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Why the turkey takes center stage during our celebration of gratitude

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Most Americans would not look at a turkey and immediately vocalize the word “beautiful.” Oftentimes, this creature is mocked and considered to be much less than intelligent. How, then, did it become the centerpiece of America’s premiere ritual of thanksgiving?

The wild turkey, although present on the table, was not the centerpiece of the original Thanksgiving feast of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621 according to Megan Gambino in her article in the November 21, 2011, “Smithsonian Magazine.” The protein of choice was probably wild fowl. Other proteins included passenger pigeons, venison, eels, and shellfish. Corn was utilized for bread and porridge.

As history moved forward, the turkey did have a champion in Benjamin Franklin who privately held that the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, should be our nation’s symbol. Franklin, in a letter (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress) written to his daughter in January, 1784, stated, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him…. For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original Native of America. He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on."

The turkey has an honored meaning in Native American tradition as well: give away. According to Jamie Sams, Native artist, writer and author of the Medicine Cards, there is a cultural tradition called the potlatch or give-away ceremony. During this ceremony, “a tribal member may gladly give away all he or she owns, and do without in order to help the People. In present day urban life, we are taught to acquire and get ahead…. In some cultures, no one can win the game unless the whole of the People’s needs are met…. The person who gives away the most and carries the burdens of the People is one of the most respected.” The turkey is seen as noble and represents “give away” because it sacrifices itself so that human beings can live. “In Turkey’s death,” says Sams, “we have our life.”

From this perspective, the turkey certainly embodies the spirit of that first Thanksgiving feast and most appropriately represents the spirit of the holiday today as Americans express gratitude for all that has given them life in both small and abundant ways. As you prepare and then consume your holiday turkeys this year, take a moment to thank the spirit of the bird that represents the spirit of giving to others and of giving thanks.

Resources for Home Study for Residents of Columbus, Georgia

The following texts are available on Amazon: (1) “Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals” by Jamie Sams and David Carson ($20.26 in hardcover); (2) “Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small” by Ted Andrews ($16.03 in paperback); and (3) “Animal Spirit Guides: An Easy-to-Use Handbook for Identifying and Understanding Your Power Animals” by Steven D. Farmer, PhD ($14.62 in paperback).

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