A Different Kind of Thanksgiving Celebration By Cindy Ross
I steady the tray of warm cornbread as I walk across the orchard in the November twilight. The 22-foot canvas tipi looms in front of me, beautifully lit up from the glowing fire inside. Native American flute music fills the air. As I push back the door flap and raise my long skirt to step inside, I felt transported to another time.
My eyes adjust to the dim light of fire and candles. My nostrils breathe in the fragrant wood smoke and the aroma of delicious food. It encourages us to say grace and begin our Thanksgiving meal. We aren’t saying the normal grace that we grew up reciting, but an Iroquois Prayer to the Great Spirit giving thanks to our mother, the earth. The food we pray over is also not the normal Thanksgiving fare. Actually, nothing is “normal” about this celebration and that’s what makes it so special.
A few years ago, my husband Todd and I grew tired of the typical Thanksgiving celebration. It wasn’t the turkey and filling that pushed us to this alternative. It was sitting around afterward, like beached whales on overstuffed sofas and Laz-E-Boys, while the TV constantly showed football or wrestling that made us feel like we wanted something more from this holiday. We took the things we like to do, the things that matter most and created an alternative celebration- kind of a cross between the Native Americans and the pioneers-never claiming to be authentic, but nearer to the soul of who we are.
Preparation started months ahead of time as our ideas took form. When I shot a deer the previous hunting season, Todd taught himself how to build a wooden frame octagonal drum and stretched a tightened rawhide across it. This would be used to make after-dinner music around the fire. Todd practiced until he could start a fire without a match, using just a bow drill, the magical way of creating fire out of spinning wood. Throughout the seasons, we filled the freezer with not only venison but goose breasts, native brook trout, a wild turkey and even a muskrat..all contributions from hunters, fishermen, and trappers who would be coming to the celebration. We scoped the Goodwills at regular intervals for articles of clothing that looked even remotely related to the rugged past, like buckskin jackets, deerskin pants, and a child’s Halloween Indian costume. I organized the menu, utilizing Native American recipes and foods eaten by the pilgrims. Background mood music, like Carlos Nikkai tapes, were selected, the boom box had fresh batteries installed and a few Native American children’s games were researched and practiced.
Festivities start early the day of the actual celebration. The tipi is raised by first putting the fifteen, twenty-seven-foot lodgepole pines in place. With the door always facing east, the backside is cut to stand straighter and brace itself against the prevailing winds. The canvas duct cover is draped around and secured at the doorway with wooden pins. Paintings of the sun and moon, the sea and the Good Spirit who delivers good luck to anyone who enters the tipi, adorn the sides. Our friend, Johnny Knabb, bought this hand-painted beauty from an Oregon manufacturer as a seasonal living space and it is probably what first gave us the idea for this wonderful celebration.
There is an inner liner, which reaches 9 feet up on the interior and curls around the floor. This prevents cold air from leaking in and acts as a draft, sucking air and carrying smoke out the top hole. The fire pit is dug and centered under the tipi’s top hole. Rocks are lain in a circle to contain the fire. Hay bales line the walls to serve as makeshift serving tables. Indian blankets are placed on the ground and firewood brought in.
As the guests begin to arrive and all the food is about done, it’s time to start the fire. Early in the week, the kids collected cattails and milkweed down which will be used as tinder to feed the live coal. Todd gets his fireboard, wooden drill, handhold and bow, made from a light sturdy sapling with a slight natural bend. A friend’s child asks, “How does it work?” as Todd saws and spins and a thin stream of smoke appears. “Rub your hands together,” I tell him. “What do you feel?”“Heat,” he says.
Just then, a tiny coal appears and Todd gently places it inside the tinder bundle like an egg in a bird’s nest. He blows softly and soon the tinder bursts into flames. He quickly places it into the waiting tipi fire and our celebration officially begins. Before we begin our meal, we all join hands around the fire and take turns sharing what we are most grateful for in the last year. Our dear friends lit up by the firelight, and even the children feel overwhelming gratitude for being here together.
For dinner, we marinated chunks of venison and skewer them to roast in the open fire. The trout too, is laid on wire racks and seared by the flames. Besides baked goose breasts and muskrat stew, we also have dishes of ginger beets, wild rice, stuffed winter squash, bean soup, broiled Jerusalem artichokes that were dug from our garden, a hot cornmeal custard with raisins called Indian Pudding and cranberries cooked with maple syrup and allspice.
Our beverages consist of mint tea and a type of lemonade made from the red staghorn sumac berries. For dessert, I made a black walnut and maple syrup upside down cake, baked in a cast iron skillet. Even picky eaters enjoy the simple, yet unique-tasting foods.
After dinner, we take turns reciting a poem or a quote about the season. Then we make music with Native American drums and primitive percussion instruments like rice and pebbles in shaky containers. The music moves the children to rise up and begin to dance around the fire. I stare at their enraptured faces and am reminded of the scene from Dances with Wolves. This will have to be our new Thanksgiving tradition.
Although this Native American tipi celebration became our family’s new tradition, the story is shared to inspire ways to redesign your own family’s customs and traditions. We can make a holiday celebration resonate closer to our own personal beliefs and interests and they can look completely different than what we have grown up with. The idea is to create memories with meaning for your family and to make life richer. If you lack the time or the interest to design your own, seek opportunities around the county and area for alternative ways to celebrate and be thankful in Pennsylvania's Americana Region.
Suggestions: Give thanks for the beauty of our region, its history, and resources.