How indigenous chefs observe Thanksgiving, or don’t

Thanksgiving is a complicated time for Taelor Barton. The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Cherokee chef is gathering with family to share a meal on the holiday, but the history of how the US 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 colonists, Barton sees the holiday as a reminder of all that indigenous people endured with the arrival of Europeans.

Among what was lost: Knowledge of traditional foods and the ways they were cultivated, produced and prepared.

One need look no further than 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 livestock farming has made the birds abundant in a way that now feels foreign.

Today’s indigenous chefs make it a point to source ingredients locally, whether through farmers markets, tribal producers, gifts or foraging. They want tribes to control their own food production and distribution again.

Dana Thompson, who along with Sherman co-founded the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, sees the restoration of traditional foodways as key to addressing health and economic crises in Native communities. The organization works with tribal communities to bolster traditional knowledge and support their efforts toward food sovereignty.

Bison once were part of the staple diet. Today 82 tribes across the U.S. have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds — and that’s been growing along with the desire among Native Americans to reclaim stewardship of an animal their ancestors depended upon for millennia.

European settlers destroyed that balance, driving bison nearly extinct until conservationists including Teddy Roosevelt intervened to reestablish a small number of herds.

The long-term dream for some Native Americans: return bison on a scale rivaling herds that roamed the continent in numbers that shaped the landscape itself.

Chef Jessica Paemonekot, executive chef of Ketapanen Kitchen in Chicago, said she’s educating people on the many culinary contributions of indigenous communities on the foods people eat every day. She is a lifelong member of Wisconsin’s Menominee Tribe.

“We’re working with bison, we’re working with various berries like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, maple syrup. We’ve got corn, squash. We’ve got a corn soup going back there,” Paemonekot said. “Those are foods that people eat every day and don’t realize are indigenous.”

And here are two more tidbits about Thanksgiving’s culinary traditions, plus recipes for plant-based fare that you can try any time of year.