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An Early Thanksgiving

November 17, 1994|JOAN NATHAN

While most Americans will sit down to a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, Nov. 24, Dr. Ella Sekatau and her tribe of Narragansett Indians celebrated their Thanksgiving at an Indian Harvest festival meal on Oct. 2.

"In fact, we have a thanksgiving harvest festival every 28 days or so," says Sekatau, the medicine woman for her southern New England tribe. "Our people have been doing this for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years."

Other such harvest meals include a spring strawberry festival at corn planting time, a summer green bean and corn festival when the first squashes, string beans and corn are ready for eating, and in August, a green corn festival in which fresh fish are baked over seaweed and coals on the beach.

At the October Thanksgiving meal, Sekatau, her seven children, 26 grandchildren and other tribe members sit down, like other Americans, to a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. But they gather as a community to eat in the Inland Long House where, in past times, several families settled together for the cold winter.

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"Traditionally the October Thanksgiving meal took place after the hunting parties had brought in fresh meat, and the fruit, vegetables and fish were dried and stored for the winter," she says. "At all these festivals the Indians expressed thanksgiving to the Great Spirit and the Earth Mother."

In addition to enjoying the meal together, adults and children dress in deerskin clothes and perform Narragansett dances around an outdoor fire. As medicine woman, Sekatau ("Firefly," "Song of Wine," "She Who Is in Mourning" are her translated Narragansett names) stands in the center of the dancers. Her face is decorated with white and red theatrical paint over her nose and under her eyes representing the spiritual and the living worlds. The black tattoo on her left cheek represents her turtle clan, a sign of one of the Narragansett royal families. She wears a copper bracelet, American glass beads, Indian acorns and a black wampum (quahog) necklace. An eagle and a duck feather protrude from behind her black, braided hair.

Born in South County, R.I., Sekatau spends most of her time teaching the language, arts and culture of her heritage to thousands of children each year in southern New England.

"My purpose is to re-educate Americans about the cultures existing in North America in the early 1600s and 1700s," she said.

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The month prior to Thanksgiving she is especially busy helping schoolchildren better understand what the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims was really like. The Pilgrims of the 17th Century first learned the foodways in their new land from the Native Americans.

"The Narragansett or Bay Indians," adds Sekatau, "date back thousands of years in South County." Today, about 3,000 recognized Narragansetts live in southern New England.

For the early Indians, dinner was the only formal meal of the day. Instead, they ate whenever they were hungry--savoring newly picked berries in the spring, munching on dried fruit and vegetables in the winter or tasting the stew or fish chowder nearly always cooking in the fireplace.

During the evening the entire family ate together out of a communal bowl. Each person would use his own scoop-like spoon made from hard wood or an animal horn. First the father, then the grandparents, then the children, and finally the mother scooped their food.

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According to Roger Williams in his "Key into the Language of North America," written in 1643, the food was so abundant in the unpolluted waters of Narragansett Bay and off Cape Cod that Indian women merely waded out to gather lobsters, clams, oysters and quahogs. The story goes that the Pilgrims were so shocked when a green lobster emerged bright red from boiling water that they called it "the Devils' doin'."

The Pilgrims also ate eels, mackerel, cod, herring, haddock, flounder, sturgeon and salmon--all of which were plentiful. Shellfish flavored their food, which was otherwise relatively bland by our standards. In winter they ate smoked dried fish unless someone was industrious enough to dig a hole in the ice to catch a fresh fish.

Some of their other foods included turkey, venison, seal, pigeon, duck, raccoons, rabbit, skunk cabbage, wild rice, Jerusalem artichokes, cucumbers, melons, corn, beans and squash. The Indians called the last-named the "three sisters" since they were planted at the same time. The beans would wind their stalks around the corn and the squash would run between the corn hills. Strawberries, cranberries, beach plums, swamp apples, grapes and maple sugar were all plentiful.

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