Rethinking Thanksgiving—And How You Can Reframe Your Celebration

Paula bio shot in regaliaThe seed of a deep and lasting friendship between Paula Bidwell and Lea Gerlach, two Wilmette Institute students, was planted during the October 2012 course on the Writings of the Báb. Now, almost a year later, harvest is approaching.

Lea GerlachThe Seed Is Planted. Paula’s and Lea’s project, a website entitled Many Hoops (, targets the myths and stereotypes that are part of today’s Thanksgiving festivities by focusing on the humanity of the original participants, both Native American and pilgrim. It is also a call to action for all of us participating in the current version of the Thanksgiving story.

Paula and Lea’s story unfolded organically. The course on the Writings of the Báb stimulated many intellectual and mystical discussions as well as subsidiary conversations in the course’s Course Lounge, a place for students and faculty exchanges not central to the topic of the course. As Thanksgiving approached, Paula, a Native American, shared a story of how she had just gone to a national grocery store where the marketing theme was “A Pilgrim Harvest.” Nothing in the marketing even suggested that Native Americans had been there or been part of the event. She spoke frankly about her own feelings of pain, anger, and grief and then about the feelings of Native Americans, many of whom have to come to consider Thanksgiving Day a day of mourning that marks the beginning of genocide.

Lea, a descendent of the pilgrim colonists who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, with Paula’s story in her heart, took a simple yet profound step. On Thanksgiving Day, instead of the usual prayer that her family sang around the table, Lea read a Native American prayer. She shared the story of her experience in the Course Lounge a few days later, for the day ended up playing out in a humorous way with her son blaming her for the Washington Redskins win over the Dallas Cowboys. “This is your fault, Mom,” her son Sean said,” because you invoked the spirit of the Native Americans today!” Although the jest was in fun, the serious aspects of United States’ national dilemma are there in the metaphor of the Cowboys and the “Redskins.” Would we name a team the Paleskins or Blackskins?

It was this initial exchange–Paula’s call and Lea’s response–that became the seed, the inspiration for their Many Hoops website.

The Seed Germinates. In the next Wilmette Institute course that Paula and Lea took together, The Secret of Divine Civilization (in December 2012) the seed began to germinate. In that class Paula responded to several postings with subtle racist undertones by communicating by e-mail with Lea and another white friend, both of whom she trusted to try to understand her pain. The e-mail discussion about racism in the Bahá’í community and American culture at large culminated in Paula’s and Lea’s first face-to-face meeting in February 2013,where they committed to the Many Hoops website project.

On one level the Many Hoops website is largely the creative product of Paula’s research, creativity, and vision. On another level the website is the fruit in the material world of the healing that is taking place, heart to heart, between Paula and Lea. It is a healing process in which Paula speaks about her own experiences and speaks to current and past abuses of Native Americans (which she feels keenly) and where Lea listens. It is a deep hearing, a listening to the point of empathy, where Lea feels the pain or anger or grief that Paula feels.

For Paula the healing process feels like riding the steed of patience through the Valley of Search where the rider must sacrifice all things, all that one has seen, heard, and understood. It has meant sacrificing over sixty years of pain and deep-seated anger. For Lea the process is like riding the steed of pain that brings one to the Valley of Love—a journey that is also joyful because it is one that speaks to her life’s purpose.

Why the Name Many Hoops? The name of the Many Hoops website comes from a statement by Black Elk, a medicine man and holy man of the Oglala Lakota:

Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about me was the whole hoop of the world. . . . And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops, that made one circle, wide as daylight and starlight, and in the center, grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father, and I saw that it was holy.

In a spiritual sense, the Many Hoops website is itself a hoop made up of historical and current information, recipes, arts and crafts, and resources. As Paula and Lea continue to refine the website, they explain its purpose this way:

The website addresses the stereotypes used in school books and offers many culturally appropriate alternatives for teachers, parents, parents who home school their children, and other educators. Thanksgiving is often a child’s first introduction to multicultural interactions. The use of stereotypes is not only erroneous and damaging. It is also extremely disrespectful to both the original English settlers (now called Pilgrims but who called themselves “First Comers” or “Separatists”) and the Native Americans (who called themselves “Wampanoag, which means “People of the First Light”).

For Paula and Lea, the Many Hoops website is an individual initiative designed to help correct the stereotyping, misinformation, miseducation, and controversy about a national holiday and to bring forward a more spiritual and just way to commemorate Native Americans and whites living together on a mutual land base.

Across this hoop, Paula and Lea are stretching taut the membrane of their experience together. They are asking the Concourse on High to use this drum to pulse out a message:

This Thanksgiving, be conscious that there is still the dilemma of race—red, black, white, and yellow in the heart of America. This Thanksgiving make a choice. In a symbolic and conscious way that honors the original stewards of this land, include them in your day: Set a place at the table, serve a native-cultivated food using a native recipe, say a native prayer in addition to or in place of what you traditionally offer. Do something that comes from your own heart.

Lea offers this comment: “Last Thanksgiving, all I did was offer a prayer—and it opened the door to destiny. This Thanksgiving, please, will you ‘do’ something meaningful even if it seems small? If enough of us ‘do’ something . . . and be willing to deeply listen to another . . . will the door to America’s Spiritual Destiny open?”

What the Many Hoops Website Offers. The Many Hoops website, with the subtitle “One Nation – One People – One World – One Step at a Time,” includes the following sections:

            The Wampanoag
            The Pilgrims
            Thanksgiving: The Real Story and More
            American Indians on Thanksgiving
            Recipes & Food: Pilgrim and Wampanoag
            Arts & Crafts: Thanksgiving
            Coloring Pages: Thanksgiving
            Games and Activities: Thanksgiving
            Native American Prayers: for Thanksgiving
            Thanksgiving for Teachers and Parents
            Musical Instruments: Wampanoag and Pilgrim
            About Lea & Paula

Teachers of Bahá’í children’s classes may want to consider using some of the coloring pages on the website for Thanksgiving and for the November Native American Heritage month. The link to the Squanto coloring pages and story is Paula and Lea are working to add quotations from the Bahá’í writing to the coloring pages.

Please let us know how the Many Hoops website changes your Thanksgiving.