Thanksgiving is a complicated time for Taelor Barton.
The Cherokee chef from Tulsa, Oklahoma, meets up with family to share a holiday meal, but the story of how the US has treated Native Americans hangs heavy in the air. While the traditional Thanksgiving narrative has been one of friendship and alliance between the Wampanoag and the Plymouth colonists, Barton sees the holiday as a reminder of all that the Native Americans endured with the arrival of the Europeans.
Among other things, knowledge about traditional foods and their cultivation, production and preparation was lost.
Now that Barton has a platform as a chef and cultural food enthusiast, she views Thanksgiving as an opportunity to call attention not only to the indigenous ingredients that appear in the standard Christmas diet, but also to other seasonal indigenous foods that are overlooked in other words, what she thinks about throughout the year.
“I want to encourage people to become more familiar with the things that grow naturally around us,” Barton, who is also a restaurant manager and executive chef at The Vault in Tulsa, told CNN.
Rejecting the myth of Thanksgiving, Barton and other Native American chefs and foodists are embracing the holiday on their own terms—instead, it’s about reviving ingredients and foods native to North America.
Growing up Cherokee, Barton didn’t think much about Cherokee food. It was just a part of her.
Although Barton has cooked for her family since childhood, it wasn’t until her grandmother passed away in 2016 that she began to deepen her understanding of her culture’s dishes and traditions. If she didn’t start practicing what she had learned, she realized that this knowledge could be lost.
This included making kanachi, a hickory nut mash traditionally found among tribes in the Southeast. Hickory trees are valued today primarily for the wood they provide, but Cherokee people have long eaten the nuts of certain species, which Barton describes as “earthy, woody, maple, cinnamon, kind of a pecan flavor.”
“This is their motherland,” she said, referring to hickory trees. “So we’ve basically been using this resource forever.”
To make kanuchi, Barton uses the same techniques her grandmother once used, using a mortar made from a tree stump and a wooden pestle. She now prepares it for potlucks and intimate gatherings and has since been known in her community for her knowledge of the dish, which is remarkable considering such recipes are not easy to look up.
Carrying on the culinary traditions of her ancestors, Barton is part of a larger movement.
She is a member of I-Collective, a group of indigenous cooks, activists, herbalists and knowledge keepers dedicated to promoting indigenous ingredients and defending indigenous food sovereignty. Other in recent years Members of I-Collective have hosted pop-up Thanksgiving dinners aimed at revising American understanding of the holiday and celebrating First Nations resilience and food traditions. What started with a few intimate dinners in New York has grown into events across the US that stretch beyond Thanksgiving.
I-Collective has grown into a sprawling network whose members reflect the diversity of the continent’s indigenous peoples. They are linked by a shared commitment to improving and restoring native food systems.
These principles inform much of Hillel Echo-Hawk’s work.
Although Echo-Hawk is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, she was raised in rural Alaska alongside an Athabaskan family, which she says has assimilated her family into her culture. Access to grocery stores was limited, and she learned to hunt and fish, eating moose, muskrat, squirrel, and salmon. As she moved away, 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 chef and founded the catering business Birch Basket, which emphasizes pre-colonization ingredients and seeks to tell stories of people and land through each plate. Thanksgiving as a holiday isn’t particularly important to her, but she does care deeply about educating others about indigenous foods and diets.
“Although I think it’s a very stupid holiday, if I can show people that we’re still alive, we’re not just made of corn and squash and beans, then I will do absolutely anything to improve my culture.” ‘ she said.
Sean Sherman had a fairly typical Thanksgiving spread growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes.
The Oglala Lakota chef has fond memories of that time, but as he got older, his attitude towards the holiday changed. What he learned in school was a false narrative that glorified colonialism, he said, and not something to be celebrated.
At the same time, Sherman was working in restaurants and struggling with the lack of local food in his own life and in the wider society. In 2014, he founded food education and catering company The Sioux Chef to address the problem.
Still, Sherman loves to cook for loved ones and get together for a big meal, so he hasn’t given up Thanksgiving entirely. He simply encourages people to find out what’s growing around them and incorporate it into their cooking — his own Thanksgiving dinner this year will likely include rabbit, heirloom squash and corn.
“I think that people should always understand the land that they are on — the indigenous communities around them and the struggles that they have had to go through and are still going through in many scenarios,” said Sherman, who is also behind the indigenous restaurant Owamni is in Minneapolis.
Many of these struggles go hand-in-hand with the disruption of food systems.
Federal policies that removed tribes from their ancestral lands also separated them from centuries-old methods of hunting, farming, and harvesting. And during the 19th century, the US Army carried out a mass slaughter of bison to wipe out the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.
Under some treaties the U.S. made with Native American peoples, the federal government agreed to compensate tribes for the loss of their food sources with rations that tended to be unhealthy and loaded with preservatives. Such policies contributed to disproportionate rates of diabetes and obesity in Native American communities, as well as high rates of poverty and food insecurity that persist to this day.
Dana Thompson, who co-founded the nonprofit organization North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems with Sherman, sees restoring traditional diets 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 communities of people understand where their food comes from, have control over where their food comes from, and can define their own food systems, rather than just eating what an outside dominant party gives them,” said Thompson, who identifies as a direct descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes.
One doesn’t have to look 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 ranching has made the birds abundant in a way that now feels alien.
Whenever she can, Barton makes a point of sourcing ingredients locally, whether it’s through farmers’ markets, tribal producers, gifts, or foraging. Ultimately, she said, the food sovereignty movement seeks to transform modern relations with the land and allow tribes to regain control of their own food production and distribution.
“The power to feed our people is tantamount to our ability to govern ourselves,” she added.
Barton is excited to shine a spotlight on local cuisine and food traditions during Thanksgiving. But although she works in the restaurant industry, she’s wary of preparing certain local foods for clients who may not understand their importance — she’s not interested in providing a “local experience” for profit.
Some Cherokee dishes are sacred and personal to Barton, and for now, she keeps them close.
However, she will be spending Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s house in east Oklahoma. There she collects black walnuts from trees her great-grandfather planted about a century ago – these walnuts 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: kanachi.
And she will continue to urge people to connect with the abundance around them — not just on Thanksgiving, but throughout the year.
“There’s so much more to learn,” she said. “This is a good time to learn it, but we should also think about it in all our seasons.”