Thanksgiving is a year-round practice of giving thanks Before the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving, local Wampanoags and Indigenous people throughout North America, gathered to give thanks 13 times throughout the lunar, calendar year.

Thanksgiving is a year-round practice of giving thanks

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the pilgrims sat down to Thanksgiving 400 years ago, they hardly had the market cornered on giving thanks. As Tom Verde reports, for Indigenous people, gathering to give thanks happens throughout the year.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

TOM VERDE, BYLINE: On a late August weekend, dozens of tribes from across New England gather at Mashantucket in southeastern Connecticut, home to the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Tribal Nation. The occasion is Schemitzun, or Green Corn Powwow, a celebration of the corn harvest. The atmosphere is pretty festive - dance contests and drumming, traditional crafts, corn roasting over open fires. Kerri Helme is a Mashpee Wampanoag.

KERRI HELME: We really view Green Corn as the homecoming. You know, this is one of the biggest powwows in the Northeast now, and it's really an opportunity for everyone to see each other.

VERDE: In this respect, Schemitzun is not unlike American Thanksgiving. Yet for Indigenous people, pausing to give thanks is a tradition that takes place not just annually but 13 times throughout the lunar calendar year, a cycle known as the 13 Moons or 13 Thanksgivings. These celebrations welcome this summer's first strawberries, the first green beans, the tapping of maple trees or the month of storytelling during the depths of winter.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

VERDE: So when the pilgrims had their Thanksgiving feast in 1621, the concept was nothing new to local Wampanoags, who were probably more interested in establishing diplomatic relations with the English than what was on the dinner table. Loren Spears is executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I.

LOREN SPEARS: A lot of the story that people hear today is more mythology than factual. And the reality is Indigenous people had been having 13 Thanksgivings since time immemorial before Europeans came along.

VERDE: In October, corn fields had browned and withered. Out on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Aquinnah Wampanoags, sister tribe to the Mashpees, turned their attention to gathering wild cranberries during cranberry Thanksgiving, a day like Schemitzun of ceremony, feasting and song.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

VERDE: Young and old fan out across tribal bogs to gather the tart, crimson berries. While they appear at least annually on many American dinner tables, tribal elder Julianne Vanderhoop says the Aquinnah cherish cranberries throughout the winter as a source of nutrition.

JULIANNE VANDERHOOP: Cranberries were mixed into everything, everything from fritters to, you know, your vegetables to - they're dried. They held in the root cellar over the winter. So this was a primary sustenance crop for us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Great cranberries.

VERDE: So sacred is cranberry Thanksgiving that Aquinnah children are officially given the day off from school to join the harvest. Come November, when temperatures drop, the focus shifts from harvesting to hunting during Hunters Moon, the next celebration in the cycle.

CASSIUS SPEARS JR: That moon is an important time for us.

VERDE: Cassius Spears Jr. is first councilman of the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island.

C SPEARS: We talked to the four leggeds, and we ask for them to help us get through the winter. And that's when we go out and we hunt. And that's a time of thanks, a time of appreciation because they're giving their lives so that we can live.

VERDE: But in recent decades, wildlife, habitat and the cycle of the 13 Moons themselves face threats, says Spears, from climate change.

C SPEARS: If the strawberries aren't growing, how are you going to have a strawberry Thanksgiving? You know, if the green corn, the corn is stunted because of drought and it's not ready for harvest or the quantity isn't there at the end of the season, how will we be able to do our ceremonies?

VERDE: Answering his own questions, Spears says Indigenous people will find ways to endure as they always have, just as day follows night.

C SPEARS: We give thanks every day when the sun rises or the sun sets. We give thanks. So it's something that we do. It's a part of who we are, which is far, far removed from American Thanksgiving and football and turkey and getting mad at your family.

(LAUGHTER)

VERDE: Expressing gratitude 13 times a year, says Spears, not only shows respect for creation but keeps Indigenous people in close touch with the cycles of its blessings. For NPR News, I'm Tom Verde.

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