The Words that Come Before All Else
The Thanksgiving Address
A river of words as old as the people themselves,
known more accurately in the Onondaga language as
The Words that Come Before All Else
This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority.
The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.
Excerpted from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Edited by Chaitanyamayi Anita Soos
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of
life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and
all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks
to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
We are thankful to our Mother the Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life.
She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care
for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love,
and respect. Now our minds are one.
We give thanks to all of the waters of the world for quenching our thirst, for providing
strength and nurturing life for all beings. We know its power in many forms—waterfalls and rain,
mists and streams, rivers and oceans, snow and ice. We are grateful that the waters are still here
and meeting their responsibility to the rest of Creation. Can we agree that water is important to
our lives and bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to the Water?
Now our minds are one. (1)
We turn our thoughts to all of the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and
purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that they continue to
do their duties and we send to the Fish our greetings and our thanks. Now our minds are one.
Now we turn toward the vast fields of Plant life. As far as the eye can see, the Plants grow,
working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together,
we give thanks and look forward to seeing Plant life for many generations to come.
Now our minds are one.
When we look about us, we see that the berries are still here, providing us with delicious
foods. The leader of the berries is the strawberry, the first to ripen in the spring. Can we agree
that we are grateful that the berries are with us in the world and send our thanksgiving, love,
and respect to the berries? Now our minds are one.
With one mind, we honor and thank all the Food Plants we harvest from the garden,
especially the Three Sisters who feed the people with such abundance. Since the beginning
of time, the grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit have helped the people survive. Many other
living things draw strength from them as well. We gather together in our minds all the plant
foods and send them a greeting and thanks. Now our minds are one.
Now we turn to the Medicine Herbs of the world. From the beginning they were instructed
to take away sickness. They are always waiting and ready to heal us. We are so happy that there
are still among us those special few who remember how to use the plants for healing.
With one mind, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect to the Medicines and the keepers
of the Medicines. Now our minds are one.
Standing around us we see all the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees
who each have their own instructions and uses. Some provide shelter and shade, others fruit
and beauty and many useful gifts. The Maple is the leader of the trees, to recognize its gift
of sugar when the People need it most. Many peoples of the world recognize a Tree
as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind we greet and thank the Tree life.
Now our minds are one.
We gather our minds together to send our greetings and thanks to all the beautiful animal life
of the world, who walk about with us. They have many things to teach us as people. We are
grateful that they continue to share their lives with us and hope that it will always be so. Let us
put our minds together as one and send our thanks to the Animals. Now our minds are one. (2)
We put our minds together as one and thank all the birds who move and fly about over our
heads. The Creator gave them the gift of beautiful songs. Each morning they greet the day and
with their songs remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader
and to watch over the world. To all the Birds, from the smallest to the largest, we send our joyful
greetings and thanks. Now our minds are one. (3)
We are all thankful for the powers we know as the Four Winds. We hear their voices in the
moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help to bring the change
of seasons. From the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength.
With one mind we send our greetings and thanks to the Four Winds. Now our minds are one. (4)
Now we turn to the west where our grandfathers the Thunder Beings live. With lightning and
thundering voices they bring with them the water that renews life. We bring our minds together
as one to send greetings and thanks to our Grandfathers, the Thunderers.
We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest brother the Sun. Each day without fail
he travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the
fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Brother, the Sun.
Now our minds are one. (5)
We put our minds together and give thanks to our oldest Grandmother, the Moon, who lights
the nighttime sky. She is the leader of women all over the world and she governs the movement
of the ocean tides. By her changing face we measure time and it is the Moon who watches over
the arrival of children here on Earth. Let us gather our thanks for Grandmother Moon together in
a pile, layer upon layer of gratitude, and then joyfully fling that pile of thanks high into the night
sky that she will know. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our Grandmother, the
Moon. We give thanks to the Stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them at
night, helping the Moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing
things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered
as one, we send greetings and thanks to all the Stars. Now our minds are one. (6)
We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened Teachers who have come to help
throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we
were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring
Teachers. Now our minds are one. (7)
We now turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks
for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on Mother Earth.
For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our
choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one. (8) (9)
We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named,
it is not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each
individual to send such greetings and thanks in their own way. And now our minds are one.
End of Prayer
Passages from Braiding Sweetgrass, chapter Allegiance to Gratitude
1. I’m told that the Thanksgiving Address is at heart an invocation of gratitude, but it is also a material,
scientific inventory of the natural world. Another name for the oration is Greetings and Thanks to the
Natural World. As it goes forward, each element of the ecosystem is named in its turn, along with its
function. It is a lesson in Native science.
2. You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude
seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical
proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The
Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike.
3. The oratory is more than an economic model; it’s a civics lesson, too. Freida emphasizes that hearing
the Thanksgiving Address every day lifts up models of leadership for the young people: the strawberry as leader of the berries, the eagle as leader of the birds. “It reminds them that much is expected of them eventually. It says this is what it means to be a good leader, to have vision, and to be generous, to sacrifice on behalf of the people. Like the maple, leaders are the first to offer their gifts.” It reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom.
4. As Freida says, “The Thanksgiving Address is a reminder we cannot hear too often, that we human
beings are not in charge of the world, but are subject to the same forces as all of the rest of life.”
For me, the cumulative impact of the Pledge of Allegiance, from my time as a schoolgirl to my
adulthood, was the cultivation of cynicism and a sense of the nation’s hypocrisy—not the pride it was
meant to instill. As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn’t understand how “love of country” could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to a flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land? What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question: “Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?” In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but to all of life. What happens to nationalism, to political boundaries, when allegiance lies with winds and waters that know no boundaries, that cannot be bought or sold?
5. The Haudenosaunee have been recognized for centuries as masters of negotiation, for the political
prowess by which they’ve survived against all odds. The Thanksgiving Address serves the people in
myriad ways, including diplomacy. Most everyone knows the tension that squeezes your jaw before a
difficult conversation or a meeting that is bound to be contentious. You straighten your pile of papers morethan once while the arguments you have prepared stand at attention like soldiers in your throat, ready to bedeployed. But then the Words That Come Before All Else begin to flow, and you start to answer. Yes, of course we can agree that we are grateful for Mother Earth. Yes, the same sun shines on each and every one of us. Yes, we are united in our respect for the trees. By the time we greet Grandmother Moon, the harsh faces have softened a bit in the gentle light of remembrance. Piece by piece, the cadence begins to eddy around the boulder of disagreement and erode the edges of the barriers between us. Yes, we can all agree that the waters are still here. Yes, we can unite our minds in gratitude for the winds. Not surprisingly, Haudenosaunee decision-making proceeds from consensus, not by a vote of the majority. A decision is made only “when our minds are one.” Those words are a brilliant political preamble to negotiation, strong medicine for soothing partisan fervor. Imagine if our government meetings began with the Thanksgiving Address. What if our leaders first found common ground before fighting over their differences?
6. Thanksgiving also reminds us of how the world was meant to be in its original condition. We can
compare the roll call of gifts bestowed on us with their current status. Are all the pieces of the ecosystem
still here and doing their duty? Is the water still supporting life? Are all those birds still healthy? When we
can no longer see the stars because of light pollution, the words of Thanksgiving should awaken us to ourloss and spur us to restorative action. Like the stars themselves, the words can guide us back home.
7. Tommy says, “Let us pile up our thanks like a heap of flowers on a blanket.
We will each take a corner and toss it high into the sky. And so our thanks should be as rich as the gifts
of the world that shower down upon us,” and we stand there together, grateful in the rain of blessings.
8. The words are simple, but in the art of their joining, they become a statement of sovereignty,
a political structure, a Bill of Responsibilities, an educational model, a family tree, and a scientific
inventory of ecosystem services. It is a powerful political document, a social contract, a way of being—
all in one piece. But first and foremost, it is the credo for a culture of gratitude.
Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every
other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal
gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water,
then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them. The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking “What is our responsibility?” is the same as asking “What is our gift?” It is said that only humans have the capacity for gratitude. This is among our gifts.
It’s such a simple thing, but we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity. If my
girls run out the door with lunch in hand without a “Thanks, Mama!” I confess I get to feeling a tad miserly with my time and energy. But when I get a hug of appreciation, I want to stay up late to bake cookies for tomorrow’s lunch bag. We know that appreciation begets abundance. Why should it not be so for Mother Earth, who packs us a lunch every single day?
9. Let us pledge reciprocity with the living world. The Thanksgiving Address describes our mutual
allegiance as human delegates to the democracy of species. If what we want for our people is patriotism, then let us inspire true love of country by invoking the land herself. If we want to raise good leaders, let us remind our children of the eagle and the maple. If we want to grow good citizens, then let us teach reciprocity. If what we aspire to is justice for all, then let it be justice for all of Creation.