The Ghosts of Thanksgiving

Image: Seth Hahne

“To remember the things that death and sin have stolen from us, this is the only way, I think, to be grateful for that which remains.”

My name was almost Powhatan John.

Powhatan Bolling was my great-grandfather’s name, and it almost became mine. His son, my grandfather, was named John Nokomis. Paw hated that name because everyone thought it was a girl’s name. It is the name of Hiawatha’s grandmother in Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” and Longfellow says it means “Daughter of the Moon.” My family disagrees; they say it means “Nature Spirit” and had nothing to do with being a girl’s name. The truth, I suppose, could only be settled by the Algonquin tribes from which it came, and we have not had any real contact with that culture for a couple hundred years or so. The language is dead, and the culture the name came from is all but gone. But those Indian names in my family tree remain, and the story of my naming remains as well.

My mother would not let my father name me Powhatan. He says that he was going to affectionately call me “Powy.” I cannot imagine how my life might have been different if he had won the argument. Or how different it might have been had they not divorced while I was yet an infant, still oblivious to whatever my mother ultimately decided to call me.

Instead of Powhatan John, I became John Bradley.

That’s probably for the best since I’m blue-eyed and as pasty white as can be. Still, my ancestry stirs me to think about Thanksgiving from both a Native and European perspective. Even if only a trickle of Native American blood remains in me, the ghosts of my ancestors still stir in my heart, causing me to linger on the past each Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I like it because the only gift we have to give one another on that day is our fellowship. The family crams into my grandmother’s house, although it used to be at my great-grandmother’s house when I was a boy. But the matriarch died and now we are at Granny’s for Thanksgiving. We stuff ourselves with turkey and dressing and green beans and corn and sweet potato casserole and dessert. It is a glorious day of feasting and family love and football.

I understand that at the “first” Thanksgiving they had shellfish, venison, and turkey. And, of course, they had “the three sisters,” beans, squash, and corn. These are the three vegetables the Wampanoag people taught the pilgrims to grow so that they wouldn’t starve to death.  In my family, the Indians have shared more than corn, and their presence evidenced in family names. Three generations ago, my great-grandfather Powhatan loved my great-grandmother, and together they gave us John Nokomis. I may have enough Indian ancestry to claim minority status, but my fair skin, brown hair, and blue eyes—and the fact that I have never set foot on a reservation—make claiming Native American status feel a bit wrong to me, like exploitation. There’s been enough of that without my adding to it. Now, at our table, there are no more Indians. The food and fellowship remain.

I love Thanksgiving because it is meant to be a time of reflection. After all, unless we reflect on life, how can we be truly thankful for what we have? I usually start big in my reflections, and since this is a national holiday, I start at the national level. I am thankful for the freedoms that I enjoy. I am thankful that our economy is one of the strongest in the world, that we have good medical care, and that we enjoy more creature comforts than just about any nation on earth.

If I am honest, my Thanksgiving reflection on the national level never stops at the creature comforts and privilege that I enjoy. I think a lot about the American Indians. I think about how they were uprooted, and enslaved. (Yes, Native Americans were captured and enslaved in the early days of America.) Little did the Wampanoag know when they were sharing the secrets to survival in America, that within a hundred years, war with white people and disease would decimate their numbers by 90 percent. I think about how entire tribes were wiped out, how their languages were lost forever, and how those who survived the holocaust were rounded up and forced to live on the reservation. I think of the forests that they cultivated that are now gone forever. In New England, the canopy of the forest once reached 60 feet above the ground. Imagine walking beneath trees so vast that the first limbs were 50 feet off the ground. The Indians, instead of herding animals, used controlled burning to keep the forest floor clear and clean. You could walk for miles and miles under this natural cathedral, and it would not be unusual to see a hollowed out sycamore tree that could shelter 20–30 men during a storm. All of this is gone now, replaced by highways and suburbs and cities. Replaced by civilization.

In addition to my Thanksgiving reflection at the national level, there are personal aspects to consider. I think of my family, especially the man whose name I almost shared. I think of his son, my grandfather, John Nokomis, who is a man of the woods. In his youth, he taught dogs to hunt and point birds, and he chased deer wherever they might be found. There is no game which he did not pursue, and he taught me the way of the woods as well. He taught me the trees and their names. He taught me to hunt squirrels and deer, and he taught me how to clean them and prepare them. My grandfather is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease now. He has trouble remembering things, and his coordination is terribly impaired. Now, I take him hunting with me. To say that I am thankful to God for him is not enough. No words can be. He and my grandmother spoiled me with love. Now, she has osteoporosis; her spine is so brittle that it has cracked and broken many times, and the doctor cements it back together. I do not think that we will have very many more Thanksgivings with them. I do not know where we will have Thanksgiving when they are gone.

I always think of my wife and my children and how much my life is entwined in them and the future just as much as it is entwined in my family heritage. My children are still unaware of the bad things that live in this world. They don’t know about holocausts and economic crashes and murders and divorce and mayhem, and if they did, they are still young enough to believe I could protect them from all these things. I think of my wife who has stuck with me for ten years now; the one person who knows me better than anyone, and she has decided to stay with me anyway, and she still enjoys my company.

Time and space would not permit me to muse upon how thankful I am for each member of my family, and really, that isn’t the point I want to make. Being thankful doesn’t just mean being glad for happy things; it is also the ability to mourn for loss, to mourn for things that have passed and will never return in this world. To remember the things that death and sin have stolen from us, this is the only way, I think, to be grateful for that which remains.

And so I tie all of these things together with Christ. All that I mourn, all the sorrow that sin has wrought in my life and the lives of others, he came to deal with it. Christ Jesus has propitiated the sin of the world, absorbing the due penalties for holocausts and war and heartbreak. For me, personally, Jesus has absolutely saved me in this life and the one to come. He gives me hope that he will make all things new, that no tear has gone unseen, no good deed forgotten, and that no evil work will go unpunished. So I do not have to wallow in the sorrowful things of the world. I can yet be thankful, and even hopeful. Better days are yet to come, and someday, somehow, every tear will be wiped away.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X