Perspectives: Acknowledging Our Past This Thanksgiving

By William Jones & Rev. Dr. Daniel Hawk*

The East Ohio Conference creates Perspectives events throughout the year because it’s important that each of us broadens our understanding by viewing life from the perspectives of others. As we prepare to give thanks on Thanksgiving Day by spending time with family and friends while eating turkey, pumpkin pie, and all the fixings – and maybe even watching a little football – we should pause to consider the perspectives of those who participated in the first thanksgiving.

The national Thanksgiving holiday commemorates the “First Thanksgiving” when Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted together celebrating their first harvest in the New World in October 1621. In 1863 during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “thanksgiving and praise.” The pageantry and the pop culture surrounding Thanksgiving are evidence that we have created a mythology, a narrative, about the day that romanticizes the 400-year history of Thanksgiving.

On September 21, 2019 in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, The United Methodist Church returned land to the Wyandotte People. The land, which includes the Mission Church and a burial ground, was entrusted to the Methodist Church and the Methodist Mission Society in 1843 when the Wyandotte People were forced by the government to leave the land. During the 2019 ceremony Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference, said, “On behalf of the Council of Bishops we affirm our statement from 2012 as we continue on the journey toward healing relationships with indigenous peoples. We acknowledge the many failings of our past and present relationships with native people.”

It was at the 2012 General Conference that The United Methodist Church began a journey along the path of repentance through a service that served as an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples.”  Since then, Resolution 3324: “Trail of Repentance and Healing, Resolution 3321 Native People and The United Methodist Church,” Resolution 3327: “Oppose Names Demeaning to Native Americans,” and Resolution 3328: “United Methodist Responses to the Sand Creek Massacre” have each been adopted by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Collectively, these resolutions call us ever deeper into examining our collective history in relationship to Native and Indigenous peoples.

The calendar year 2020 has been a time of self-examination. We’ve been examining ourselves in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and examining ourselves in response to racism, especially concerning the experience of Black Americans. It is tempting this year, with all that is going on, to comfortably lean back and rely on the mythology we have created around Thanksgiving to carry us through the holiday.

The Pilgrim separatists who celebrated the first Thanksgiving epitomize many of the ideals that America cherishes. They dissented from tyranny, sought the freedom to practice their religion, and endured great hardship for the sake of conviction. They gave thanks to God for the blessings God bestowed and shared their blessings in fellowship with their neighbors.

Yet, the Pilgrims held other convictions that are not part of the familiar story. They believed that God had sent devastating plagues upon the Indigenous peoples to clear the land for the establishment of a new Christian society and that the land was theirs for the taking. They regarded the wilderness as the domain of Satan and the Indigenous peoples as his captives. When tens of thousands of Puritan settlers streamed into New England a decade later, those convictions became the warrant for aggressive seizures of land, by hook or by crook, that did not end until those who followed in the Pilgrim’s colonial train had overspread the continent and subdued the land and its peoples. The first Thanksgiving held a bright promise for the Pilgrim celebrants, but it was the harbinger of incomprehensible catastrophe for the Indigenous peoples of our land.

President Lincoln in his proclamation called for a national day of Thanksgiving to “heal the wounds of our land.” Today, the need for national healing seems more acute than ever. As a step toward healing, and as an act of repentance, the East Ohio Conference joins many other North American church, civic, and educational institutions in a Land Acknowledgement, to honor those peoples on whose land we now live, to challenge us to listen to their stories both past and present, and to pursue healing for ourselves and our indigenous neighbors.

A Land Acknowledgement is yet another step in our journey as United Methodists to be on the trail of repentance and healing. “We respectfully acknowledge that Ohio was originally home to a number of Native American tribes and communities” are the words that were spoken as The United Methodist Church returned land to the Wyandotte people. It is time this Thanksgiving for The East Ohio Conference to formally acknowledge the many Native and Indigenous peoples that once called the lands our Conference occupies home.

View the General Conference 2012 Act of Repentance.

East Ohio Area Land Acknowledgement

“We, the people of the East Ohio Area of The United Methodist Church, wish to acknowledge that our communities have been built on lands that many Indigenous peoples once called home. We pay our respect to the Lenni-Lenape, Wyandotte, Shawnee, Seneca, Cayuga, Ojibwe, and Odawa peoples who lived in this area when settlers first arrived, and who were forced to relinquish their lands to the United States through a series of treaties, culminating in the Treaty of Greenville. We also honor those Lenni-Lenape who established the first Christian settlements in Ohio. We remember the 96 men, women, and children of their number who were martyred at Gnadenhutten by colonial militia during the American Revolution. Finally, we recognize the contributions of the Indigenous people, from many nations, who reside in northeast Ohio. We acknowledge our responsibility to pursue mutually healing relationships.”

*William Jones is director of Multicultural Vitality for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church and the Rev. Dr. Daniel Hawk is professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary. This article was submitted on behalf of The East Ohio Conference Multicultural Vitality Board.