We Send Our Greetings and Our Thanks

In the tradition of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – more commonly known among white people as the Iroquois – there is a practice sometimes called the Thanksgiving Address, or the Greetings and Thanks to the Natural World, but it is most literally and accurately called, “The Words That Come Before All Else.” It is a litany of gratitude, used to systematically thank the different components of the natural universe, recited at the beginning of a new week, at the opening of a celebration, meeting, or other event, and for some, every day of the year. This morning, I am inviting you to experience the words that come before all else with me. Here, they begin:

 

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have

been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living

things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and

thanks to each other as people.

Now our minds are one.

 

We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for

life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she

continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we

send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.[i]

 

The Thanksgiving Address is a practice and a discipline, not a script. It follows a structure, but every speaker gives their own particular version of it. The text I am offering you this morning comes from Kanawahienton of the people who call themselves the Kanien’keha:ka, but whom most white people call the Mohawk – one of the six nations of the Haudensaunee. Literally, Kanien’keha:ka means the People of the Flint Stone Place. There is a painful history of white people acquiring and misusing the words and rituals of native peoples without their permission. So I offer my understanding that these words were published in order to share something precious to the Haudenosaunee people with the rest of the world, and my intention to repeat them here with the utmost respect for the culture and the people with whom they originate. And if I am wrong in my understanding or I fail in my intention, I take responsibility for that failure.

 

We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and

providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms‐

waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send

greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water. 

Now our minds are one

 

We turn our minds to the all the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to

cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are

grateful that we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish and send

our greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

 

The season of Thanksgiving is a time of celebration and gratitude in the United States. At its best, it strengthens the bonds between family and friends and allows people and communities to come together in expressing their grateful hearts. But thought the myth of the first Thanksgiving – which, like most myths, has some elements of history and some elements of fiction – deeply involves native people of this continent, usually they appear as a symbol, and not as the real lives, stories, or words of actual human beings. So this morning, let us recognize that the first Thanksgiving is not a simple, happy occasion for indigenous people. Even the best parts of the history behind the story – bright spots of kindness, generosity, and attempts at mutual understanding – coincide with catastrophic destruction, theft, and loss. Keeping this painful truth in our hearts, may we be reminded that gratitude is not only worthwhile when it is an easy and untroubled thing. Rather, gratitude matters most when, in the face of great trial and adversity, we nonetheless find reason to give thanks.

 

Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the

Plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our

minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for

many generations to come.

Now our minds are one.

 

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from

the garden. Since the beginning of time, the grains, vegetables, beans and berries

have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from

them too. We gather all the Plant Foods together as one and send them a

greeting of thanks.

Now our minds are one.

 

Now we turn to all the Medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning they

were instructed to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal.

We are happy there are still among us those special few who remember how

to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to

the Medicines and to the keepers of the Medicines.

Now our minds are one.

 

In her book about indigenous scientific intelligence and wisdom, Robin Wall Kimerer describes the scene of a group of third graders at a school run by and for the Onondaga – the People of the Hill Place, another of the nations of the Haudenosaunee. At their school, the children recite a version of the Thanksgiving Address at the start of each week. She quotes Frieda Jacques, a teacher at that school about the practice of gratitude: “It reminds you every day that you have enough. More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads to an outlook of contentment and respect for all Creation.”

 

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the Animal life

in the world. They have many things to teach us as people. We are honored by

them when they give up their lives so we may use their bodies as food for our

people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they

are still here and we hope that it will always be so.

Now our minds are one

 

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who

have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade,

others with fruit, beauty and other useful things. Many people of the world use a

Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the

Tree life.

Now our minds are one.

 

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about

over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us

to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the

Birds‐from the smallest to the largest‐we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

 

We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their

voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They

help us to bring the change of seasons. From the four directions they come,

bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our

greetings and thanks to the Four Winds.

Now our minds are one.

 

Certainly, it is possible to be grateful alone. But there are certain depths of feeling that we need community in order to reach, or sustain. Privately, we may be full of thanks and appreciation, but such feelings are not meant to be kept private. To be fully expressed, they need to be shared.

 

Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers, the Thunder Beings, live. With

lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life.

We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres

underground. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks

to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.

Now our minds are one.

 

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest Brother, the Sun. Each day

without fail he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day.

He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and

thanks to our Brother, the Sun.

Now our minds are one.

 

We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon,

who lights the night‐time sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world, and

she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure

time, and it is the Moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth.

With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the Moon.

Now our minds are one.

 

We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see

them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the

gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With

our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to the Stars.

Now our minds are one.

 

If we are actually practicing gratitude, it should show itself in our actions. Not only in the saying of our thanks – though that is worth doing – but in the living out of it. In the respect we show towards ourselves, other people, and the world of which we are a part. In the way in which being grateful makes us more generous, patient, open-minded, and kind.

 

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have

come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they

remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we

send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.

Now our minds are one.

 

Now we turn our thoughts to the creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and

thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here

on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds

together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the

Creator.

Now our minds are one.

 

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we

have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was

forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their

own way.

Now our minds are one.

 

I was born and raised on land that was taken from the Haudenosaunee, from the Seneca – the Keepers of the Western Door, because their lands were along the western-most boundary of the confederacy of six nations. This gives me no authority to speak for or about them, of course, but it does give me a responsibility to respect the people who came from the land where I came from, and to seek to understand. Likewise, I do not feel or claim the cultural authority to make the Words That Come Before All Else my own. But in honoring their spirit, I am moved to add this to them, this morning:

In the season of the harvest and Thanksgiving, may we turn towards the beings and the forces which make our lives possible, meaningful, and happy. May we think on them with loving hearts, and honor them and give them thanks by our words and by our deeds. May our families and our community be moved to greater kindness and compassion by an appreciation for all that we possess. In this, may our minds now be as one.

[i] The version of the Thanksgiving Address woven throughout this sermon is provided by the Six Nations Indian Museum and the Tracking Project. The full text may be found here: https://americanindian.si.edu/environment/pdf/01_02_Thanksgiving_Address.pdf

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