Using Food to Change the Thanksgiving Narrative

For many of us, our associations with Thanksgiving are mostly about food. Cranberries, pumpkin pies, stuffing and all those other things that turns the food media world into a seasonal frenzy of recipes and roundups. It’s a holiday where we’re encouraged to gather with our friends and family and be thankful, showing gratitude for what’s on the table and the people we share it with.

These are admirable ideals, however when we talk about Thanksgiving, share iconic recipes, gather around the table, we avoid the harsh reality of a holiday with a dark past, one of slavery, plague and massacres. At its core, Thanksgiving is a story of genocide, and instead of facing that reality, it’s a holiday that we have chosen to mythologize, erasing real stories and people along the way. Instead of the truth, the false narrative around Thanksgiving allows us to focus on the easy stuff, in the form of “10 Best Pie Crusts” and “25 Creative Stuffing Ideas You Never Thought Of.

“Food media at large still won’t touch the imperialist implications of Thanksgiving with a ten foot pole bc it’s more profitable to pub stuffing listicles,” wrote Racist Sandwich a few weeks ago on Twitter.

I thought about that comment a lot, pondering the importance and weight of food media in addressing cultural history as well as today’s realities. Food is an excellent lens for looking at important topics like gender, race and culture, and in that sense, the food hype over Thanksgiving seems like a massively missed opportunity to highlight the true story and its modern day implications. Avoiding the conversation about the true roots of Thanksgiving means perpetuating the injustice.

This is a time for ourselves to change the narrative, to bring back truth to the dinner table and to North American culture at large.

“Thanksgiving represents a time of acknowledgement, gratitude, and family. I believe that it is important to acknowledge the truth behind the history of Thanksgiving, and even more broadly the colonization of the Americas, and while we cannot change our history, through honoring the past and creating new stories along the way the can create the future we want,” says Erin Eberle, a food writer and activist whose ancestry is Mohawk, Turtle Clan from Upstate New York. “I believe that the sharing of food with family and friends is an important way to connect and hold space for both the difficult conversations and the joyful.”

Whether it’s at home or at an event, food can be the catalyst for these conversations, it can be a way that we honor the past instead of avoiding it. In New York City, the I-Collective is hosting an Indigenous Harvest Pop Up, a dinner to showcase a different narrative that highlights indigenous communities’ resilience as well as their innovations in gastronomy, agriculture, the arts, and society at large. Indigenous chefs and food activists like Sean Sherman and his team at The Sioux Chef are working to revitalize Native American cuisine and culinary traditions, highlighting the culinary diversity of the 567 federally recognized Native American nations in the United States and the value of food to both their health and history. Food is a way to bring people to the table and to highlight the truth of the past.

“Countless indigenous chefs and myself are on the frontline focused on historical issues surrounding our indigenous foods. We are on a level where we are being heard and conversations have started on appropriation,” says Brian Yazzie, who works with The Sioux Chef and is taking part in the Indigenous Harvest Pop Up. Yazzie, who is known as Yazzie the Chef, is from Dennehotso, Arizona on the Navajo Nation. He is Dine’ (Navajo) of the Salt People Clan and born into the Ute People Division of The Red Running Into The Water Clan (watch this video to learn more about his work). For him, food is a way to deal with the past and change the future. “I educate on the healthy aspects of our foods,” says Yazzie. “I use food as a healing tool within our indigenous communities. Reintroducing our hyper local and regional foods that has been forgotten about.”

Brian Zazzie

Brian Zazzie

For Yazzie and other indigenous chefs that he works with, food functions as a platform. “The series of pop up dinners we will be hosting in New York City is very important because there is no representation of our Indigenous foods in major cities,” says Yazzie. “New York City is one of the culinary capitals of the world and this gives us a major platform to speak our narratives and represent that we are still here.”

Food is not just a healing tool or a vehicle for raising awareness, it’s also a way that all of us can connect to both history and each other. “Food is the ultimate connector. Food can be shared without a word spoken, it can be an offering of openness and acceptance, it is quite literally one of the only things that all living beings have in common – we must feed ourselves to survive. Both literally and figuratively, we can take in life in the form of actual food, through dialogs/conversations that push us into the edges of our comfort and therefore, even if just for a moment, allow for expansion or growth,” says Eberle. “Sharing food breaks down barriers, and creates connected space where anything, quite literally becomes possible.”

The Thanksgiving table provides plenty of opportunity for learning about indigenous cultures and honoring them, and this should be what we use this week for. “In my family, cooking recipes that honor the Native Tribes in the region in which I live has become a tradition,” says Eberle. She recommends a few ways that we can all be more inclusive and respectful around the table by, “beginning dinner with simply acknowledging that we all live and thrive on Native land is easy and meaningful.”

Eberle suggests starting the meal with “a prayer, poem, or meditation honoring/celebrating the importance of connecting with community over food as was tradition in many Native tribes,” as well as encouraging people to, “commit to learn something new about the foodways of the Wampanoags or other New England Tribes as an offering of thanks for their sacrifices.”

Yazzie agrees. “I suggest to start conversations and educate on the real history of Thanksgiving. We can no longer avoid the real history of North America. I suggest supporting local tribes in your area and purchase indigenous ingredients.”

Whatever you are serving this Thanksgiving, take some time to remember the truth behind the holiday. Together we have the opportunity to change the narrative, showcase indigenous cuisine and face the past instead of avoiding it. “Thanksgiving is a representation of resiliency. The story behind Thanksgiving is indigenous foods and genocide. A historical trauma that has been swept beneath textbooks and romanticized in institutions and non-native households,” says Yazzie. “We indigenous peoples are still here and striving to bring forth our narrative.”

Images courtesy Yazzie the Chef, credit: Michael Ojibway

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