Alihelisdi Iga*

AROUND THIS TIME OF YEAR ON TWITTER (MAY IT REST IN PEACE), you see lots of us historians preparing to ruin Thanksgiving en masse. These folks are fanning out far and wide to dinners where no one wants to hear about Indian massacres and syphilis. Can you believe? It turns out that some people would just like to eat their turkey, stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce (the only pop of color in an otherwise monochromatic meal) and maybe watch a little football. (Of course the NFL is its own can of worms…). And these ruiners of all things light and breezy? Well, they might say something like, Did you know there are only TWO actual primary sources upon which we base this whole holiday tradition?! I, myself, only just learned that the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit (see photo above), was basically the guest of honor at the original shindig. In fact, research shows that this whole event was much more like a catered tête-à-tête than a family get together. Makes sense to me.

I remember as a kid I wanted us to go around our small family table of four — plus maybe an errant graduate student or two — and have people say what they were thankful for. Well, you’d have thought I’d asked my family to strip naked and dance. I’ve always been a sap, and then once I learned about our country’s actual history (not the one purported to be the full story in those ratty textbooks we had in school) I was in my feelings all the more. Only I was mad, as well as sad. What the – ?! So my ancestors (on my mother’s side; my father’s side was secretly practicing their Jewish religion and basically keeping their heads down) rolled up onto the shores of New England and did a land grab as if there were no other humans already living there? It was urban renewal, old-school style. I have since felt funny — as many do — about this Thanksgiving holiday.

Now, once I became a vegetarian… I was never especially radical about my vegetarian-ess, but I thought it odd that some people (my kids’ friends’ parents, for example) considered it outrageous that we did not include a crispy, dead bird in the middle of our Thanksgiving table. Like somehow the holiday wouldn’t take or something. Anyone who knows me knows this kind if reaction only stoked my contrariness. I made sure to have a most lavish pescatarian dinner (because Kosher — another story). Flounder Florentine with Pistachios was my specialty. I even wrote a children’s book (self-published on my Epson home copier) that I read at my kids’ pre-school each year. Fishy Turkey Day, it was called. I’m still not sure if my kids thought it was actually cool that mommy was coming in to school and reading her handmade book. It may have been totally embarrassing and they were just kind of polite about it.

Anyway, that all ended when I started eating meat again. Now sometimes my mother would host the Thanksgiving meal, and she would lay out a most beautiful table, that was for sure. But mom liked to experiment, never quite content with how things were as initially presented. (This was actually a personality trait that I think got in the way of her living her best life). So, out would come a lovely main meat course, and perhaps some type of potatoes, and a vegetable. We had been making what we called Aunt Flora’s Broccoli Casserole since forever. We thought it was kitschy, what with Velveeta cheese and Ritz crackers as the main ingredients. It was only decades later that I realized that Aunt Flora’s recipe was literally on the side of the Velveeta cheese box.

Adding to Mom’s feast, my son would often make the cranberry sauce and my daughter usually had a hand in dessert. But there would always be that one outlier dish, the Experiment. Mom would kind of laugh as she brought it out. “I’m trying something new,” she might say, “but the recipe called for raisins and all I had were capers…” Sometimes it was good, but most of the time not so much. My polite kids (man, come to think of it Thanksgiving must have been a tough time for them) would say they liked it — or at least try it and not spit it out. “Interesting” was a word we often used on those occasions.

Well, what I started to say is that Thanksgiving is a pretty complicated holiday. We are supposedly celebrating fellowship with the indigenous peoples of this land — the Tongva where I am now, and the Chumash where I’ll be spending Thanksgiving, for example. But it’s kinda like celebrating an abundant cotton harvest on the plantation and telling a magical tale of how enslaved people “helped” us reap the benefits. Smithsonian Magazine has a great article from 2020 that features a bit of history, lots of cool hyperlinks, and some original recipes from Native chefs. It’s worth a read for those interested in digging a little deeper into this fraught occasion.

The fact is, most people who I know are thankful for so many things on the regular, they live a life of gratitude. And Thanksgiving, if simply a tradition of seeking out family and friends and then cooking together, is a fabulous idea. But I wouldn’t be the villainous historian that I am (you should see me bursting bubbles in the classroom) if I didn’t simply ask that folks look for a moment into their own land’s indigenous origins. I really like how so many of the activist/advocacy groups I participate in begin events with acknowledgment of whose land they are speaking from. So maybe that could be a little something added to the dinner — if you don’t do such a thing already. And, as many also do already, donations to food pantries — now and throughout the year — is a great move.

Anyway, I think that’s enough from the dark side for now. Happy Day of Giving Thanks to all, and to all a good feast. Here’s a Commanche-style Corn recipe, in the native language (from Smithsonian article).

Numu Atakwasʉ Kuʔinarʉ

Wahatʉ nakooʔipʉ̠ha nʉmʉ kutsu taʔoo
Sʉmʉ moʔobekatʉ kʉʉka (ma hʉnʉkooʔi)
Wahatʉ nakooʔipʉ̠ha kukʉmepʉ̠
Paa (tʉtsituka tʉbinaawekiti pawʉ̠saʔnai)
Paaki saawhi tuakupa ma noyaikʉ̠.

Kukʉmepʉ̠ tsa yʉʔyʉkaruʔi.

Subetʉ ma.

*Happy Thanksgiving in Cherokee.

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