Remembering True Anishinaabe Thanksgiving Traditions

By Thor Conway

Most of us certainly do enjoy thanksgiving. I recall the great Ojibwa orator, Dan Pine Senior at Garden River, stating that the fall feast on Thanksgiving Day was a fine event. But he quickly pointed out that every day was “a thanks giving day” for Indigenous people.

So many times, Dan Pine simply said, “Always thank your Mother [the earth and its spirits].”

Thankfulness was automatic and sincere for the elders. When Dan Pine or other elders picked Mushkikik [herbal medicines], they would place a pinch of precious tobacco into the earth where the roots were removed. If hunting, individuals often followed the ancient custom of respecting the slain animal after butchering by placing it bones in trees.

Bears received greater special treatment. Michael Paul, the kingfisher clan elder at Bear Island on Lake Temagami, stated that in his father’s time Indigenous hunters would address the slain bear as a relative, blow tobacco into the bear’s nose so he could enjoy a final smoke, and carefully place red ribbons on the bear’s head to honour him.

But what of Thanksgiving, the national holiday? Most of us have heard the story from the States where native people saved the Pilgrims with the fall feast. Apparently, there is a darker side to that history. But perhaps our schools in Canada need to acknowledge our Canadian Indigenous thanksgiving traditions that do not involve settlers.

During one long afternoon of conversation at her Spadina Avenue apartment in Toronto, Jane Espaniel McKee, an elder from the height of land area at the headwaters of the Spanish River, unexpectedly recalled to me the thanksgiving tradition of the Anishinabeg.

Visiting Jane Espaniel McKee always had a great, sociable flavour. She lived in a retirement home for native people. And her friends dropped in throughout the day in the style of northern Ontario—no knocking at doors, just walk in and greet everyone as tea was poured for you, and you immediately entered the conversation.

A typical visit might go like this. “Thor, this is Mrs. [I have forgotten her married name]. She is a Whitebear from Temagami.” Or, “Meet Mrs. Penassi. I think you mentioned that you knew her cousin, Joe.” Such wonderful connectedness still warms my heart. Jane, her friends, and I then would sit and exchange stories for hours.

Jane Espaniel McKee

Jane’s memory of Thanksgiving is precious.

“Well, there was Indians around there, too, but there was lots of them, eh. But they didn’t stay there at Biscotasing Lake. They only came out of their family grounds in the summertime.  And as soon as the Thanksgiving feast was over, they were all gone again for the whole year. You never seen them till next year again.”

“The thanksgiving feast wasn’t in the fall—probably August when everything was all full-grown, eh. They had potatoes, and they had… Over there at Biscotasing they didn’t grow corn, eh. It was too cold. They had potatoes, and they had the blueberries, and the raspberries. Everything.”

“And all the Indians… The men would go along and get on an island. They’d have to get on an island where there was nobody lived, eh. Perfectly clean island. I don’t know how long they worked. They brushed it all out, eh. And then on the top of the hill they had tipis made out of birchbark.”

“The Indians used to go there and they’d clean out this island, and I don’t know how many days they worked. They made fireplaces along the shore, and they had a road as good as this clean around it. They didn’t have too big island, just small island.”

“Anyways, we’d go over there. They’d have tipis up there. So, when us kids fell asleep or got tired or something, we went to sleep in the tipi. They’d have this road clean around the island and they’d have fires here and there. They’d have blueberries boiling, and dumplings on them or something.”

“And they had moose, lots of moose, of course, and rabbit, and fish. Whatever they had, eh, partridge, and…”

“Well, the men went ahead. They were dancing. They had drums, you know, moose skin drums, eh. They didn’t wear no costumes or nothing. They didn’t do no smoking or nothing like that.”

“I remember them. All they did was they had this Thanksgiving feast. They’d be dancing around this fire. Then they’d stop at one fire and they’d take a little bit of this food, eh. Then us kids… I guess they ate. I don’t remember.”

“They’d go like that all around the… Their specialty was moose head, eh. Moose head cooked, tongue, everything like that, eh. I remember I used to like the moose tongue. They’d have it all cooked in those big pots, eh. They were already cut up, eh.”

“But all they do is take a piece when you go by, eh. Or they give you a piece. Or whoever is standing at the fire. They’d go like that till morning. They used to call it Wabeno. I think that’s what they called it. Wabeno. They danced like that all night long.”

Then Jane Espaniel added another story that make us hungry.

Jane Espaniel McKee carried wonderful memories of her life as an Indigenous woman. In 1987, she shared a memory of a fine, northern feast. Jane recalled Sarah Espaniel, the third wife of her grandfather.

“In the fall, Sarah used to visit us at Biscotasing bringing with her dried and cured moose meat and trout which was very plentiful in Pogamasing Lake [where Jane’s grandparents lived].” 

“She packed the meat in woven mesh bags made from the soft, inner bark of cedar trees. Sarah always stored the dried meat and fish to be ready for the times that food might be hard to get.”

“The inner bark of cedar trees pulls off easily at certain times of the year. In birchbark boxes, makuks, she filled them with cooked blueberries so thick that you could easily slice the jam with a knife. Truly delicious!”

“In the cedar mesh bags, she had dried blueberries cured by the sun and by fire. These tasted like raisins. And sweet foods were very rare in the bush. The birchbark boxes were sealed with spruce gum. The cedar odour kept flies and bugs away from the contents of the bags.” “We ate well and sometimes got fat. But happy.”

Jane’s memories of pure food from her life in the bush makes our mouths water today.

If you like stories such as this, join Northerners, eh. By clicking “like,” you will become part of the group and receive future stories.

I am sharing stories, legends, oral history, and personal experiences that came into my life while seeking out tribal elders and other wise northerners.

These stories are parts of future books that I am writing. I love to share and give back to our community the rich heritage that makes us Canadians living up north and friends across the continent.

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Thanks—Thor Conway.

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