Gratitude. Grace. Grief. These feelings are my spiritual “stuffing” as I celebrate Thanksgiving.
I’m filled with gratitude when I think of my ancestors and what they went through to get here, to the United States of America. My paternal grandfather, Torres Sigurd Snortland, came through Ellis Island when he was 10 and ended up in North Dakota. Why didn’t he keep going westward? Torres, did you really have to settle in the state with the same polar weather conditions found in Norway, our Mother country?
Short answer: yes. Immigrants almost always settle where relatives and their linguistic community have already broken ground. In the prairies, I mean broken ground literally and also figuratively, which I’ll get to later. (A great read about Northern Plains settlement is “On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas and Ourselves” by Jonnie Hughes.)
Climate regrets aside, soon after settling in America, Grandpa Thom — Torres is Norwegian for “Thomas” — married Aline Vig when she was 16. Aline was born in a sod and log house on a homestead. Much older Thom and Aline started their arranged marriage around what is now called Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. One of our relatives had a trading post at Devil’s Lake, with the local Native Americans bringing in beaded and quilled handcrafts to simply survive.
This is where the grief and broken ground part comes in, as my family lived on the ground of broken hearts. The bison herds were virtually destroyed by 1885, herds that had once numbered in the millions on the upper plains. The bison sustained the lives of various nations of Lakota around Devil’s Lake, specifically Sisseton-Wahpeton, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Spirit Lake Nation. The bison massacre was a deliberate genocidal move on the part of the government to rid the burgeoning white populations of “savages.”
I so wish I’d paid more attention when Grandma Aline was alive. You know those “savages” the white folks were so eager to annihilate? Listen to just how intensely savage a friend of my Grandma Aline’s was. I wish I’d asked Aline her name; I will posthumously name her “Kindness” for this piece.
Grandma noticed that every time Kindness visited, something tiny would go missing; a burned match; a small sliver of soap; a button; a pin. Why, why, why was Kindness stealing these insignificant items that Aline would have happily given her? It was stunning to Aline, and she couldn’t figure it out. The items had no value whatsoever.
Aline finally worked up the courage and asked Kindness why she had taken these things.
“It is our custom that whenever someone comes to visit, we send them home with a gift,” Kindness said. “I’m afraid for your spirit if you do not give me a gift when I visit, so I take these things so you will stay well.”
Grandma Aline never forgot Kindness’s help and from then on was very careful to give every visitor a gift, indigenous or not.
Every Thanksgiving, I give thanks to my Native American ancestors who literally died because we stole their lives and the precious herds of bison in wanton greed and land grabs. My Norwegian forebears didn’t consider homesteading outright theft, of course, because it was sanctioned via the Homestead Act for goodness sake! I think if they’d thought it through in the context of today, they would have returned to Norway… or at least I like to think they would have.
I owe my very life and well-being to the First Nations People. There’s no way I can adequately repay them other than to promise I will always include Native Americans in my art and grieve their losses that were my gains until the day I die. The pilgrims and “Indians” myth? A cover-up story to assuage guilt over a continent-wide tragedy. I keep Native Americans in my heart because so many showed undeserved kindness to us.
One last thought: this Thanksgiving, at the very least research whose land you’re on as you sit around the table with your loved ones. For example, if you’re reading this in the San Gabriel Valley, thank the Tongva. Happy Thanksgiving.
Ellen has written Consider This… for a very long time! Reach her at beautybitesbeast.com