As much as I enjoy strolling through the Thanksgiving-themed aisles of craft stores in the fall -- mostly because I’m excited about the official arrival of my pumpkin- and tree-scented candle season -- I stop short when I’m confronted by crafts depicting Pilgrims and Indigenous people holding hands. I find the fable of Pilgrims entering tribal lands, welcomed by food and fellowship, and living happily ever after, cringe-worthy. Having grown up on a reservation in Montana from ages 10 to 21, this isn’t exactly the version of events my family and I celebrate. Instead, we celebrate our Northern Cheyenne culture, taking back the “pilgrims and Indians” narrative. We make Thanksgiving our own.
Growing up, Thanksgiving centered around family gatherings and preparations for the winter holidays. My hometown celebrates culture and community by gathering around Indigenous food. Traditional dishes are prepared and emphasis is put on making sure everyone eats. In the Northern Cheyenne culture, elders are sacred and are often called first to receive meals. Doors to almost any event on my reservation are open to everyone. Growing up, I recall my family welcoming people without homes and struggling with alcohol and drug addiction to dine with us during feasts.
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Through recipes passed from generation to generation, our cultural food has remained alive. Frybread is a staple in my tribe and simple to make. There are different styles and variations of the beloved fried delicacy, but it’s existence is necessary for many Natives. Fry bread was created by Indigenous women to feed starving children during harsh conditions imposed by the United States government. Almost every family has their own recipe. Tribes have playful jokes amongst each other over who makes the best fry bread. In my family, it’s eaten at almost every special occasion.
Because berries have long been available to ancestral tribal members, they’re used in recipes that continue to grace Indigenous tables today. My memories of Native celebrations include delicious berry pudding that I would dip fry bread into. For this, just about any berry is used among different indigenous groups. My own tribe has traditionally used chokecherries (Prunus virginiana if you want to get non-layman) gathered from the plentiful trees located on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Plums and blueberries are also a popular choice. Throw in some sugar and it’s a party.
My literal meat and potatoes favorite is dry meat soup. Through a process perfected over centuries of necessity, Indigenous women prepare deer meat jerky. The process of drying meat keeps it preserved, so jerky provided the protein necessary for traveling and hunting. Today, the legacy continues within the Northern Cheyenne community. Hunters bring back their spoils and the meat is dried for soup with potatoes, making for a delicious meal. It’s typically cooked simply with lard or pork fat and seasoned with salt and pepper. It takes a full set of teeth to eat, because the jerky can be a little tough. I’ve come across the sacrilegious people who don’t like the soup for this reason.
In these ways, celebrating togetherness and food has become vital to the survival of our culture. Imagine what it’s like to be Indigenous and grow up seeing images of “red face” versions of your people welcoming Pilgrims who came to “civilize” us. Imagine children across the country still staging plays featuring caricatures of Native Americans, as if we’re all one monolithic people. This whitewashed version of history tends to erase the disastrous treatment Indigenous people endured at the hands of settlers from Europe--mass genocide and colonialism.
Rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by textbooks written by colonizers, Indigenous communities like my own in the Northern Cheyenne reservation chose to celebrate our persistence in the face of our difficult history. We’re taught our actual history from the time we enter school, allowing us to celebrate the unique history my community shares. Having this knowledge allows Northern Cheyenne people to have pride in our culture.
We’ve taken back the narrative of Thanksgiving, but we haven’t forgotten the heart. Outsiders are welcome to celebrate with us, and many enjoy our parades and good food. Since many non-Natives work on my reservation, they’ve always been embraced by the community. And they show great respect for our culture. Many participate in our community events and learn our history in a respectful, inquisitive manner. By welcoming non-Natives who center Indigenous rights and legacies, there’s a healing effect that replaces “pilgrims and Indians” with allyship and support. This is how I remember Thanksgiving on my reservation.
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