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.
Now that Barton has a platform as a chef and a cultural food enthusiast, she treats Thanksgiving as an opportunity not only to draw attention to the Indigenous ingredients that show up in the standard holiday fare, but also other seasonal Native foods that have been overlooked – in other words, what she thinks about all year round.
“I want to encourage people to become acquainted with the stuff that grows naturally around us,” Barton, who is also restaurant manager and executive chef at The Vault in Tulsa, told CNN.
As they reject the myth of Thanksgiving, Barton and other Native American chefs and culinarians are engaging with the holiday on their own terms – making it instead about revitalizing ingredients and foodways indigenous to North America.
Chefs and cooks revive ancestral traditions
Growing up Cherokee, Barton didn’t think much about Cherokee food. It was just a part of who she was.
Though Barton had been cooking for her family since she was a girl, it wasn’t until her grandmother died in 2016 that she began deepening her understanding of the dishes and traditions of her culture. If she didn’t start practicing what she had learned, she realized, that knowledge might be lost.
That included making kanuchi, a hickory nut porridge traditional to tribes in the southeast. Hickory trees today are valued primarily for the wood that they provide, but Cherokee people have long eaten the nuts from certain species, which Barton describes as having an “earthy, woody, maple, cinnamony, kind of pecan flavor.”
“This is their motherland,” she said, referring to hickory trees. “So we’re basically using this resource from time immemorial.”
To make kanuchi, Barton employs the same techniques that her grandmother once did, using a mortar fashioned from a tree stump and a pestle made of wood. She now prepares it for potlucks and intimate gatherings, and has since become known in her community for her knowledge of the dish, which is noteworthy given that such recipes can’t be easily looked up.
In carrying forward the culinary traditions of her ancestors, Barton is part of a larger movement.
She’s a member of I-Collective, a group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists and knowledge keepers dedicated to promoting Native ingredients and championing Indigenous food sovereignty. In past years, other members of I-Collective have hosted pop-up Thanksgiving dinners aimed at revising the American understanding of the holiday and celebrating Indigenous resilience and food traditions. What started as a few intimate dinners in New York expanded to events across the US that go beyond Thanksgiving.
I-Collective has grown into a sprawling network whose members reflect the diversity of the continent’s Indigenous peoples. They’re bound together by a shared commitment to elevating and restoring Native food systems.
Those principles inform much of the work that Hillel Echo-Hawk does.
Though Echo-Hawk is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, she grew up in rural Alaska next to an Athabaskan family that she says adopted her family into their culture. Grocery store access was limited, and she learned to hunt and fish, eating moose, muskrat, squirrel and salmon. When she moved away, she realized how little people knew about Native food, which can vary widely from region to region, tribe to tribe.
Echo-Hawk eventually became a cook and started the catering company Birch Basket, which highlights pre-colonization ingredients and seeks to tell stories of people and land through each plate. She doesn’t particularly care for Thanksgiving as a holiday, but she does feel strongly about educating others about Indigenous food and foodways.
“While I do think it’s a very dumb holiday, if I can show people that yes, we are still alive, we’re not just corn, squash and beans, then I will absolutely do whatever I can to uplift my culture,” she said.
Communities reclaim control of food systems
Sean Sherman experienced a pretty typical Thanksgiving spread growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota: Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes.
The Oglala Lakota chef has warm memories of that time, but as he got older, his outlook on the holiday shifted. What he had learned in school was a false narrative that glorified colonialism, he said, and not something that ought to 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 broader society. In 2014, he founded the food education and catering company The Sioux Chef to help address the issue.
Still, Sherman enjoys cooking for loved ones and gathering for a big meal, so he hasn’t given up on Thanksgiving entirely. He simply encourages people to identify what’s growing around them and incorporate that into their cooking – his own Thanksgiving dinner this year will likely feature rabbit, heirloom squash and corn.
“I think that people should always understand the land that they’re on – understand the Indigenous communities around them and struggles that they had to go through and still go through in many scenarios,” said Sherman, who is also behind the Indigenous restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis.
Many of those struggles go hand in hand with the disruption of food systems.
Federal policies that removed tribes from their ancestral lands also severed them from centuries-old ways of hunting, growing and harvesting. And during the 19th century, the US Army carried out a mass slaughter of bison in an effort to wipe out the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.
Under some treaties that the US made with tribal nations, the federal government agreed to compensate tribes for the loss of their food sources through rations, which tended to be unhealthy and laden 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 today.
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.
“Sovereignty means that communities of people have an understanding of where their food comes from, have control over where their food comes from, and can define their own food systems instead of just eating whatever an outside dominant party gives them,” said Thompson, who identifies as a lineal descendant of the Wahpeton-Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes.
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.
When she can, Barton makes it a point to source ingredients locally, whether through farmers markets, tribal producers, gifts or foraging. Ultimately, she said, the food sovereignty movement seeks to transform modern relationships with the land and allow tribes control over their own food production and distribution again.
“The power to feed our people is tantamount to our ability to govern ourselves,” she added.
The work continues beyond Thanksgiving
Barton is happy to shine a spotlight on Native cuisines and food traditions during Thanksgiving. But though she works in the restaurant industry, she’s wary of making certain Native foods for customers who might not understand their significance – she’s not interested in providing a “Native experience” for profit.
Some Cherokee dishes are sacred and personal to Barton, and for now, she’s keeping them close.
She will, however, be spending Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s house in eastern Oklahoma. There she’ll collect black walnuts from trees that her great-grandfather planted around a century ago – those walnuts might be eaten as is, baked into a pie or used as a filling for stuffed acorn squash. She’ll also be making her signature dish: Kanuchi.
And she’ll continue to urge people to connect with the bounty around them – not just at Thanksgiving, but all year round.
“There’s so much more to learn,” she said. “This is a good time to learn it, but we should also be thinking about it through all of our seasons.”