The Iroquois Thanksgiving Address Is More Relevant Today Than It Has Ever Been

Over six hundred years ago, a community of Native Americans created a message of gratitude to share with its people and spread to the world

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The season of harvests is upon us, with its bounty of corn and pumpkins and kaleidoscopically colored leaves. 

We have entered the season of thanksgiving.

I have seen the fields bring forth their fruits. I have seen the languid leaves of summer gain their sudden flush of color, stirring wildly in fall’s bracing winds, dancing in synchronized swirls with all the art and form and tempo of a choreographed performance, liberated from summer’s paralyzing heat. 

But today I did not notice. 

Today my mind was full of worry and scheming, my own thoughts swirling about the crises of the nation and the world.  I was weighing my own plans and strategies to keep moving forward through it all, one moment at a time, one day at a time. 

On a path along the river’s edge I walked blearily by the bright red tomatoes on the vine in a community garden. I stepped headlong into a sudden cascade of floating leaves descending in mid-November. 

At first it was a delicate flurry. It quickly became a deluge, a dense cloud that rained down almost blindingly, forcing me to wave these parachuting bits of nature aside to keep straight on the path. These sun-crisped kaleidoscopically colored leaves had been pounded by the heat and now showed deep wrinkles in their finger-like lobes and curled tips. They struck my head and arms and legs, plinking as they did on their dried and withered stems. 

I stopped to look upward into the maze of leaves and to listen to the rustling song of the winds in their branches. In an instant the play of the winds on the red oak and sugar gum leaves had silenced my overactive mind. As the leaves grazed my cheeks and gently plinked my forehead, I felt a rush of gratitude fill me. I nodded to the whistling winds that had sent these swirling messengers to me and restored my calm.

It was a moment of gratitude the Iroquois would appreciate. 

I neared the river. I reached into my chilly coat pocket and pulled out a sliver of a book I always keep nearby at this time every year. 

Called simply a “Thanksgiving Address – Greetings To the Natural World,” the words recorded in my tiny book may have first been spoken by the Iroquois people in the 15th century, according to some accounts. (Others suggest the Address may have originated in elementary form as early as the 12th century, or perhaps as a more formalized recitation as late as the 17th.) I had discovered the Address fifteen years before as a guest at a ceremonial gathering. The wisdom contained in the palm-sized book resonated in me ever since. 

Part oration, part prayer, part invocation, its words were memorized and recited as an expression of thanksgiving through generations of Iroquois, whose numbers grew and came collectively to be called the Six Nations, comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora peoples. Today Iroquois families still recite the prayer in their homes, schools, and ceremonial and governmental gatherings. 

The Address begins by conveying the Iroquois’ gratitude for all human beings and for peace, as well as for life itself.  “Today… we have been given the duty to live in… harmony with each other and all living things. So now, we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People.”

According to Iroquois tradition, in the years before the Thanksgiving Address, the Iroquois people — also called the Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) — had been deeply divided. Spread over what would become the northeastern United States and southern Canada, they fought continually with each other. They then decided it was time for peace. 

A great leader among them rose to bring together a union of the tribes and establish a confederation that has lasted into the 21st century. Dekanawidah “the Peacemaker” worked together with the prophet Hiawatha and the woman leader Jigonhsasee, called “the Mother of Nations,” whose home operated as a kind of early United Nations. Together the three leaders established the League of Great Peace, founded on the Great Law of Peace, a government often characterized today as one of the world’s oldest participatory democracies, and one which the American colonists observed and admired. 

 A product of their newfound union, the Thanksgiving Address expressed the tribes’ gratitude for all creation and its bounty, which they agreed they would share and respect in common. When violence flared, as it inevitably would over the centuries, they turned again to the Address to negotiate and return to a state of peace.

The Address contains sixteen declarations of gratitude directed at nature’s many parts: the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth, the earth’s waters, its myriad animals, plants and trees, its thunder and its winds, and finally the “enlightened teachers who have come through the ages” to remind the community to continue to cooperate “when we forget how to live in harmony.” An incantation repeated at the end of each thanksgiving declaration asks all participants to join their spirits together in cooperation and calm their overactive minds. “Now our minds are one,” it intones, expressed in Mohawk as “nhtho niiohtónha’k ne onkwa’nikón:ra.”

 “We believe that all people at one time in their history had similar words to acknowledge the works of the Creator,” the book’s preface affirms. “You are invited – encouraged – to share in these words, that our concentrated attention might help us rediscover our balance, respect, and oneness with nature.”

My own copy of the Address was printed bilingually in English and Mohawk. The Address has also been translated into German, Portuguese, Japanese, Hebrew, Swedish, Spanish, French, Visayan, Hawaiian, and Italian. Other translations are planned in Chinese and Abenaki, a language of the American Algonquian peoples.

Standing by the river, I flipped through the tiny book nestled in the palm of my hand, and read:

“We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night, helping the Moon to light the darkness… When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to all the Stars. Now our minds are one. Ehtho niiohtónha’k ne onkwa’nikón:ra.”

“We are all thankful to the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help to bring the change of seasons. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds. Now our minds are one. Ehtho niiohtónha’k ne onkwa’nikón:ra.”

“Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation… For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one. Ehtho niiohtónha’k ne onkwa’nikón:ra.”

In its closing, the Declaration pronounces:  “We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way.”

I tucked the book back in my pocket and thought about this age-old message: that thanksgiving is a perpetual season as old as the human heart. It underpins all prayer and ritual and respect throughout human existence. It is sustained by honoring nature, by celebrating the completion of our harvests, whether of corn or our many notable human achievements, and by honoring a cosmic order. Gratitude lies at the heart of all meaningful experience and aspiration.

The first nations of America had known this long before the arrival of Europeans. The Europeans had known this long before coming to America. In all corners of the world humans have known that keeping the flame alive of thanksgiving ensures keeping the flame alive of life itself in them. 

I turned back to the trail. More cascading leaves greeted me there. I gave thanks.

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