This happened in 2002, but it was much the same this year...
Usually Cece and I head up to our cabin in Big Lagoon (on California's northwest coast,above Eureka) to get away for and from the Thanksgiving holiday. What was once a wilderness to short-term Spanish conquerors and home to the Yurok – later a destination for settlers, miners, and loggers – is now a region stripped of old-growth redwoods trying to survive on small-time tourism and what's left of the fishing industry. This year we were able to get away on Tuesday and head quickly up Highway 101, driving past the gambling casinos that dot the freeway at regular intervals in much the same way that Catholic missions (rescued by Protestant reformers) were landmarks for tourists in the early 20th century. Today, most of the native-owned casinos on the north coast are relatively flourishing enterprises, while the missions, badly in need of repair, are seeking handouts from the federal government to subsidize their rehabilitation. So the wheel turns.
Thanksgiving isn't one of my favorite holidays. There's the problem of its dubious past, how to reconcile the mythic meaning of a bountiful feast shared between settler and native with the realities of its 1863 origins: the battlefield, slavery, racial terror, putting uppity women back in their place. And there's the food: functional turkey, bland enough to please everybody but delight nobody, surrounded by too many items jostling for attention, the hot items turning cold, cranberries that might as well be jam. And no gifts, yet all the anxieties of plunging into the buying season.
On the drive north we decide that the holiday will serve our needs, not vice versa. Our first subversive act is to cook and eat the hot turkey on Wednesday so that we can stretch the leftovers through the weekend and enjoy a beach walk on Thursday. The organic turkey is moist and flavorful, our home-made cranberry sauce tastes like the tart fruit that it is. After dinner we walk by starlight to the edge of Big Lagoon, a place where according to the Yurok the worlds of earth, water, sky, and spirits meet.
On the day itself we sip foamy cappuccinos and laze in secular pleasures until Cece, hungry for ceremony, cajoles me out of bed to drive to the harbor in nearby Trinidad for the blessing of the fishing fleet. I'm willing to go along with her impulse even though it's typically not my thing: no doubt there will be paeans to the uniqueness of America, oodles of religiosity, maybe a color guard with earnest cadets saluting the flag. As I said, not my thing.
But in Trinidad I'm surprised to join some two hundred people on the pier – young and old, bearded and shaved, pierced hippies and local gentry, Wilburs galore sniffing and straining on leashes, the sun beating down on the shirt-sleeved crowd at ten in the morning in late November, the horizon rimmed with a thin strip of fog. Not a uniform or flag in sight. And from the pier our view is blocked of Trinidad's most visible religious icon: a large stone cross marking the place on Trinidad Head where a Spanish expedition planted a wooden cross in 1775 to claim this port "by the Grace of God" for King Charles III, forever. Two hundred and twenty-seven years later – not exactly forever – there are no Catholic priests at the ceremony.
There's an ecumenical Protestant pastor who asks the crowd to raise our hands to bless the boats, fishermen, and fisherwomen. And we all do, me included. He reminds us that the mottled green sea, calm for now, is a haunting and dangerous place, that fresh crabs in December can mean the end of somebody's life. "Pour your kindness and strengths," he invites us, "into their boats, into their hearts, into their minds, and into their journeys away and at home." And we all do, me included.
In between the blessings, as a folk rock group plays pleasant enough New Age music, I let my mind drift across the bay to where the waves firmly strike the beach at Sea Stacks, hinting at the power they showed a few weeks ago when they swept a four year-old boy to his death off a rock at Stone Lagoon.
Also speaking today is Axel Lindgren, the great-grandson of Yurok who lived at Tsurai (now Trinidad) and looked out from this same spot at the roiling ocean maybe a thousand years ago. He doesn't berate us about the genocidal past or gloat over the fact that Cher-Ae Heights, a Yurok-owned casino, is now the biggest game in town. "Bless these boats in the name of my ancestors," he says modestly and asks us to face each of the four sacred directions. And just as we raised our hands for the Christian minister, so now we all slowly turn our bodies east, west, south, and north, asking the Creator to bring out the best in all of us. "It is said, it is done," concludes Lindgren as his daughter chants her thankful blessings into the spirit worlds above, below, and around us. And so the wheel turns.
(Big Lagoon, 28 November 2009)