How Non-Natives Can Honor the True Story of Thanksgiving

by Katherine Sacks


Thanksgiving during a pandemic likely looks different: you might be feeding a smaller group this year; spending time without family; or remembering lost loved ones. For Native Americans — many of whom acknowledge the fourth Thursday of November as the National Day of Mourning — this is nothing new. The time period between Columbus Day (officially recognized in 14 states and Washington, D.C. as Indigenous People’s Day) through November’s Native American Appreciation Month is always shrouded in loss, generational trauma and hard conversations.

Although the myth of the first Thanksgiving is no longer commonly accepted, the idea of the gentle Indian and generous pilgrims enjoying a meal together still proliferates. “That story was force fed and people need to understand that these harmful stereotypes are not good for Indigenous people, but they are not good for us as a society either,” says Dana Thompson, co-founder of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS).

This stereotyping is one reason Indigenous communities, like other BIPOC communities, have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Many lack equal access to medical care and healthy food, having been cut off from their traditional diets, lifestyles and practices through the system of colonialism and oppression in the US. While Native Americans and Native Alaskans make up less than one percent of the national population, a preliminary study found they are 3.5 percent more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites showing how vulnerable Indigenous communities are.

Restoring Indigenous Foodways

By working to restore Indigenous foodways, organizations like First Nations Development Institute are helping to reverse this vulnerability. First Nations awards grants to support Indigenous farmers, increase food access and help tribes rebuild their sustainable food systems. “When grocery stores are closed, quantities are limited, and the supply chain is threatened, a return to Native foods can be the difference between sickness and health,” First Nation’s A-dae Romero-Briones wrote earlier this year in an essay for FoodPrint. “And a recognition and celebration of Native foodways can be a factor in how people find nutrition and nourishment in a COVID-19 world.”

For Minneapolis-based NāTIFS, the focus is on food entrepreneurship and education. Many Indigenous Americans have lost their connection to traditional recipes and food customs, “and it’s critical that we’re able to put that knowledge back together in a modern context, so that people can keep doing the research on their own ancestral foods, the foods of their grandparents and great grandparents essentially,” says Thompson. Over the last several years, the NāTIFS team has been working with local tribes to master the culinary heritage of the area. In 2020, they planned to open the Indigenous Food Lab, a culinary training center that would allow Indigenous people from all over the country learn these food traditions and bring them home to their communities.

food being prepared at the Indigenous Food Lab
A staff member helps prepare meals for nearby tribal communities at Minneapolis’ Indigenous Food Lab.
Photo by Dana Thompson.

The coronavirus stalled the culinary training center’s opening, but the Food Lab team is already at work. In response to the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic and rise in interest about racial equity after the murder of George Floyd, the staff began training a team of 15 cooks in ancestral cooking and are currently preparing meals for nearby tribal communities. “We are trying to kick out 1,000 meals a day to feed the tribal communities around us,” says Thompson.  The meals, which feature ingredients from Indigenous producers such as Romana farms, include recipes like bison and hominy stew, smoked duck pozole, and walleye cakes with pepita pesto. “Every single one of these recipes is packed with foods that are truly anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense and there to really nourish, physically, spiritually, emotionally in every way.”

Instead of Indigenous ingredients like bison, hominy and walleye cakes, now turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie have become the nationwide standard on the Thanksgiving table. But these items aren’t seasonally available everywhere, and our dependence on them has led to industrial farming and its environmental, public health and animal welfare problems. “There’s no reason food should be travelling for a 1,000 miles, or that I should be able to buy pineapple in the middle of Minneapolis,” says Thompson. Instead of buying out of season because a recipe calls for a certain ingredient, she suggests looking at the damage that factory farms and monocultural growing practices have done, and instead supporting a sustainable, microlocal food system. “I think Thanksgiving is a time to look away from [factory farmed food], figure out where our dollars are spent, and make some reparations.”

The True Story of Thanksgiving

For Tulsa-based Indigenous chef and consultant Nico Albert, the time is also valuable for widening the conversation around the true story of Thanksgiving and Indigenous people in a modern context. “It’s definitely a conflicted holiday,” she says, explaining that she has many friends who call the holiday Thanks-taking. While the holiday does generally reflect Indigenous Native values — gathering families together, sharing big meals in fellowship, reflecting on the things you are thankful for — she explains how important it is to know where the holiday came from. “I think a mutual appreciation for everything that Indigenous people have endured in the same way that we have so much education about the intrepid spirit of the pioneers,” Albert says. “We need to balance that out with the incredible resiliency of the Indigenous people of this land, to still exist and still have our traditions.”

Nico Albert serving foods created with Native ingredients and techniques
Tulsa-based Indigenous chef and consultant Nico Albert uses use local, seasonal, tribally sourced and sustainable ingredients for her catering company, Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods.
Photo courtesy of Nico Albert.

Albert works with the local Native community — teaching cooking classes to the Indigenous community focused on Native ingredients and techniques — but she also spreads information about ancestral cooking and Indigenous culture to as wide a network as possible, catering dinners for corporate retreats and art exhibits. “We get to reach a wider demographic of audience that needs to hear these stories and have questions that need to be answered,” says Albert, referring to a recent event she catered at the city’s Philbrook art museum. “That kind of builds a bridge between our communities and improves the visibility of Native people in a contemporary context. That’s always excellent.”

Understanding True Native American History and Food

A way to build that bridge on your own is by understanding the history of the land you live on. “No matter where you are in North America, you are on indigenous land,” NāTIFS’ Sean Sherman told Time magazine. Research the Indigenous land you’re living on, discover local organizations working to improve food sovereignty within those Indigenous groups and support Native growers. “I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories,” says Sherman. Looking at that history and the Indigenous approach of only using what you need and replenishing what you take, it’s clear that by supporting Indigenous food systems we can support a more sustainable food system overall.

Albert also suggests supporting Native food products. “There are so many tribes and Indigenous individuals that have different foods and gift items that you can purchase that directly support tribal organizations or a native individuals family, like native rice from the Chippewa people or maple products from some of the tribes in the northeast,” she says. “When you buy those products, not only are you supporting those people, you are supporting the proper maintenance of that land.”

You may not find these ingredients on at your local grocer, but Albert highlights many Indigenous products on her website. One of her favorites include the Tanka bar, a bison-berry bar made with ethically-sourced bison, that the Oglala Lakotas used as a staple food when travelling. She also suggests purchasing ingredients for your holiday table — such as cornmeal — from Indigenous producers. “What a great conversation piece for a non-Native family to say, ‘I bought the cornmeal from the Ute people in Utah or I bought this corn from Ramona farms in Arizona,” she explains. “The cornbread itself is so much more nutritious and I supported this tribe and isn’t that cool.”

Even if you can’t source Indigenous ingredients, by changing your menu from traditional Thanksgiving fare to local, seasonal foods, you will be experiencing a more Native meal. In his recipes for The New York Times, Sherman explains, “The true foods of North America may not be available at every grocery store or even online, and they are not coming from industrial farms: They are seasonal and vary from region to region. To experience true Indigenous foods is to explore the many different ecosystems of plants and animals wherever you are.” Whether you cook traditional Native recipes, make old standbys, or try new recipes this year, consider swapping out the recipe’s ingredients for ones that are seasonally available where you live.


Top photo: Food prepared by the Indigenous Food Lab staff to go into meals for nearby tribal communities. Photo by Dana Thompson.

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