The Altar of Gratitude

American TV has a lot to answer for in distorting the truth in favour of a good story. What a great opening line for a post that disparages and criticizes the way indigenous cultures are represented by media. Unfortunately, this is not that post. Someone should really write that post. I would definitely be interested in reading it.

Instead, I’m going to be less interesting and share with you my first, and really only, experience of Thanksgiving.

My sister and I spent 5 weeks travelling through the U.S.A in 2010. Our penultimate stop in California happily coincided with Thanksgiving Day and what was intended to be a catch-up with a dear friend – let’s call her Muftiah, mainly because that’s her name – became an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family in Santa Cruz. Tainted by my TV viewing habits, and this is where my American TV reference comes in, my knowledge of Thanksgiving was limited to turkey, spicy pumpkin pie, American football, and a long session of hand-holding and declarations of thankfulness.

But this particular family decided to turn tradition on its head. They substituted a gigantic squash for turkey. In contrast to the customary dense, spicy mixture, the pumpkin pie was made light and custard-like. There was no American Football game, but my sister and I did manage to find a cribbage board. And in place of the hand-holding, they initiated the practice of an Altar of Gratitude. On the Altar, you would place a token and everyone would take turns to explain what the token represented to them. I had chosen a token that represented the beginning of a new journey for me, a change in direction, the search of a new challenge. My token represented the smallest of notions that led me to where I am today. It was the seed that grew into the desire to pursue PhD study.

Their customs also brought to mind the practice of koha, and in particular, the role koha plays in relationship-building. In reality, after having refreshed my knowledge on koha, the practices are nothing alike. But although the cultural conventions are very different, the values that underpins both sets of activities are the same: manaakitanga (hospitality), whanaungatanga (relationships), mana tangata (respect for people), and the concept pertaining to utu (reciprocity).

It wasn’t all about the Altar of Gratitude though. Muftiah’s father shared his daily ritual of green smoothies. A deeply green concoction with a flavour similar to mown grass, it had the power to purge five weeks’ worth of processed American food from my gut. Their pet llama shared its appreciation of our visit by delicately chomping on my hair. And we found out that feijoas were called pineapple guavas, silverbeet was called chard, and that Santa Cruz boardwalk was made famous by the movie The Lost Boys.

The Boardwalk

Even though I have returned to NZ, I have continued to send a token every Thanksgiving since that first visit essentially because I love the practice but also because I find that each token adds to and builds on the relationship I have with the family. I hope you would agree, Mufitah. And last year I was able to enhance the experience kanohi ki te kanohi via a video call.

I am conscious that I am not contributing any new insight with this post like my fellow bloggers. But that was never my intent. That is because I am writing this post for a particular audience. I am writing this post in recognition of my friends in Santa Cruz who shared their home, their wisdom, their generosity of spirit.

This post is my contribution to the Altar of Gratitude for this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. To Muftiah and her family, I hope to return and celebrate with you in person and one day it will happen. But until then, I am grateful every year that you provide this opportunity to co-construct and enact this tradition based on values inherent in both our culture systems.

Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou katoa.

Rico the Hair Chomping Llama

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