Every November, I get asked an unfortunate, loaded question: “You’re a Native American—what do you eat on Thanksgiving?” My answer spans my lifetime.
I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s and am a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe. Growing up, I went to a very small country school on the reservation, in the poorest county in the United States. Our school had predominantly Native students, but we were still taught what everybody was about Thanksgiving: It represented a time when “pilgrims and Indians” celebrated together, and it was about being thankful. Only later would we find out that it was a lie.
But as I was taught this story, my family gathered on Thanksgiving at my grandparent’s ranch, where we held a huge feast of very typical recipes, most of them straight out of a circa-‘60s Betty Crocker cookbook. I remember the mingling smells of dishes cooking throughout the day as our moms and aunts crowded every kitchen surface preparing for the large offering. We had the staples, like roasted turkey; mashed potatoes and milk gravy; sweet potatoes with marshmallows; green bean casserole with onion crisps; brand-name stuffing; canned cranberry sauce; an assortment of cold pasta salads, Jello molds, cookies, deviled eggs; and 1950s-style glass platters filled with canned California black olives, pickles and piles of veggies. On occasion, we had Lakota dishes like Taniga (intestine soup) and wojape (chokecherry sauce).
Those are good memories. Though once my grandparents passed away, my family never celebrated holidays like that again, gathered in one place on the reservation. In the years since, my perspective on Thanksgiving has changed—at first from a sense of bitterness surrounding the real history of those lies we tell, of the actual stories we should honor and mourn, and then with a renewed hope for what our celebrations could be, if we simply changed our focus.
It was the Wampanoag in 1621 who helped the first wave of Puritans arriving on our shores, showing them how to plant crops, forage for wild foods and basically survive. The first official mention of a “Thanksgiving” celebration occurs in 1627, after the colonists brutally massacre an entire Pequot village, then subsequently celebrate their barbaric victory. Years later, President Washington first tried to start a holiday of Thanksgiving in 1789, but this has nothing to do with “Indians and settlers, instead it’s intended to be a public day of “thanksgiving and prayer.” (That the phrase “Merciliess Savage Indians” is written into the Declaration of Independence says everything we need to know about how the founders of America viewed the Indigenous Peoples of this land.) It wasn’t until the writer Sarah Josepha Hale persuaded President Lincoln that the Thanksgiving holiday was needed and could help heal the divided nation that it was made official in 1863. But even that was not the story we are all taught today. The inspiration for that was far more exclusionist.
According to the 2009 book, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James Baker, who was a researcher at Plimoth Plantation, this changed during the Progressive Era (1890–1920), when the United States became a global power rife with industrialization and urbanization. It saw a rise in nationalism, as European immigrants poured into the country, and the Protestant Americans who’d massacred indigenous people feared being displaced. Colonial ideology became the identity of what it was to be truly “American,” and they began implementing teachings to clearly define “Americanism” for the new immigrants. One of these was the sanitized story of Thanksgiving — which fabricated a peaceful depiction between the colonizers and the tribes and neglected to mention the amount of death, destruction and land-grabbing that occurs against the first peoples, setting the tone for the next 200 years. By 1920, writes Baker, the story of “pilgrims and Indians” became a story every American school child was taught, even in Native schools.
But our families lived something different. My great grandfather helped fight off General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, alongside other Lakota and Cheyenne, not even 100 years before my birth. I think about my great grandfather’s lifetime, being born in the 1850s—toward the end of the genocides that began in the 1600s across America, and stretching into the subtler but still damaging years of assimilation efforts we have endured since. He saw escalating conflicts between Lakota life as he knew it and the ever-emerging immigrants from the east. He witnessed the disappearance of the bison, the loss of the sacred Black Hills, the many broken promises made by the U.S., along with atrocities like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres. He saw his children attend the boarding schools where they had their hair forcibly cut and were punished for speaking their languages. I wonder what he thought about the Thanksgiving story.
But I do not wonder about this: Thanksgiving really has nothing to do with Native Americans, and everything to do with an old (but not the oldest) guard conjuring a lie of the first peoples welcoming the settlers to bolster their false authority over what makes a “real” American. (Remember, only in 1924 were Native Americans allowed to become citizens of the United States — and it took decades more for all states to permit us to vote.) It is a story of supposed unity, drained of the bloodshed, and built for the sake of division.
Many of my indigenous brothers and sisters refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving, protesting the whitewashing of the horrors our ancestors went through, and I don’t blame them. But I have not abandoned the holiday. I have just changed how I practice it.
The thing is, we do not need the poisonous “pilgrims and Indians” narrative. We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food.
People may not realize it, but what every person in this country shares, and the very history of this nation, has been in front of us the whole time. Most of our Thanksgiving recipes are made with indigenous foods: turkey, corn, beans, pumpkins, maple, wild rice and the like. We should embrace this.
For years, especially as the head of a company that focuses on indigenous foods, I have explored Native foods. It has given me—and can give all of us—a deeper understanding of the land we stand on. It’s exciting to reconnect with the nature around us. We Americans spend hours outdoors collecting foods like chanterelles, morels, ramps, wild ginger, chokecherries, wild plums, crab apples, cactus fruit, paw paws, manzanita berries, cattails, maple, wild rice (not the black stuff from California, which is a modified and completely different version of the true wild rice growing around the Great Lakes region), cedar, rose-hips, hickory, acorns and walnuts. We can work with Native growers producing heirloom beans, squash and pumpkins, and Native corn varieties, all coming in many shapes, sizes and colors. We can have our feasts include dishes like cedar-braised rabbit, sunchokes with sumac, pine-stewed venison, smoked turkey with chestnuts, true wild rice with foraged mushrooms, native squash with maple, smoked salmon and wild teas.
No matter where you are in North America, you are on indigenous land. And so on this holiday, and any day really, I urge people to explore a deeper connection to what are called “American” foods by understanding true Native-American histories, and begin using what grows naturally around us, and to support Native-American growers. There is no need to make Thanksgiving about a false past. It is so much better when it celebrates the beauty of the present.