Many Native Americans observe Thanksgiving. They just don’t celebrate it. It’s often a time for somber reflection on a sorrowful history, and always a time to honor ancestors.
But food is important, too, as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman discovered in a kitchen in Kent.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Dec. 2, 2015
Georgi Hudson Smith stirs a pot of buffalo stew. She throws in parsnips, potatoes, and carrots, for a thick mixture that goes well with the dense, round white bread she baked. It’s called bannock and you can bake it in an oven or on a stone placed directly on a campfire.
“It was brought over by the French actually. You can put it in a baggie and take it with you when you were trapping or going ricing to harvest the wild rice.”
Georgi bakes bread and cooks up 30 pounds of buffalo stew every year for the Native American Indian Center’s Winter Gathering.
Fry bread too
While the stew simmers Renee Concha Saastamoinen makes fry bread, working the dough very gently. “The best ones that I’ve seen that do fry bread like this are the Navahos. They’re really good. Yeah.”
She works the dough quickly and gently.
“And swish it around, and I’m just throwing it together. I’m just using my fingertips. I’m going to add some more water.”
Renee goes by another name.
“My name is Pumpkin. It was given to me by my grandmother on my birth. I am from the Taos Pueblo, Jemez, Laguna, and Acoma tribes in the southwest region of New Mexico.”
Georgi’s roots are in North Carolina. She’s of Cherokee and Ojibwa heritage.
“My Indian name is Ajuwah Kwayabik Washhkaysheo Didchadakway.”
The last name means “deer woman, spiritual warrior.” Her first name is harder to translate.
“It means if you look up into the sky, the blue sky, there are two white clouds, and a golden eagle flies straight through.”
Pumpkin just calls her Georgi.
“We’ve known each other for a while. And we’ve done a lot of cooking together. Yeah.”
Mostly they cook for feasts. Pumpkin says there are plenty of them all year round.
“We have a feast day to celebrate the first planting. We have feast days to celebrate the harvest, but there’s feast days in between to celebrate the sun, the sky, the earth, the plants.”
Giving thanks, she says, is an everyday thing.
“The moment we wake up we say ‘hello’ to the earth and ‘thank you.’”
But Thanksgiving Day itself, rather than a time for celebration, was a time of mourning.
“We always honored our ancestors. We always had what we called a spirit bowl, and grandfather always reminded us that this goes to the people who died at the hands of our oppressors.”
Spirit bowls or spirit plates where Georgi’s people are from in North Carolina include a few plugs of ceremonial tobacco.
“And we put that tobacco on that plate. And there’s a piece of food off every dish that’s brought.”
In Pumpkin’s Taos Pueblo tribe, at least one of the dishes would be venison.
“Sometimes my grandmother would make a deer stew where she’d put like these blue corn dumplings in them which were awesome. My father would hunt for us because we were a big family. He would hunt and he would bring us rabbit, and so we’d bake rabbit in the fireplaces that we had.”
Their own foods
Growing up in New Mexico, stuffing, cranberry relish, and green bean casseroles were not on Pumpkin’s Thanksgiving table.
“The foods we ate were our own foods. We baked our breads. Grandfather killed wild turkey, which is very skinny by the way.”
For Thanksgiving Georgi makes a dessert with wild blueberries and a special rice grown on the Ojibwa reserve in North Carolina.
“A little bit nuttier in texture and taste. We call it menomen. It’s a staple. So there would be wild rice menomen with blueberries. And blueberry is a medicine. And I made some for you today, actually.”
Food is medicine
At Thanksgiving and at every other feast Georgi remembers what her late uncle’s taught her.
“He used food to heal people. People would come to him for remedies for all different kinds of things, cancer was one of them. And I helped him. I learned how to make food for medicine.”
Pumpkin says she enjoys cooking for feasts, including Thanksgiving.
“But I wish that history books would be changed to reflect what I grew up with, which was the truth to us as native peoples.”
Nothing to celebrate
What Pumpkin read about New England Indians sitting down in the year 1637 for a friendly dinner with European pilgrims, never rang true.
“We would have conversations around our table, ‘Why should we celebrate it? It’s nothing to celebrate, really.”
Pumpkin’s father said that first Thanksgiving probably was nothing like the “pig-out” that’s typical today.
“When you’re reaching that point of wintertime you want to save. You want to eat a little bit and enjoy it, and then make it last. So my father always said, ‘Do you really think they wasted all that food on that one day?’”
Her father and especially her grandfather, an activist for Native American rights, would turn the Thanksgiving dinner table discussion into a history lesson.
“What the Spanish did to our culture, what the American government did to our culture. He didn’t mince words.”
Pumpkin wears a button with Cleveland Indians mascot Chief Wahoo’s face X’ed out, but she doesn’t call herself an activist.
“I’m just native. I’m American is what I am.”
Keeping touch with her heritage
Unlike Pumpkin, Georgi didn’t grow up on a reservation.
“Eighty to 90% of native people live off a reservation, or reservation system. We live in the cities. We’re around. We happen to live a little bit differently and think differently but we’re here.”
In Georgi’s parents’ time there were forced removals and adoptions. Her own father grew up in foster care and for a while lost touch with his Cherokee heritage.
“He was removed from his tribe. There was a whole generation of people like my father’s generation who were disconnected from their tribal culture. “
But her father was proud to be Cherokee and encouraged her to follow in his path.
“I spent a lot of time on the pow-wow trail, and celebrating feasts and thanksgivings, but it wasn’t the actual American Thanksgiving.”
Georgi’s Mother’s family was part Italian, part English.
“She represents that whole Caucasian or white part. So we growing up in Cleveland celebrated Thanksgiving.”
Thankful for sustenance
But the concept of giving thanks on just one day of the year conflicted with what her father taught her a feast should be.
“We were to be grateful for the giving of the food, the meat that lost its life to sustain us, and we were supposed to use every part of that meat. To me it means so much more that way.”
Georgi’s always been grateful for her heritage.
“It keeps me centered. It keeps me tethered to Mother Earth, and when I feel like I’m tethered to Mother Earth I feel like I have an identity.”
Good attitudes improve the food
Pumpkin feels the same way, but identifying with a history of oppression never stopped her family from observing Thanksgiving.
“It was kind of like we had to do it because the world stopped in America, so let’s go eat.”
The food will taste better, they say, if they put aside somber reflection and stay positive while they prepare the feast.
“You can’t be sad. You can’t be crying and making food. That’s not good. It’ll transfer the flavor and make people sad.”