© Corinne Lightweaver, first published November 24, 2008
This coming Friday, November 28, 2008, my family and I will sit around a large table to talk and eat together with 21 guests as we hold our fourth annual Maize Day celebration. Maize Day commemorates the First Nations of the Americas and the central role of corn in these cultures and cuisines. It is observed on the fourth Friday of November, a day on which many citizens in the United States are released from work and thus can be close to friends and family with whom they can celebrate.
Maize Day is a holiday for all Americans, no matter what your ethnicity. On this day, whether we are descendants of Europeans, Africans, or other immigrants, or Native Americans, we stop to commemorate the many ways in which indigenous Americans have contributed to, informed, and shaped the way we live today. Native people throughout the Americas have played a role—usually without any credit given—in our current knowledge of architecture, astronomy, agriculture, animal husbandry, cartography, dentistry, government, language, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, science, technology, textile arts, and more.
Maize, or corn, is a common denominator between most First Nations peoples from the tundra and taiga of North America to the tip of South America. In addition, many popular foods, such as tomatoes, are erroneously attributed to other cultures. Accordingly, my family’s Maize Day menus feature ingredients used by the First Peoples of the Americas. These foods include maize, hominy, winter squash, summer squash, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, salmon, quinoa, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, mesquite, piñon nuts, chiles, cactus, prickly pear, persimmons, honey, yerba maté, and chocolate.
Items we haven’t used yet include juniper berries, sunchokes, strawberries, cranberries, rose hips, and wild hyacinth. I am still looking for sources for cattail flour and acorn flour.
This holiday began as a small research project through which I intended—with my family—to commemorate the United States holiday of Thanksgiving through the viewpoint of the indigenous people. The indigenous story of Thanksgiving, however, is one of heartbreak and while this story is an important one to tell, I began to understand more clearly that—instead of focusing on the ills done to native peoples—I wanted to create a holiday to focus on the wonders and victories of Native Americans. What mattered most to me was that these cultures be celebrated as living cultures.
The culture of the Wampanoag people, who first met the English immigrants on the Atlantic Coast in 1621, is rich with stories. In addition, for any family (or family of friends) who wants to celebrate Maize Day, researching the local indigenous culture or that of one’s hometown can make the holiday especially relevant. I attended University High School in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, never knowing that “the Warrior,” the school’s offensive logo, came from the fact that the school was built on the sacred site and springs of the Tongva (Gabrielino) people. A portion of the school campus has now been reclaimed by the Tongva as a sacred site, which I have visited with my family.
We also celebrate the culture of the Maya K’iche’ people from whom my daughter is descended. On Maize Day, we make it a point to read Mayan stories and talk about Mayan culture, values, and foods. My daughter looks forward to Maize Day all year round.
When my sister comes from Tucson, Arizona, to join our holiday celebration, she brings traditional foods and stories of the Tohono O’odham people, who cultivated 10,000 acres in Southern Arizona with traditional floodwater methods, and who today are actively reintroducing traditional crops.
Bringing Maize Day to the schools is one of my dreams. My daughter’s preschool teacher lovingly embraced the holiday and incorporated it into her curriculum. At the public school where my daughter now attends first grade, Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year. I see a daunting task ahead of me, as the school holds a major feast with the children attending in the stereotypical costumes they have made in their classrooms.
At this time last year, I was recovering from a cancer diagnosis and bilateral mastectomy, and consequently was in no shape to argue with the school about the kindergarteners making construction-paper feather headdresses and paper grocery-bag “Indian” vests. I do find the practice unacceptable, however, and hope to find allies among other parents and teachers at the school who might join me in making a positive change in the school community and culture by addressing the racist stereotypes and false history promoted by traditional Thanksgiving celebrations.
As President George W. Bush leaves office, I have found one act I can thank him for: On October 8, 2008, President Bush signed into law a resolution that establishes the fourth Friday of November as Native American Heritage Day. With a staunch Republican leading the way, perhaps there can be an agreement on both sides of the aisle that the correction of the “Thanksgiving” curriculum in U.S. schools is the prudent, politic, and patriotic path to the future.
A note to my readers: Many non-Indians have told me they thought my last name is Native American. When I selected my chosen name more than a quarter century ago, it was never my intention to give that impression. I listened to my heart and followed the feminist traditions of the 1970s and ’80s. In the invitations I send out at Maize Day, I always clarify that point with the following message: “Hosted by the Lightweaver-Peyer Family, a Jewish-K’iche’-Mayflower-descendent-First Nations-Eastern European-Guatemalan American Family.”
Copyright © 2008 Corinne Lightweaver.
• An Annotated Bibliography for Maize Day
• How Can We Bring Maize Day to the Schools?