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How to “Indigenize” Thanksgiving

There are a few things that I believe are human universals, or the aspects of being human that are present across all cultures, no matter where we come from. Among them are showing gratitude, sharing food, and making meaning together through storytelling. These things are why I love Thanksgiving.

But let’s be real. Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday built on deliberate lies and the ongoing genocide of millions of Native American peoples. Until last year, I was always bothered by the fake history underpinning one of America’s most cherished holidays — you know, the story about how the Pilgrims invited the Indians to share a harvest feast. Trust me, you’ll never hear a Native American say, “You know what I love about this time of year? The heartwarming Thanksgiving story I learned in grade school.”

So, in today’s blog, I’d like to share some ideas for how we can transform Thanksgiving, and how we can “Indigenize” it, no matter who we are, in ways that are culturally respectful to Native Americans. This will be a longish blog, but I promise to keep it interesting.

If you don’t want to read any further, check out what I recommended in last year’s blog, 3 Ways to Decolonize Thanksgiving, which are to:

This year, I’ve been thinking about how I can build upon this framework, to make Thanksgiving even more of a recognition of the real relationships between Native Americans, recent immigrants, and descendants of earlier settlers in a specific place — in short, how to Indigenize Thanksgiving.

Why I wanted to Indigenize Thanksgiving

Read all the way through this blog to learn about 3 ways to Indigenize Thanksgiving. To preview, they are:

  • Acknowledge First Peoples
  • Eat Indigenous Foods
  • Learn Local History

Last Sunday, I hosted the Second Annual “Decolonize” or “Indigenous Thanksgiving” feast. Before I get into how my co-hosts and I Indigenized Thanksgiving this year, I want to share the origins of this new tradition in my life.

For me, Thanksgiving always triggered thoughts of the genocide of millions of Native peoples, which is important to remember, but also psychologically damaging when it feels like the majority of Americans celebrate a holiday, unaware that Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for many Native Americans. (Check out the awesome video below of Native people reacting to the word “Thanksgiving” to better understand the complicated and fraught relationship Native peoples have with Thanksgiving.)

I am no longer bothered by the fake history. Instead, since the Bioneers Indigeneity Program co-hosted the first annual “Decolonize Thanksgiving” feast in New York City with incredibly talented puppet artist and environmental educator Heather Henson, I’ve felt empowered to change it.

Psst: Indigenous scholars Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird define Colonization as “the process that is perpetuated after the initial control over Indigenous Peoples is achieved through invasion and conquest.” So, decolonization is “the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands.” To me, “decolonization” is the process of undoing the structures of oppression that have been used to subjugate Indigenous Peoples. For example, if we have been coerced by the food commodities programs to eat processed foods, we “decolonize” by eating a more traditional, healthy diet. If we have been forced to hate our languages and identities due to the generations of assimilative boarding schools, to “decolonize” would be to re-learn our languages and to be proud of who we are. For more, check out this great scholarly work, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang)

Along with our guests, Heather and I “decolonized” Thanksgiving by honoring the true history of the Wampanoag territory/Plymouth, Massachusetts, eating foods indigenous to North America, and engaging in honest dialogue around the truth of America’s treatment of Native peoples. I now know that many other people from all different backgrounds have the same problem with the Thanksgiving Myth and want to incorporate new traditions to fix what’s wrong with the holiday.

Decolonize Thanksgiving 2016 was such an incredible experience that I wanted to bring it to where I live in Monterey, California, close to Bioneers’ headquarters in San Francisco. Along with Patricia Hamilton, who helps people record their life stories through “Keepers of Our Culture,” the Bioneers Indigeneity Program hosted the second annual “Decolonize Thanksgiving” feast on Sunday, November 19, at the Youth Center in Pacific Grove, California. We invited friends of Bioneers and locals to join us in this year’s celebration.

In planning the Second Annual Decolonize Thanksgiving, I wanted to keep all the elements that made last year’s event such a success, and build on them. I wanted to open the event with objects and activities that would connect guests to place and local Native cultures.

I wanted to eat not just foods Indigenous to North America, but also those made of the same ingredients that the Ohlone peoples would have eaten.

I also longed to know the real story of what happened during the California Indian genocide — in the place I am grateful to live now — from the descendants of the people who survived it.

Finally, I wanted this event to be a family affair, just like feasts and potlucks I grew up with in Alaska, with children present to make this a part of their future traditions.

Rooting Thanksgiving in Place

Admittedly, part of my reasoning for hosting the event on the Monterey Peninsula was selfish. When I moved to the Monterey Peninsula in 2010, I was struck by how much it reminded me of coastal Alaska, where I spent all my summers from my childhood well into my twenties. I immediately noticed the same humpback whales, harbor seals, and otters that I grew up with on the ocean. In the Pacific Grove, I saw the ghosts of unknown Aleut ancestors of mine, paddling skin kayaks through the misty coastal waters.

I grew up with stories of the Russians colonizing the Aleuts, forcing them to go as far away as California to hunt sea otters, which they sold to China to fund their empire over a hundred years before the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867. Russians used to refer to sea otter pelts as “black gold” because they were worth more than their weight in gold in 18th century trading prices. That colonial history connected me to this place.

The most powerful way to begin to decolonize a place is to acknowledge the living descendants of the first peoples. When I moved to Monterey, it seemed to be conspicuously missing an outwardly visible, living Native American population. I knew that the California mission system killed the vast majority of the Peninsula’s original inhabitants. I recently read an estimation that up to 80% of those who entered the missions died in them under the forced-labor and disease-ridden conditions. But, I also knew there are survivors among us. Some of the descendants who weren’t killed or removed probably had to move elsewhere due to expensive housing prices here. Others may simply live a private life.

I often take walks in Fort Ord, behind my house. I look at the vegetation, see the quail and wild turkeys, signs of mountain lions and coyote scat, and I think about the people who used to live among the plants and animals. I wonder what they ate, and think about how much knowledge they must have had about the healing and medicinal qualities of the sages and other indigenous plants. I feel guilty for not knowing the names of the plants, and which ones are edible or medicinal, as I do up North.

Step 1 to Indigenizing Thanksgiving: Acknowledge First Peoples

I wanted to know the original peoples of this beautiful and abundant place. It took a little research and asking around, but I finally learned who the Indigenous People of Monterey Peninsula are. They are the Rumsen, within a larger linguistic and cultural group called Ohlone. Beyond books, beyond archaeology and museums, I wanted to meet the living descendants of the Rumsen Ohlone People and invite them as the most important guests to the Second Annual Decolonize Thanksgiving.

It was equally important to me to invite 5th-generation settler Californians and recent newcomers to our dinner, so that we could engage in dialogue and learn from each other. Our attendees included first-generation immigrants, settler-descendents, and Native peoples representing ten different tribes, seven of them California Indian tribes.

Unless you are already a part of this group, I’m not suggesting that Indigenizing Thanksgiving means that you have to find and invite members of your local Native American community to your dinner. In fact, please don’t do this. It’s called “tokenism,” which is a form of racism.

Instead, you should learn the name of the Native Peoples of the place you live, and acknowledge that you are in their ancestral territory. In your opening words to the Thanksgiving meal, you might make it a new tradition to say something like the following:

“We are thankful to live on the Monterey Peninsula, the ancestral territory of the Rumsen Ohlone peoples.”

Step 2 to Indigenizing Thanksgiving: Eat Indigenous Foods

I recently met an incredibly inspiring Rumsen Ohlone man at the Bioneers Conference, Louis Trevino (Rumsen Ohlone). Louis and his partner, Vincent Medina (Chochenyo Ohlone) recently founded mak-’amham, an Ohlone catering company, which means “Our Food” in the Chochenyo Language. Together, Louis and Vincent have reconnected with their ancestral foods for healing and spiritual well-being.

Of course, I had to invite Louis and Vincent to cater our meal, and they delivered tremendously, serving up sweet and savory food combinations from simple pairings of six ingredients or less that make up the signature, pre-contact Ohlone palate. We ate:

  • himmen (first): Pureed native dandilio, bisque cooked in a savory duck broth with bay laurel
  • ‘uṭṭin (second): crispy duck breast cooked with bay laurel and light honey glaze served with blackberry dipping sauce cooked with locally gathered herbs and honey; rich amaranth seed “stuffing” slowly cooked with local mushrooms and walnuts in a mushroom broth; sautéed local mushrooms — chanterelles + oyster mushrooms cooked with bay laurel + sea salt; sorrel, purslane and watercress salad with huckleberries, blackberries, walnuts, pine nuts, popped amaranth seeds served with an elderberry + walnut oil dressing
  • kaphan (third): acorn flour brownies topped with walnuts and sea salt

Our meal was just as delicious as it looks, deeply connecting us all to the message carried through their food:

“…It is our hope to create beautiful Ohlone cuisine that allows us to be a little closer to those before us, and to honor the legacy we inherit from them. Our primary goal is always the wellness and decolonization of our Ohlone communities. We also hope to educate non-Indian people about who we are, as the Indigenous people of the East Bay and Carmel Valley. We hope to dispel negative stereotypes through actively demonstrating the vibrancy and beauty of Ohlone culture, and especially the deep + living connections we have to our homelands. We hope to raise awareness to people who are not indigenous to California what the true culture and cuisine of this beautiful and ancient place really is.”

I recognize that serving foods Indigenous to where you live can be a daunting research task. However, there are some foods that are Indigenous to North America, such as turkey and “the 3 sisters” that you will probably be serving anyway. You can learn about the significance of the 3 sisters to Native Americans in this presentation by Kiowa chef, Lois Ellen Frank, given at the Bioneers Conference. I guarantee that knowing the cultural significance and meaning of these foods to place will increase your enjoyment, fulfillment and well-being connected to the Thanksgiving meal.

Step 3 to Indigenizing Thanksgiving: Learn Local History

The final step to Indigenizing Thanksgiving is to learn the real story of the place that you live. If you live in America, this inevitably means learning about the processes of genocide and colonization. This knowledge can be painful to learn, but it is critically important to know true history so that it cannot be repeated. At Bioneers, we have taken on this responsibility for 28 years. In 2008, we organized a panel on the topic of California Indian Genocide: Truth and Recognition, as part of our responsibility to ensure that all Californians know the history of the state where our headquarters are located.

We showcased a preview of the video of this panel at Decolonize Thanksgiving 2017, and had a deep and meaningful conversation about what we learned, lead by our California Indian guests, who bravely volunteered to share the difficult truths that have deeply and personally affected their families. This video will be released by the new year, but until then, please visit the Bioneers Indigeneity Playlist for videos of speeches by Native American leaders that cannot be found anywhere else.

I also asked Louis Trevino, as a member of the local Rumsen Tribe, to offer a historical reading about the history of Monterey. He shared the words of Isabel Meadows, the last fluent speaker of the Rumsen language, who worked tirelessly to preserve her cultural traditions despite surviving what is probably the worst holocaust among all Native American groups.

Here’s an excerpt of Isabel Meadow’s words as shared by Louis Trevino:

“When the Americans came, Sargent ran them off when he bought the land there. And they had to leave, and from there they were piled up along the river encamped, and from there the Indian people scattered… And so they were thrown out among the other people only to seek out a life as the poorest, and they were exposed then to all kinds of vices and to drinking… Some died of sadness, and others went out, they scattered wherever… many died from smallpox, and from measles as well, not knowing how to take care of those diseases… They drank from sadness because they were thrown out… And many people died as a result of drinking whiskey and wine, dying faster as a result of drunkenness and the sorrow that they had been thrown out despite being the first people of Carmel… And now there are almost no pure people of Carmel, neither our language, because of so much that has been suffered, compounded by the forces of the Mexicans and then the whites. I hope that one of the rich people of Carmel will buy for them a good piece of land even just to live, to put the Rancheria like before, to revive the language, and to make story again in the world.”

We were all deeply moved by Isabel’s words first spoken 80 years ago, and a moving discussion followed. Honoring what really happened in Monterey made us sad, but at the same time, we felt hopeful that Louis and Vincent, as young tribal knowledge bearers and future leaders, have dedicated themselves to keeping their languages, foods and traditions alive. And many of the guests publicly acknowledged and thanked them.

Of equal importance, Decolonize Thanksgiving ignited important conversations on the Monterey Peninsula around the erasure of the real history of this place. We closed the event inspired to share Native American stories of Pacific Grove more widely with present-day residents who, according to census data, identify as 78% white, and 0.3% Native American.

What’s Next for Decolonize Thanksgiving

Our co-host, Patricia Hamilton, and I committed to collaborating with our California Indian guests to share their stories in the second edition of the volume, Life in Pacific Grove, of which we will publish a sister-book about the oral histories of Monterey Native Peoples. All stories will be told and vetted by local California Indians, and shared respectfully and appropriately according to tribal protocols to serve as an important resource for future generations of descendants of the First Peoples of this place, and Pacific Grove residents.

This historical event was made possible by Bioneers, friends and donors to the Bioneers Indigeneity Program, Vincent and Louis of mak-’amham, Keepers of Our Culture, and our incredible guests, with an extra special thank you to Cornelia Holden of Mindful Warrior. We can’t wait to do it again next year!

See more from our Indigeneity Program >>



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