Native American Thanksgiving traditions

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

In 1934, while supervising the largest archaeological project in the history of the United States on the Ocmulgee River in Macon, GA, Dr. Arthur Kelly began encountering large, rectangular communal buildings, which were surrounded on all sides by columned porticos. Some were large enough to seat over 500 people. He later discovered smaller structures of the same style in the suburban neighborhoods and villages of Ocmulgee. They did not seem to be residences, but he could not figure out their purpose.  What he also unearthed was detritus, associated with the large-scale consumption of food.  What he had discovered were 1100 to 850-year-old banquet rooms for celebrating the Native American version of Thanksgiving.

Some of the banquet halls at Ocmulgee could hold 500 people or more.

Communal feasts, involving invocations that gave thanks to one or more deities, appears to be ancient and widespread indigenous traditions in North America.  This is especially true of the region, south of the Arctic and north of tropics. Temperate climates tended to have extreme seasonal variations in food supply.

The arrival of immigrants from Europe did not initiate these “Thanksgiving” feasts as some politicized historians would have you believe.  In fact, if indigenous peoples were invited to a “Thanksgiving Feast” by Europeans, the guests would have considered such an event quite normal and in fact, appropriate. This is especially true if the banquet table presented to the Native American guests was graced with roast turkey, smoked venison, fried fish, corn cakes, green beans*, squash, pumpkin and baked beans . . . all traditional foods of the Americas.

*Although green beans are typically thought of as traditional French cuisine, they actually originated in Peru and were brought back to Europe by the Spanish then brought to North America by French and British colonists.

Archaeologists have identified widespread evidence of feasting throughout the Americas, but there is no way to attach the “thanksgiving” label on these ancient feasts, because we have no way of knowing what religious connotation, if any, these feasts had.  Nevertheless, from the Colonial Period, we have several eyewitness accounts of feats being celebrated in honor of the Master of Life, Creator, Mother Earth or some fertility god.  We can assume that this religious connotation began long before the arrival of European explorers and colonists.

Amazon Indians digging up sweet potatoes

Feast or famine lifestyles of hunter-gatherers

When ancient hunters ventured out of Africa into temperate and arctic regions of the world, the human body had to evolve in order to survive in a feast or famine lifestyle. Those humans, who could eat large amounts of food then convert surplus food (when available) into fat, survived to produce more healthy offspring. This practice is the primaeval origin of ritualized feasts. Thus, the practice of feasting among Native Americans was typically associated with seasonal changes.

The earliest record of feasting comes at mammoth kill sites in North America and Siberia.  The massive size of mammoth bodies meant that family groups would have to gorge themselves before the carcass rotted or else carry out mammoth hunts in the depts of winter when the uneaten meat would naturally freeze.

In the late 20th century archaeologists found numerous sites along the coasts and rivers of the Americas, which appeared to be the locale of communal feasts. The remains of the food consumed was typically seasonal in nature.  

Two of the most famous feasting sites (both beginning around 2500 BC) are Stallings Island in the Savannah River on the border between Georgia and South Carolina, and Sapelo Island, GA at the mouth of the Altamaha River.  Stallings Island contained enormous mounds of freshwater mussel shells and fishbones.  Sapelo Island contains sea shell rings, mixed with all manner of ocean detritus. Both sites contain the oldest known pottery style in North America . . . Stallings Island Punctuated!

Shell mounds often developed at feasting locations.  These sites varied by seasonal availability of a species:

  • Anadromous fish such as shad, sturgeon, salmon, striped bass, sea trout and eels were consumed in great numbers in the springtime at riverside feast sites.
  • Freshwater mussels were consumed in great quantities during the winter months.
  • Hunter-gatherers avoided shellfish from the intertidal zone, because in the Southeast, they contained vibrio food poisoning bacteria.  European colonists did not know this. This is a major reason, why so many early colonists died in droves.
  • Game animals were hunted intensively in the late fall and early winter, when they had lots of body fat, but the lower temperatures helped preserve the meat.
  • Other feasts were associated with the ripening of blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries in the late spring;  the harvest of chestnuts in the autumn;  the harvest of northern wild rice and southern wild rice in the autumn; the ripening of fresh corn in the early summer and the harvest of dry corn and pumpkins in the early autumn.
Painted Buntings at an Apalache temple

Eyewitness accounts of definite “thanksgiving” feasts

Seventeenth Century Creek Practices: Supervising Trustee James Edward Oglethorpe quickly became close friends with several Creek leaders after the founding of Savannah in 1733.  After realizing how complex and ancient Creek culture was, he instructed Colonial Secretary Thomas Christie to gather as much cultural information about the Creek Confederacy.  Christie was asked to attend communal festivals and interview elders about their traditions and religious beliefs.  All of the reports, including the famous Creek Migration Legends, were placed in a wooden trunk and dispatched to King George II on July 6, 1735.   I found them in April 2015 in the library storage room of Lambeth Palace in London.

Christie noted four principal communal feasts and religious celebrations that were observed by all divisions of the Creek Confederacy.  They were (1) a spring festival that coincided with the planting of corn and the running of shad fish up the rivers. (2) the Green Corn Festival (3) the Creek New Year Festival, and (4) the Autumn Harvest festival, which coincided with the harvesting of dried corn and pumpkins.   Many Creek tribal towns in the Highlands also had a festival in December, which coincided with the return of hunters from the fall hunt.  Here are some of the interesting details of these festivals.

  • All those attending these feasts had to publicly announce their sins and give forgiveness to those who had sinned against them . . . then bathe in a body of water, preferably rapids, to ritually baptize themselves.
  • All communal feasts began with profuse prayers giving thanks to the Master of Life (God) for the bounty of food.
  • All members of the community were welcome at these feasts, regardless of their political station or economic level. 
  • The food was provided by the tribal government.
  • The dates of all these feasts, except the New Year, varied among the tribal towns.  The Green Corn Festival was held over a month later in the Georgia Mountains than near the coast.  The New Year Festival was always held at the time of the Summer Solstice.  In that era, the British were still using the Gregorian calendar, so the Creek New Year did not occur on June 21st as it does today.

It is interesting that today, Creeks think of the Green Corn Festival and the New Year’s Celebration as being one in the same, but that was not the case in the past, because corn was planted much later in the mountains than on the coastal plain.

Highland Apalache Harvest Festival

Both Captain René de Laudonnière in 1565 and the Rev. Charles de Rochefort in 1658 described the real Apalache of Northeast Georgia as the most advanced indigenous people north of Mexico.  Their home territory was the Blue Ridge Mountains and Piedmont regions of Northeast Georgia. According to De Rochefort, the Florida Apalachee did not call themselves by that name until given that name by the Spanish.  Members of the Creek Confederacy called themselves Apalache or Palache, until the British told them their ethnic name was “Creek.”   In the late 1740s, the Creeks began calling themselves Mvskoke, so they wouldn’t have to use an English name.

De Rochefort devoted ten chapters of a book, he published in 1658, to the Apalache-te (Apalache People in Itza Maya).  He went into extensive detail on their religious beliefs and celebrations.  The Apalache were monotheistic, but their version of God was a female.  She had originally been the invisible Sun Goddess of Teotihuacan, but evolved in Southeastern North America into a concept very similar to that of the Hebrew’s YHWH – a single universal spirit that created the universe and loved all humanity, not just the Apalache. 

The Apalache celebrated the Summer Solstice New Year, but their most important religious festival occurred in the autumn.  It was both a harvest festival and a celebration of the annual departure of the semi-domesticated Painted Buntings, who lived in Apalache mountainside temples.  The Painted Buntings migrated southward that time of year to spend the winter months in the homeland of the Sun Goddess, Amana. The Apalache and Itsate Creek word for Painted Buntings was Tonatzuli, which is a Mesoamerican word.

In the weeks, leading up to their departure, the people of Apalache would climb up to the top of what is now called Yonah Mountain to give prayers, written on bark paper to the birds.  The birds were supposed to read the prayers and take them to the Sun Goddess.

Just before the time of departure, the elite of Apalache would take their finest woven clothing up to the temple and place them on the stone altar of the temple as a sacrifice.  This was the only form of sacrifice permitted by their religion.  The letting of human or animal blood was forbidden within approximate two English miles (one Creek mile) distance from a temple or sacred shrine.

On the day after the Painted Buntings departed, a great feast would be held next to the principal temple of Amana, plus in each Apalache community.   The feasts began with prayers to Amana, giving thanks for their food. That was followed by the priests of Amana (called Joana) distributing the “sacrificed,” colorful clothing to the commoners. Evidently, the commoners did not know how to weave ornately patterned cloth. Then all Apalache and guests from other provinces were invited to eat as much as they could hold.  Favorite items on the menu included Southern Fried turkey, roast turkey, smoked turkey, batter-fried fish, hush puppies, sweet potatoes*, beans, corn cakes, hominy stew, stewed summer squash, baked winter squash and pumpkin. Somethings never change.

*Although Caucasian historians and anthropologists have traditionally said that the sweet potato was imported by Southern planters in the early 1700s as food for their slaves, this is not true.  The Creek word for sweet potato is the same word as the Panoan (Peru) word for sweet potato . . . aho.  The chronicles of the Juan Pardo Expedition specifically mentioned a town that specialized in the growing and export of sweet potatoes.  In 1969, Dr. Arthur Kelly and his student team excavated a 2,400-year- old town on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta (9FU14) that apparently also specialized in the cultivation of indigenous sweet potatoes.

4 Comments

  1. I have also read that the Pilgrims, who rejected the idea of set days for celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, did honor those feasts that were in the Bible, including the Feast of Tabernacles, which also takes place at harvest time: Exodus 34:22 King James Version (KJV): “And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end.” Some have speculated that the Wampanoag celebration fell at the same time as the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) that the Pilgrims would have honored, and the get-together culminated in what many refer to as “The First Thanksgiving.” Clearly, it was not, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate, especially knowing that some Melungeon researchers also believe that there were pockets of Sephardic Jews living in those mountains as well, stranded by shipwreck or abandoned. The more we are different, the more we are the same, it seems.

    I’m particularly fascinated with the Creek custom of repentance of sins and washing afterward. Sounds very mikveh-ish to me! Love it!

    Also, it is important to remember that the pilgrims were NOT Puritans. They were Separatists. They wore colorful clothing and had a less legalistic view of Christianity than their Puritan counterparts. It’s doubtful the Puritans would have allowed such a happy celebration to take place between believers and “unbelievers.” This makes the miracle of Squanto and Massasoit and Samoset all the more amazing to me! (If you can’t tell, this is one of my favorite topics!)

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  2. Amazing info Richard and also Karla’s comments. Richard, you have been producing an incredible amount of very interesting history for my entertainment! Thank you for all of your hard work. Since I have been following your posts, I’ve learned / relearned history that I felt was missing from the SE. I so wish I could go back in time to see such amazing cultures as the Apalache, Yuchee and Sogue. Born in FL and raised in GA, as a child, I had a fascination with the Seminole and the struggles they had trying to stay in their homeland. Every day, I check to see if you’ve added another posting and many days, surprisingly, you come through, LOL! Rob

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