The secret of a grateful heart

By Jon Magnuson
“All the time, while I go pitying myself, I am being carried across the sky by a Great Wind.”
­­­–Ojibway traditional prayer

A lonely corridor of forest, sleet and overcast horizon shaped this morning’s drive West on Highway 41. Winter winds are arriving here in northern Michigan. Thin blankets of snow cover backcountry roads. Outside the car’s windshield, The Great Mother, framed by trees now barren of leaves, is turning, once again, her belly into earth cold as iron.
This Saturday morning I’m seated in the Zeba Community Center at a public workshop sponsored by Anishinaabe tribal leaders. They’ve offered a public invitation to gain some knowledge about teachings on the use of tobacco in ceremonies, how it is to be respected and honored when used as a thanks offering in traditional Native American (Ojibwa) cultural practices. We’re a small, mismatched group this Saturday morning, 20 or so, tribal members and a couple of nonnative guests, gathered in a circle overlooking Keweenaw Bay.
There’s no shortage of irony here. The five federally recognized American Indian tribes of the Upper Peninsula have endured generations of federal and state policies that have minimized and neglected provisions of treaty rights established more than a century ago. These historical legal agreements, social experiments with descendants of the First Peoples of this land, continue to remain fragile ones.
On Indian reservations across North America, serious public health concerns, economic pressures, and encroaching state and federal initiatives continue to impede efforts to build healthy community life and insure protection of what’s left of original treaty lands. Now, on this edge of Lake Superior shoreline, contaminated by stamp sands from long-ago abandoned copper mines, we’re exploring thousand-year-old rituals on how to be grateful.
At first glance, it appears puzzling that workshops like this one, focusing on practices of thanksgiving and gratitude, arise in rural social settings where fragmented ethnic communities like this one face such complicated economic and social challenges. But then perhaps not. There is a strong probability that authentic attitudes of thanksgiving, at their most basic level, are likely born from accumulated experiences of scarcity and hardship.

As a framework in reflecting on what makes for generosity, let’s take a look on what social sciences, religious traditions, and psychological research inform us about giving thanks.
We can begin by acknowledging agreement, a general consensus, that being grateful – feeling appreciation, and expressing thanks -reflects a lasting, beneficial quality for the human condition. We know, for instance, that it’s a vital ingredient in healthy relationships and also serves as an important cornerstone to building a resilient, sustainable community. Having said that, we know a grateful spirit doesn’t come easy.
David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, suggests two components are essential for a grateful spirit. The first appears obvious: We need to recognize and appreciate something that is of personal value to us…

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(Author Jon Magnuson is director of The Cedar Tree Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Marquette, which provides services and initiates projects in the areas of mental health, religion, and the environment. Visit for more information.)

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