship, of love…as relatives, as family, and as interconnected citizens of creation. Jesus fed folks, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That is certainly something to be thankful for.
Thanksgiving is important, gratitude is important, and generosity is important. In fact, in Lakota (and most Indigenous) cultures, one’s wealth is not measured by how much one owns or has, but rather by how much they can give away. Wouldn’t our world be such a better place if we were all so wealthy that we only kept what we needed and gave the rest away? Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we focused more on our obligations and responsibilities to one another as relatives in the family of creation? This Thanksgiving, I encourage us to follow Jesus’ example by reconciling, building relationships, and sharing a meal with those who live, play, pray, and love differently than you do. Mitakuye Oyasin.
The Rev. Isaiah “Shaneequa” Brokenleg is the staff officer for racial reconciliation at The Episcopal Church and the associate rector at Church of the Good Shepherd in South Dakota.