Rhode Island Thanksgiving Reflections

Reflections by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay and DRE Cathy Seggel

Reflection 1:  Native Peoples

Audio Recording

To listen to this reflection, click on the arrow below at the left:

Liz: Asco Wequassin!  This is the native greeting of the Algonqian people, who were here in the beginning.

Cathy: Will you say it with us now? Ready? Asco Wequassin!

Liz: Welcome to this special service of celebration and exploration, of history and aspiration.  A lot of us have heard a lot about the original Thanksgiving over at the Plymouth Bay Colony – nowadays about an hour’s drive from here.  You may know that the traditional legend doesn’t really tell the whole story about the relationship between the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims.  But there’s more to know than just that story.  Things happened here too back then; here in Rhode Island we have our own Thanksgiving story.

Cathy: And that’s the story we’re going to explore today, together.  We have stories to learn, wonderful music to hear and to share, worship to create together, thanks to give and Thanksgiving to prepare ourselves for.  So here we all are together, kids and grown-ups, teens and elders, as we get ready for this holiday, and for the holiday season that follows.

Liz and Cathy: Gathered together in this day we have been given, may we make the most of it, starting now, together.

Cathy: For more than 5,000 years, the Algonqian native peoples in this region, the Wampanoag to the east, Mohegan and Pequot to the West and South, Narragansett right here, Nipmuc just north of here, for more than 5,000 years they lived here and moved with the cycles of the year.  In the spring they lived near waterways and coastal areas in circular wigwams or houses.  They harvested fish and shellfish, ducks and geese, cleared woods with fire to create meadows for deer and fields for maize, beans and squash.  In the fall they laid in stores acorns, hickory and chestnuts, gathered where the salmon were running to fish, hold games and settle disputes before heading inland. In winter they lived inland in long houses in sheltered valleys, relying on stored food and hunting.

Liz: Their lives were balanced with nature but sometimes hard on each other, culturally rich and challenging.  The tribes competed together, shared an overarching Algonqian culture, language and faith, and sometimes warred with each other over territory or power.

They believed in gods for everything: the fire god, the house god, the moon god, the sea.  Many, many gods that were in all parts of the world we live in.  The people who honored these gods were tall, healthy and graceful, their complexions ranged from light to tawny.  They loved copper more than gold, and generosity more than ownership.

Cathy: We have learned and adopted some of their words for places and people.  You probably know or use some of them, maybe without even knowing it.   Has anyone here ever been to the Small Point coffee shop down town?  Well, Narragansett, which was really pronounced “Nanhigganeuck” means “(People) of the Small Point”.   Small Point was the name for a salt pond near here.  Niantic – another tribe from this area.  Massassoit – he was a sachem (leader) near what we know as Boston in the early 1600’s.  Canonicus and Miantonomi, the sachems right here in the early 1600’s.  But mostly we don’t know their words.

Liz: So you may or may not know one of their most beautiful, important words, Manitou.  Can you say that with me?  “Manitou.”  Manitou is the Algonqian word for an overarching sacred force –not one god, or even many gods, but a sense of divinity, sacredness that is in everything, everywhere.  All things are within Manitou, and within Manitou, everything is holy.

Reflection 2:  Mass Bay Colony Settlers

Audio Recording

To listen to this reflection, click on the arrow below at the left:

Cathy:  So we started our service talking about Manitou – holiness that seemed, to the native peoples, to be everywhere, in everything they saw.    Before we say more about Rhode Island’s Thanksgiving, I just want to ask you a question.  What does “Holy” mean?

[Sacred, dedicated to a religious purpose, something that seems it belongs to a power that is beautiful and powerful in ways that are beyond this world and human capacities.]

Liz: That’s a really important thing for us be careful to try to understand, because a lot of Rhode Island’s Thanksgiving has to do what people believed holy meant, and what things they thought were holy.  We’ve talked about some of what the native people who were from here thought were holy.

Hundreds of years ago, when people came over from Europe to settle and live here, they came because of what they thought was holy.  Unlike the native people here, the Pilgrims and Puritans who came here thought that ideas were holy.  Ideas that were in the bible, which is basically a whole book of stories and ideas about what is holy.  And ideas the people had created later, following on the bible, more ideas about what is holy, including how people should live and act, in order for them, themselves to be as holy as the ideas they cared about.

Cathy: Over at what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans who had come over believed they were finally free to be holy in the ways that made sense to them – they were tired of having to live and practice their religion in ways they didn’t believe in.  But here, they could do what they wanted, what they thought was right.  And they were so ready to do things their way, so sure they were right, they didn’t really care about people who might disagree, not even people who might really disagree, like the native people here, who thought it was the world, and not ideas, that were holy.  But the Puritans figured it was their job to convince – or just impose – their ideas on the people here.  And then, finally, everything would be holy.

Reflection 3:  Canonicus, Miantonomi and Roger Williams

Audio Recording

To listen to this reflection, click on the arrow below at the left:

Liz: “What Cheer, Neetop?”  That’s another way of greeting.

‘What cheer’ of course, are English words – it’s a very old fashioned way of saying ‘What’s up?’  And then ‘neetop’ is an Algonqian word for friend.  So what cheer, neetop means ‘what’s up, friend?”  You wanna try it with me?  “What cheer, neetop?”

What cheer, neetop is what the native people who first met Roger Williams said to him when they bumped into him in a blizzard on his way here, to what is now our city, what was then known as the Great Salt Pond.

Cathy: Canonicus and Miantonomi, the two Narragansett sachems, were the ones who decided their people should welcome the settlers and establish friendships and trade with them. They were caring leaders.  But despite their best efforts, things went downhill.

You may have heard of Roger Williams. He came over a few years after the first Puritans. He was a puritan, a minister, with an idealistic and uncompromising faith.  One of the things he believed, as a matter of faith, was that it was not just, or faithful, to do what many Puritans and Pilgrims were doing, and take the native people’s land. He also believed that everyone should be able to believe what they believed without interference from government.  So he had some great principles, but nobody’s perfect.  Right?  Do we believe that nobody’s perfect?  Well, Roger Williams wasn’t either.  When he came here one of the best things he did was to work out with the Narragansett people that they would let him use this land to make a new city, a place where people could live and believe more freely than up in the Mass Bay Colony. In return, he agreed to trade goods with the native people.

Liz: But one of the worst things was that he later betrayed this friendship and the trust and respect of the Narragansett and other native people in this area by leading a militia regiment in a war that developed.  The people here didn’t start it but they did get involved.  Roger Williams – he was in his 70’s at the time – he led a regiment.  The Narragansett attacked and burned Providence and it had to be rebuilt.  The relationship between the native people and the settlers was broken, and it was never healed, and eventually the settlers killed or pushed out almost all the native people living here.

Cathy: Still, his purpose in establishing this city was better than what he did later.  He wanted this city to be a place that would be fair to all, where people could be safe, where people could live into what they believed as deeply as they wanted to, as deeply as they possible could.  He thought everything was holy then – or as close as he could get it.

Liz: To him, this city had a religious purpose;  Roger Williams had the sense that something sacred, something holy helped bringing events and people together for the creation of something new, something that was a realization/manifestation of a sacred vision, a place, an event, a time when finally everything was as it should be.  What the Narragansett saw as Manitou, Roger Williams perceived also, but he called it Providence. He named this place, so fortunate, so full of sacred potential for true, free, fulfilled, faithful living, Providence because he felt, here, finally, everything would be holy now.

Reflection 4:  Providence

Audio Recording

To listen to this reflection, click on the arrow below at the left:

Liz: So… is everything holy now?  (Solicit answers.) No – we don’t think everything is holy now.  In fact, there’s another phrase that Roger Williams was the first to translate from Algonqian toi English: Mat nowawatau hetteh mina – “We understand not each other.”   Too often, we understand not each other, and that makes for a lot of problems right now, lots of places in our world, lots of places in this country, even here, here in Providence.  Mat nowawatau hetteh mina. 

Cathy: But even though we know it’s true, even though we experience it, mat nowawatau hetteh mina, we can see how it could be, should be.  The Rev. Rebecca Parker says it this way:  “We can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth.” That’s what Canonicus and Miantonomi were trying to do. That’s what Roger Williams was trying to do. That’s been part of the belief of people here in Providence, in the Great Salt Pond, for a very long time.

Liz: That’s what we’re trying to do now.  We’re not perfect, and we won’t get it perfect.  But if we can see how it could be, should be, even if it is far off in the distance, then we can set ourselves to get there, from here.   Rhode Island’s Thanksgiving story is one of people who experienced the world, and the holy, in really different ways, people who were ignorant about some important things, including about each other.

Cathy: That’s a story with a lot of meaning for us all right now. It can be hard to understand people who are different from us; who act differently or speak differently or believe different things. Even when we’re interested in the differences and even when we want to learn and grow from encountering them and sharing our own differences, it can be hard. And, in the end, we are all different.

Liz: But we believe that it is possible to honor people across all that unites us, across all that makes us different, across all that makes each of us unique.  And it is possible to honor the land, and to honor faith, even when our faiths are different, and to honor the human rights of all people to live with safety and opportunity for everyone.

Cathy: Rhode Island’s Thanksgiving story is still unfolding, and nowadays Rhode Island’s Thanksgiving story belongs to us. Providence kind of means ‘everything is holy now.’

Liz: We are here together in a place that means ‘everything is holy now’ and it’s up to us to live into that.  May we, in the words of Rebecca Parker, “embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties,… labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and … root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth.”

(sources include The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, Wikipedia, Saving Paradise by Rebecca Parker and nps.gov)