Brockman: Examine Indigenous food for greater cultural awareness on Thanksgiving


Jacob Le, Photographer

A vendor at the farmers’ market, Sam from Brandywine Fisheries, weighing salmon on Oct. 9. Salmon is integral to Indigenous cuisine in the Pacific Northwest.

Luke Brockman, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinion of The Daily Barometer. This column reflects the personal opinions of the writer.

Curiosity can often lead to knowledge and fulfilment, and examining the food we eat and the message of Thanksgiving can give us a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures.

Thanksgiving is usually experienced as a coming together to feast and enjoy the company of the people in your life. But it should also be a time to recognize the messages of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to learn about and celebrate the culture of Indigenous peoples, who have persisted through a rough history.

My initial interest in food as art began to take on new boundaries, in part, when years ago I somehow grew tired of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. I started thinking creatively about what food I could possibly cook in place of green bean casserole and mashed potatoes.

Changing up the traditional feast naturally went hand-in-hand with the fact that the Thanksgiving story we think we know is untrue—the one about Pilgrims peacefully sharing a meal with an Indigenous tribe. Thus, switching up the Thanksgiving feast shifted focus this year on how to pay conscious homage to Indigenous Americans through cooking native foods.

One unbeatable way to incorporate native food into a Thanksgiving meal is by cooking salmon. No matter how you do it—although I recommend just pan-frying it skin-side down in a little butter, a little oil, salt, pepper and some lemon juice—the important thing is to recognize that salmon, mainly smoked and preserved, was the most important part of the rich and diverse diet of many Pacific Northwest tribal nations, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Comission.

Squash, corn and beans are known as the three sisters, and were staple foods for Indigenous populations from North America. Cooking with these foods is a good place to start thinking about the history of Thanksgiving food.

In my quest to channel respect for Indigenous culture through food, I discovered pretty quickly that food creativity was really just the first step—a way to begin learning about and being mindful of Indigenous culture and history.

This year, Oct. 11 marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a holiday that began as a protest of Columbus Day.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an American holiday that celebrates the resilience of Indigenous American, Alaskan and Hawaiian peoples. It asks us not to remember the colonization of the Americas marked by Christopher Columbus, but to challenge the traditional narrative and to think about the real ramifications of our colonial past. Importantly, it calls for us to recognize the contributions Indigenous peoples have given to society and the struggles Indigenous Peoples continue to face because of a history of forced assimilation and repression of their cultures and perspectives.

David G. Lewis, assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies at Oregon State University, said he’s been pushing for the teaching of Indigenous histories in classrooms of all ages and manages a website called the Quartux Journal, which documents critical Indigenous anthropology.

“Much of what people think they know about Thanksgiving is just a bunch of stereotypes and rewritten history—probably rewritten for hundreds of years at least—and it doesn’t respect the experiences of native people at all,” Lewis said.

According to Lewis, even though people are aware of Thanksgiving’s history, it’s still a popular holiday that many celebrate.

“There really hasn’t been a push for people to learn more about native peoples and their history, and part of this is that much of it has not been made available,” Lewis said.

If you grew up in America, it’s more than likely that you don’t even have to take his word for it: Native American history and perspectives are almost entirely left out of what we’re taught about our country—not to mention women’s perspectives and those of other Indigenous groups—and that’s unacceptable.

I found what Lewis said about the lack of access to Indigenous perspectives to be true in my quest to cook with native foods. Much of the dietary staples that existed for millenia in Pacific Northwest tribal nations are now just as inaccessible to us. What were once abundant sources of food were either overharvested or became pushed out and replaced after colonial settlers learned to implement their food upon the land.

Owner of Goodfoot Farm in Corvallis, Ore. Beth Hoinacki discussed her perspective as a farmer on food, colonial settler history and what options I had for cooking with native foods.

“I’m cognizant of the fact that the land I farm on and grow food to sell was land that was stolen from Native people,” Hoinacki said. “There’s very little available to us in terms of Indigenous foods, certainly for our region… unless you’re talking about a fish[-based] diet, but you’re talking about different roots, tubers and fruits that people aren’t cultivating.”

What we’re left with is this challenging yet enriching opportunity to seek out the Indigenous histories and knowledge that exists and to learn about Indigenous perspectives, holding them up against what we think we know about our culture and history.

OSU faculty member Luhui Whitebear co-authored an excellent article about decolonizing Thanksgiving that can serve as a good place to start learning more about Indigenous peoples.

According to Lewis, who is himself Santiam, Takelma, Molalla, Chinook and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, many people will initially ask Native people for advice on what they can do, how they can get involved and what they’re supposed to be doing.

“It’s fine to do that,” Lewis said. “But it’s really incumbent upon people to begin learning on their own, begin to ask the questions and move with it into a place of understanding… and I think that notion of responsibility is important to many of us.”

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