Thanksgiving is a complicated time for Taelor Barton.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Cherokee chef gathers with his family to share a meal over the holidays, but the story of how the United States has treated Native Americans hangs heavy in the air. While the conventional narrative around Thanksgiving has been one of friendship and alliance between the Wampanoag and the Plymouth settlers, Barton sees the holiday as a reminder of all that the Indigenous peoples endured with the arrival of the Europeans.
Among what has been lost: Knowledge of traditional foods and how they were grown, produced and prepared.
Now that Barton has a platform as a chef and cultural cuisine enthusiast, she sees Thanksgiving as an opportunity to not only draw attention to the native ingredients that appear in standard holiday fare, but also to other seasonal native foods that have been overlooked – in other words, what she thinks about all year round.
“I want to encourage people to learn about what naturally grows around us,” Barton, who is also restaurant manager and executive chef at The Vault in Tulsa, told CNN.
As they dismiss the Thanksgiving myth, Barton and other Native American chefs and cooks engage in the holiday on their own terms – focusing instead on revitalizing native ingredients and eating habits. North America.
Growing up Cherokee, Barton didn’t think much about Cherokee food. It was just part of who she was.
Although Barton has been cooking for her family since she was little, it wasn’t until her grandmother’s death in 2016 that she began to deepen her understanding of the dishes and traditions of her culture. If she didn’t begin to practice what she had learned, she realized, that knowledge could be lost.
This included making kanuchi, a traditional hickory nut porridge of the southeastern tribes. Today, hickory trees are valued primarily for the timber they provide, but the Cherokee have long eaten the nuts of certain species, which Barton describes as having an “earthy, woody, maple, cinnamon, and of pecans”.
“This is their homeland,” she said, referring to the hickories. “So we’ve basically been using this resource since time immemorial.”
To make kanuchi, Barton uses the same techniques as her grandmother, using a mortar made from a tree stump and a wooden pestle. She now prepares it for potlucks and intimate get-togethers, and has since become known in her community for her knowledge of the dish, which is remarkable given that such recipes cannot be easily researched.
Carrying on the culinary traditions of his ancestors, Barton is part of a larger movement.
She is a member of I-Collective, a group of Indigenous leaders, activists, herbalists and knowledge keepers dedicated to promoting Indigenous ingredients and advocating for Indigenous food sovereignty. In recent years, other I-Collective members hosted pop-up Thanksgiving dinners aimed at revising American understanding of the holiday and celebrating resilience and Indigenous food traditions. What started as a few intimate dinner parties in New York has expanded to events across the United States that go beyond Thanksgiving.
I-Collective has grown into a broad network whose members reflect the diversity of indigenous peoples on the continent. They are bound by a shared commitment to uplift and restore Indigenous food systems.
These principles inspire much of the work done by Hillel Echo-Hawk.
Although Echo-Hawk is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, she grew up in rural Alaska next to an Athabaskan family who she says adopted her family into their culture. Access to grocery stores was limited, and she learned to hunt and fish, eat moose, muskrat, squirrel, and salmon. When she moved, she realized how little people knew about native food, which can vary greatly from region to region, from tribe to tribe.
Echo-Hawk eventually became a cook and started the catering company Birch Basket, which showcases pre-settlement ingredients and seeks to tell stories of people and land through every plate. She doesn’t particularly care about Thanksgiving as a holiday, but she is keen on educating others about Native food and eating habits.
“Although I think this is a very stupid holiday, if I can show people that yes we are still alive, we are not just corn, squash and beans, then I will absolutely do whatever I can to elevate my culture,” she said. said.
Sean Sherman lived a pretty typical Thanksgiving spread growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes.
The Oglala Lakota chief has fond memories of those times, but as he got older, his outlook on vacations changed. What he learned in school was a false narrative that glorified colonialism, he said, not something that should be celebrated.
At the same time, Sherman was working in restaurants and coming to terms with the lack of native food in his own life. and in society at large. In 2014, he founded food education and catering company The Sioux Chef to help solve the problem.
Still, Sherman likes to cook for loved ones and get together for a big meal, so he hasn’t given up Thanksgiving altogether. He simply encourages people to identify what’s growing around them and incorporate it into their cooking – his own Thanksgiving dinner this year will likely feature rabbit, squash and corn.
“I think people should always understand the land they’re on — understand the Indigenous communities around them and the struggles they’ve had to go through and are still going through in many scenarios,” said Sherman, who is also behind the native restaurant Owamni. in Minneapolis.
Many of these struggles go hand in hand with the disruption of food systems.
Federal policies that drove tribes from their ancestral lands also cut them off from centuries-old ways of hunting, farming, and harvesting. And in the 19th century, the U.S. military carried out a mass slaughter of bison in an effort to wipe out the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.
Under certain treaties the United States made with tribal nations, the federal government agreed to compensate the tribes for the loss of their food sources through rations, which tended to be unhealthy and laden with preservatives. . These policies contributed to disproportionate rates of diabetes and obesity in Native American communities, as well as high rates of poverty and food insecurity, which persist today.
Dana Thompson, who with Sherman co-founded the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, sees restoring traditional ways of life as key to addressing health and economic crises in Indigenous communities. The organization works with tribal communities to strengthen traditional knowledge and support their efforts towards food sovereignty.
“Sovereignty means that communities of people understand where their food comes from, have control over where their food comes from, and can define their own food systems instead of just eating what a dominant outside party gives them,” said Thompson, who identifies as a direct descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes.
You don’t have to look beyond the Thanksgiving table to understand how North American ecosystems have been disrupted, Barton noted. Turkeys were once an animal traditionally hunted by the Cherokee, but herding has made the birds abundant in a way that now seems foreign.
When she can, Barton makes a point of sourcing ingredients locally, whether through farmers markets, tribal growers, gift giving, or picking. Ultimately, she said, the food sovereignty movement seeks to transform modern relationships with the land and allow tribes to regain control of their own food production and distribution.
“The power to feed our people equals our ability to govern ourselves,” she added.
Barton is happy to highlight Indigenous cuisines and food traditions this Thanksgiving. But although she works in the restaurant industry, she is reluctant to prepare certain Indigenous foods for customers who might not understand their meaning – she is not interested in providing an “Indigenous experience” for profit.
Some Cherokee dishes are sacred and personal to Barton, and for now, she’s keeping them close.
She will, however, spend Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s house in eastern Oklahoma. There she will harvest black walnuts from trees her great-grandfather planted about a century ago. These nuts can be eaten as is, baked into a pie, or used as a filling for stuffed acorn squash. She will also prepare her signature dish: Kanuchi.
And she will continue to urge people to connect with the bounty that surrounds them — not just at Thanksgiving, but all year round.
“There’s so much more to learn,” she says. “It’s a good time to learn it, but we should also think about it through all our seasons.”