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All those Thanksgiving parade balloons were launched out of a simple scene: The tableau of the Indians and pilgrims sitting down to a communal feast and giving thanks.

Yet through the centuries, the gratitude has become too entwined with materialism, says Sara Dale Smith, an Iroquois elder in Ontario who has been named one of the "Great American Indians."

"Gratitude for all of life is one of our major laws," said Mrs. Smith, who calls Buffalo her "old home." The Iroquois word for thanks is "na wey."

"We have much to learn about gratitude," she said. "I would hope my family would give thanks even if I were faltering in health, no matter how critical. When we are willing to accept whatever is intended, I've seen miracles happen. We have to fulfill a divine plan, rather than our own."

Elders such as Mrs. Smith carry "the knowledge of the tradition and wisdom of the heart," notes documentarian Sandy Johnson, whose work took her to several of North America's 350 reservations.

"They speak out now in the name of Mother Earth, who, according to their prophecies and empirical evidence, verges on destruction," Ms. Johnson said. "They share with us their knowledge of healing -- ways to heal ourselves, each other and the planet."

Some might call Sara Smith a mystic. But on the roughly 100 square miles of Six Nations Grand River Reserve in Ontario, about 90 minutes from Buffalo, where some Buffalo Native Americans have lived, she says she simply is called "grandmother."

Elders were among the 80 Indian friends of the Mayflower's pilgrims, who sat down at long wooden tables almost four centuries ago, giving prayers of thanks for their corn, fish, fowl and berries -- and for their lives.

"Thanksgiving creates nostalgia for a mythic family and domestic life," said Phyllis Chock, an anthropologist.

More than two decades ago, Sara Smith lost her home and all of her material possessions in a fire.

"We had to start over," she said. "That was a great teacher for me."

At 58, Mrs. Smith is young for an elder, Ms. Johnson says in her acclaimed "The Book of Elders: The Life Stories & Wisdom of Great American Indians."

"From the time, she was quite young; her spiritual quest has been the focus of her life," Ms. Johnson says of Mrs. Smith.

Mrs. Smith recently returned from a tour of Europe, where she shared Native American philosophies with the English and the Dutch. She talks about the power of dreams and advises against being afraid of nightmares.

"Inside every dream, so uniquely ours and so personal, is some thing pure that comes from Spirit," she said. "We have to learn to see the beauty of the teachings in our dreams, and let them become our guides."

"Dreams have limitless potential," she added. "Part of the teaching of our forefathers was about the dream world. They never sat on a council and raised their arms to instantaneously vote on something. The wise decisions they had to make, to provide for their people for seven generations to come, took time. Divine guidance came to them through their dreams and visions."

Her ancestors, she says, have entered into another dimension of life.

"There are always the 'unseen' who have gathered with us," she said.

And to "provide for the 'coming faces,' " this elder says, the "balance of day and night is critical," something to ponder this Thanksgiving.

"We've gotten out of balance with daytime and nighttime," she observed. "It has become seemingly necessary to work 16 hours a day, and rest for five at the most.

"We allow the children of today to go off to school by themselves to a teacher, who is not a family member, for six hours a day. They have to get up early in the morning to sit on a bus for an hour, and when they return at night, they watch television until supper, then more TV, and then to bed. There is no longer any interaction between the old and the young."

Yes, the family around the Thanksgiving table certainly has changed. The married couple with children is less common, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, falling to 36 percent from 50 percent of all families between 1970 and and last year.

"Children need the balance only their parents and the old people can give them," Mrs. Smith said. "There was a time when the evening was story time for both, when they could share the day's message.

"The children are also our teachers. We have forgotten to honor that, too."

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