by Kate Wingate
Southern Appalachian Young Friends (SAYF) is an organization under the care of the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association (SAYMA). SAYF has the express purpose of creating a loving, caring, joyful Quaker spiritual community for teens in the Southeast, through retreats, conferences, service projects, business meetings, worship and other activities. We gather semi-monthly at meetinghouses throughout the region, with local teens taking turns planning and programming the retreats.
November brought SAYFers together in Nashville for a reflective and spiritual retreat exploring the power of Gratitude, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. The teens who planned the retreat wanted to explore the underbelly of Thanksgiving and shed light on the factual aspects of European colonization and genocide of First Nations peoples, rather than the horribly misinformed, racist, “feel-good” stories of the Pilgrims and Indians acted out in Kindergarten classes throughout the United Sates.
To that end, we invited local Cherokee activist, lawyer, journalist, and historian Albert Bender to share with our group how Cherokees practice gratitude, to speak to the myths of the "first Thanksgiving,” and to provide information about the native history of the Nashville region, where archeology shows clearly that there was a thriving city covering the land when European colonists arrived. (He noted that you can't take two steps in Nashville without walking in the footsteps of former indigenous inhabitants).
On the topic of Thanksgiving, Mr. Bender shared that he and his family fast on that American holiday to protest the whitewashing of their peoples’ history. When asked if he could see a way for Thanksgiving to be observed and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November without being disrespectful to First Nations people, he thought for a moment, and then simply said “No.” This challenged many of us in the room to think more deeply about our own actions, beliefs, and morals, in ways we likely wouldn’t have had we not had the privilege of hearing from Mr. Bender.
At the end of the retreat, as with every retreat, the SAYFers and FANs (Friendly Adult Nurturers) reflected on the activities of the weekend in worship journals. These become epistles that are posted on the SAYF website. Here are some reflections from the epistles:
“Understanding that as a White person I want to stay awake to the history and current action of acting like no one else exists or matters. We have to grieve our huge errors of killing and devaluing Native Americans and all others who have stood in our way. It broke my heart and blessed me to hear Albert Bender speak yesterday.”
“History is full of tales of people being cruel — it’s hard to hear them. We heard one this weekend from Albert Bender, about his experience as a Native American lawyer, activist, and journalist. It has left me with many questions about how to deal with my own privilege, how to live authentically, and how to be caring for people who have been hurt. I’m very thankful that SAYF is a place where people can be brought up with warm fuzzies without ignoring all the cold pricklies that happen in the world.”
To read more about SAYF, please visit http://www.awesomesayfers.org/. To learn more about Albert Bender and read his recent pieces for People’s World, visit https://www.peoplesworld.org/authors/albert-bender/.