Thanksgiving History: What Indigenous Americans Can Teach Us About Sustainability
Here's what Indigenous Americans can teach us about sustainability. | Tony Anderson/ Getty Images

Thanksgiving might look a little different to normal this year, with fewer gathered around the table. But Thanksgiving is always a good time to show gratitude — even if you’re not able to spend it how you usually would.

It also happens to be the perfect time for a refresher on the holiday’s true origins. To that end, it’s important to acknowledge its painful backstory — and “decolonize” our understanding of Thanksgiving — before celebrating the holiday’s present-day sentiment of thankfulness.

At its best, Thanksgiving can be seen as a time to appreciate family, friends, and the act of gratitude itself, rather than a celebration of the first Pilgrims. Many Americans take Thanksgiving to spend a day with their loved ones, eat a large meal — frequently based around specific foods such as turkey, potatoes, and corn — or perhaps attend some sort of religious service. But, much like Columbus Day, many also consider Thanksgiving a reminder of the conquest, genocide, and continuing marginalization of Indigenous Peoples.

‘A Day of Remembrance’

Since the 1970s, Indigenous Americans have gathered in New England on Thanksgiving Day for a National Day of Mourning. The annual event honors both Indigenous ancestors and those still struggling for survival today in the face of institutionalized racial and cultural persecution. It takes place in Plymouth (the site of the first Pilgrim settlement) and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first protest.

The National Day of Mourning is sponsored by The United American Indians of New England (UAINE), who dispute the narrative of a mutually beneficial relationship between the Pilgrims and Indigenous Americans. They argue that the Pilgrims were colonizers who introduced sexism, racism, homophobia, jails, and the class system to the North American continent.

On the West Coast, “Unthanksgiving Day” sees similar protest and counter-celebrations call attention to the fabrication of the typical Thanksgiving story and its whitewashing of colonial history in the U.S. Many of the dominant narratives surrounding Thanksgiving tend to leave out the full Wampanoag thanksgiving story — and all that came before.

Listening to Indigenous voices and learning about, celebrating, and supporting Native People is an essential part of decolonizing our view of Thanksgiving. But it is also in these conversations that we learn more about the origins of sustainable food in the U.S.

November, which is both National Native American Heritage Month and World Vegan Month, is the perfect time to give thanks to the first Americans — and learn from traditional and modern Indigenous sustainability lessons, food systems, and environmentalism.

The First Environmentalists

While the cultures and geographic locations of Indigenous Americans varied greatly, there were — and are — common threads that underpin people’s treatment of the environment. One of these is the acknowledgment of the impact all human lives have on the natural ecosystem. In addition to the interconnectedness of each ecosystem’s intersecting parts.

According to a study published by Science Daily earlier this year, the vast majority of people did not make major changes to their surrounding landscape prior to European colonization.

Study author and archeologist Elizabeth Chilton says: “Records suggest that native peoples were not modifying their immediate environments to a great degree.” Rather, she notes, “The widespread and intensive deforestation and agriculture brought by Europeans in the 17th century was in clear contrast to what had come before.

This contradicts the previously dominant belief that Indigenous Americans actively managed landscapes in a significant way. The research adds that although people lived in the New England area for at least 14,000 years prior to colonization, their ecological footprint was practically invisible.

Following the arrival of Europeans, the large-scale cutting and burning of forests is visible in the ecological record of the New England region. This environmental conquest is entirely in keeping with the broader mindset of colonization, which in itself is the practice of domination.

The Ecological Imperialism theory, first coined by professor and academic Alfred W. Crosby hypothesizes that Europeans’ destruction of native wildlife and plants through disease, animals, and physical destruction, contributed to the “success” of European colonization — at the indigenous peoples’ considerable expense.

Indigenous Protection

Today, Western environmentalists continue to frequently — if inadvertently — harm natural ecosystems in an effort to repair the damage that began with colonization. But many people are also working to bring back traditional earth and resource management systems to repair said environmental damage. Frequently, these systems were created and practiced by Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and around the world.

While Indigenous Peoples now make up less than 5 percent of the total population, they protect more than 80 percent of global biodiversity. In Australia, the Indigenous Ranger Program combines traditional knowledge with conservation training to protect endangered species, mitigate bushfire risk, and prevent illegal fishing activities.

The Indigenous Leadership (ILI) Initiative — a pan-Canadian network of indigenous leaders — actively promotes First Nations-led conservation and sustainable development efforts.

“The nations have a tendency to make really strong decisions on their land base,” ILI director Valérie Courtois told LIVEKINDLY. “Because as indigenous peoples, our culture, identity, our place in the world is rooted in our responsibility to those lands and waters.”

Modern and Traditional Land Management

A level of care and respect for the complexity and diversity of the surrounding ecosystems is key in the majority of traditional land management. The ILI, in particular, combines more than 10,000 years of Indigenous knowledge with modern forestry and land management systems. Reconciling different techniques to maximize their positive impact on the earth.

“Indigenous sciences tend to focus on the relationship between things, and how they interact,” added Courtois. “And so there’s a real complementarity to both of those approaches, and guardians really play that reconciliation role on a daily basis of really making the most of that knowledge.”

“When indigenous peoples hold the pen, in determining land use on their territories, they have a tendency of protecting over 60 percent of those landscapes,” said Courtois. This protection has significance, not just for local, regional, and national communities, but for the entire world. The boreal forest is a significant area in the global fight against climate change.

Self-restraint and personal accountability, in general, promote healthier relationships between people, flora, and fauna. This also includes sustainable foraging, fishing, and hunting — the latter of which has been repeatedly treated with prejudice and misunderstanding by white environmentalists, particularly amongst the vegan community.

Reclaiming North American Cuisine

The first farmers in the U.S., Indigenous Americans were also proficient in a variety of sustainable agricultural practices. The Wampanoag — whose knowledge kept the Pilgrims alive for their first year on the continent — are well known for their organic farming methods, while the Hopi specialize in the dryland farming of produce such as squash, beans, and corn.

Both permaculture and regenerative agriculture are present throughout traditional indigenous farming practices. Indigenous Americans used — and use — farming techniques that incorporate a whole-systems approach to the crops, land, and the entire ecosystem.

Sean Sherman — founder of Sioux Chef and a James Beard Award-winning cook and author — has spoken previously about the European colonists’ war on Indigenous food. Crops were burned, food stores destroyed, and bison killed in order to further subdue Native Peoples.

“Up until the 1800s for Indigenous Peoples, they didn’t have to pay for food. Because they took care of their own food, right. And if you can control your own food, you can control your destiny,” said Sherman in a video shared by The Sioux Chef.

‘We Don’t Use Any Colonized Ingredients’

The colonization of the U.S. also impacted essential generational knowledge pertaining to farming, hunting, practical skills, and culture. This is partly why modern indigenous food education on traditional farming, ingredients, and dishes, is so essential today.

Through its Minneapolis-based nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS), The Sioux Chef is promoting indigenous foodways education and facilitating indigenous food access in order to create a healthy, sustainable future for Native Americans. This education supports the re-identification, reclamation, and revitalization of North American cuisine and culture for all Indigenous Peoples in the U.S.

In a statement sent to LIVEKINDLY, NāTIFS founder and Executive Director Dana Thompson said: “We imagine a new North American food system that generates wealth and improves health in Native communities through food-related enterprises.”

“We focus on modern uses of traditional, Indigenous foods and ingredients. We don’t use any colonized ingredients, including cane sugar, white flour, dairy products,” she added. NāTIFS also avoids using beef, pork, and chicken.

“Indigenous food is medicine, and provides healthful benefits,” said Thompson. “A mindful connection to our ancestral foods nourishes not only our bodies, but our souls.”

Decolonizing Thanksgiving Dinner

Learning about, cooking, and consuming pre-colonial foods is one step towards fully decolonizing your Thanksgiving celebration. Your meal might include the three main agricultural crops favored by North American Indigenous groups: winter squash, climbing beans, and maize. Also known as the Three Sisters, these crops benefit from each other when grown together using a traditional companion-planting technique.

In an interview with VICE, chef Nephi Craig — a half-Navajo member of the White Mountain Apache tribe of Whiteriver, Arizona — said that a decolonized Thanksgiving meal may look different for each individual. “It all depends on the person,” explained Craig. “It could be a plant-based meal, either completely vegan or with a little bit of meat.” 

Craig specifically highlights the Three Sisters, included in equal parts, as a simple meal with millions of different combinations. “This is the gateway dish to decolonizing your diet,” he said, “and it will add the history of Native Americans to any Thanksgiving spread.

Thompson suggested that those looking to decolonize their diets this Thanksgiving begin with research on the native tribes in your region. This Native Land Map can help discover the Indigenous history of your area. Then, identify the colonized dishes and ingredients in your repertoire and swap them to create a decolonized version instead.

“You can’t go wrong by utilizing locally grown vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, and root vegetables,” she said. “Try seasoning your vegetables with sumac. Pure maple syrup is a fantastic sweetener for everything from a root veg mash to sunflower seed cookies.”

Sustainable Stewardship

Recognizing Indigenous, holistic, and integrated stewardship supports sustainability efforts, environmental protection, and the autonomy and empowerment of Native Peoples.

Indigenous food systems are sustainable and benefit humans, animals, and the earth. They utilize permaculture, heirloom plants, and focus on locally grown, naturally available foods. By decolonizing your Thanksgiving celebration, you can also increase its sustainability.

“An Indigenous food system is in many ways opposite of a colonized, industrial food system,” explained Thompson. “We also believe in thanking the earth for her gifts whenever we harvest, and part of that respect and appreciation includes not letting anything go to waste.”

Sustainable stewardship and food production — rooted in thousands of years of Native American culture — is something we can all acknowledge, learn about, and be thankful for. Not just at Thanksgiving, but every time we sit down for a meal.