6 Ways to Celebrate Thanksgiving with Indigenous Peoples and Culture in Mind

updated Nov 25, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Sunyatta Amen

When I think of Thanksgiving, I can’t help but to remember the many misguided in-school celebrations. Teachers divided students into two groups: “Pilgrims” and “Native Americans.” We dressed up in appropriated costumes and shared a communal meal. This was, according to our textbooks, what actually happened in 1621 when Plymouth Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag people. By the time I reached middle school, I no longer wanted to participate in Thanksgiving reenactments, because like African American history, I realized that the narratives of Indigenous peoples had been whitewashed too.

There’s been a lot of learning, relearning, and unlearning about what it means to be American. And conversations have resurfaced about Black and Indigenous peoples’ complex and intertwined backgrounds — and the shared history of oppression that has renewed the fight for justice. On the heels of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Dominique Fells, Oluwatoyin Salau, and sadly many more, protests and critical dialogue have surfaced about the historic mistreatment of Black Americans, in particular, as well as other marginalized groups.

Sunyatta Amen, master herbalist and founder of Calabash Tea and Tonic in Washington, D.C., knows all too well about the striking commonalities between Black and Indigenous people. “It’s a reckoning. And the demand for liberation is long overdue,” says Amen, who identifies as both Black and Indigenous. I talked with Amen, of the Chowanoke and Arawak tribes, about what she thinks Thanksgiving should look like this year, and how we can move forward.

Credit: Courtesy of Sunyatta Amen

6 Ways to Rebrand Your Thanksgiving Celebration for 2020 and Beyond

Thanksgiving is not just about food and celebration. It is also a day of reflection, education, reclamation, and gratitude — and an opportunity to shift the narrative. Whether you plan to enjoy this day alone, spend time with family on Zoom, or have a small, socially distanced gathering, here are a few tips from Amen for celebrating the holiday with Indigenous peoples and culture in mind. 

1. Learn the difference between myth and reality.

Although this is changing, many Americans today still celebrate the romanticized idea that the “First Thanksgiving” was an amicable gathering of pilgrims and Native peoples who shared a meal and lived in perfect harmony. This, of course, is a myth. The revisionist history of Thanksgiving that most students learn in school is a narrative that fails to mention the atrocities committed against Indigenous and Native peoples of America during (and for subsequent years after) colonization. 

Moving forward as a nation, we have to be clear about the difference between myth and reality. The history of Thanksgiving, as it has been written in the past (including Hollywood films), has tried to glorify and ritualize colonization, and often portrays generous European invaders. When we talk about Thanksgiving, there’s this idea of a grand and peaceful dinner … but that’s really not what happened. We need to listen to actual Indigenous people on correcting that.

Start by reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (or its companion for young people, adopted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza). Teaching Tolerance and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian are chock-full of free information for everyone including students, teachers, and parents. 

As you seek to learn more, make sure that the sources of information actually have lived experience. 

2. Honor the Traditional Owners of the land.

An “Acknowledgment of Country” is a chance to recognize and pay respects to First Nations people — for they are the Traditional Owners and custodians of the land. Before taking part in an in-person or virtual gathering, honor Indigenous peoples by commencing your celebration with a statement like the following: 

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we celebrate, and all Traditional Owners of country throughout the world. We recognize their continuing connection to land, place, waters, and community. And we pay respects to Indigenous, first nation, origin cultures, country, and ancestors past, present, and emerging. 

3. Prepare culturally-inspired dishes.

In addition to showing gratitude for the year’s blessings, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the harvest. But first, it’s important to understand the spiritual connection that Indigenous peoples had with food and the land. The relationship between the two is reciprocal — and expressing gratitude for bountiful harvests is a way of life. 

“Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to respect the food that is in season because that’s what our ancestors did. Whatever is in season is what you’re eating,” Amen explains. “I honor my ancestors by serving heirloom foods. And I love growing that kind of stuff in my garden. I’ve grown tomatoes and some okra that is almost a foot long! There’s something sacred about food grown from heirloom seeds.”

Many American Thanksgiving tables typically include turkey, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, potatoes, and pumpkin pie. But there are many staples of traditional Indigenous and Native American cuisines to include in your feasts. Indigenous recipes incorporate ingredients like wild berries, mushrooms, yams, squash, greens, maize (corn), nuts, and fresh herbs. “Hemp, which is high in protein, is another treasured food source,” says Amen. That’s why she includes it in a Hempy Holidays themed Box.

Try a recipe: Polenta with Sautéed Mushroom & Garlicky Greens from Calabash Tea and Tonic

4. Cultivate teachable moments.

What better way to spark important conversation than around the dinner table? Thanksgiving can be used as a means of educating those closest to you by revolving the dialogue around food. “When I set the table, I include a little sign that describes the dish. One of our favorites is acorn bread — a note explains that it is a type of bread made from acorn squash and highlights that the recipe is traditional to Algonquin people,” Amen says. “I also explain that our roasted yam dish, which has been made into several variations throughout the years, is traditional to the Iroquois people.” She also encourages families to discuss their lineage and how it might connect to Indigenous roots.

5. Connect with nature.

According to Indigenous cultures, nature is deeply connected to spirit. And no celebration is complete with honoring nature first. Actions as simple as taking a walk around your neighborhood or placing your bare feet against the soil can help you connect to the earth, just as the Indigenous ancestors did. 

6. Create new traditions that properly honor the past.

We can’t change our history, but we can write our future. What’s done today will affect  generations for years to come. In order to move forward, we must heal. And the road to healing starts with thinking about how we celebrate Thanksgiving and actively changing some of our practices. “It’s fascinating how many of our [Indigenous] traditions get stepped on even in the sporting events that are connected to holidays like Thanksgiving,” Amen explains. “After dinner people watch this game or that game … and a large portion of the teams are named after Native peoples. Although our local team finally decided to change the official name to The Washington Football Team, we still must continue to fight against these misrepresentations of Indigenous people.” 

Amen also says the day doesn’t have to be called “Thanksgiving” in your household. “You can shift the celebration to Native Appreciation Day … or weekend … or meal. And of course, it should go beyond the food and even that day, but it’s a start.”

Sunyatta Amen is a 5th-generation master herbalist, vegan chef, naturopath, founder of Calabash Tea and Tonic. She is the descendant of Indigenous people from the Americas, both from the Chowanoke and Meherrin people of Southern Virginia, Northern North Carolina, and the Arawack people of the Caribbean, specifically, Jamaica and Cuba.