Native Thanksgiving: History, distance from culture influence Cherokee foodways

BOUNTY OF THE FOREST: Gilliam Jackson grew up in a family of 11 children on the Qualla Boundary in the 1950s. He recalls that his family was very poor, but the food they ate was nutritious. In addition to the fresh game his father hunted, “we gathered food from the woods — berries, greens —  as well as farming. And that was what we ate,” he says.
BOUNTY OF THE FOREST: Gilliam Jackson grew up in a family of 11 children on the Qualla Boundary in the 1950s. He recalls that his family was very poor, but the food they ate was nutritious. In addition to the fresh game his father hunted, “we gathered food from the woods — berries, greens — as well as farming. And that was what we ate,” he says. Photo by Cindy Kunst

The story of the first Thanksgiving is etched into the United States’ national mythology. It goes something like this: In 1621, English colonists at Plymouth, Mass., were hungry and desperate. Sensing that the colonists were unacquainted with the nuances of a new environment, Wampanoag Indians generously offered provisions to the weary settlers. There was a great feast, and gratitude abounded.

But the whole story may not be quite as uplifting. While it may be true that the Wampanoag shared food with the colonists, it often goes unmentioned that American Indians endured a wrathful plague during this period, which colonists had unknowingly brought over from Europe.

As sociologist and historian James Loewen explains in his 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, “The plague helped cause the legendary warm reception Plymouth enjoyed in its first formative years from the Wampanoags. Massasoit needed to ally with the Pilgrims because the plague had so weakened his villages that he feared the Narragansetts to the west.”

So how do American Indians celebrate a holiday that was founded on the beginning of centuries of oppression and the attempted erasure of their culture?

Cara Forbes, an English major at UNC Asheville and the Heritage Month programming supervisor with the university’s Multicultural Affairs office, enrolled at age 17 as a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, having direct lineage from her maternal family. Before that, she was raised mainly in a predominantly white culture and was taught the classic Thanksgiving storyline. Her public school experience with the holiday, she says, involved “being in a classroom where children were dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians with the little feathers.”

What’s on the table?

Indeed, for many Cherokee families, Thanksgiving looks a lot like the holiday as typically practiced by nonnative folks. This includes a meal with common staples like turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and the like.

Gil Jackson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee who grew up in Cherokee during the 1950s, credits the adoption of these traditions largely to assimilation. “I mean we’ve been on the East Coast — we got assimilated real early. We also got taught, at least in the community that I grew up with, about Columbus; we got taught about the Pilgrims. You know, we just had a feast, and it was a brotherhood and all that kind of stuff. So for the longest time, that was my perception of what Thanksgiving was.”

WHAT’S FOR DINNER: For Cara Forbes, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Thanksgiving dinner can be anything from venison with her in-laws to leftovers at home with her husband. “Thanksgiving is whatever we want it to be,” she says. Photo by Cindy Kunst
WHAT’S FOR DINNER: For Cara Forbes, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Thanksgiving dinner can be anything from venison with her in-laws to leftovers at home with her husband. “Thanksgiving is whatever we want it to be,” she says. Photo by Cindy Kunst

But Cherokee Thanksgiving meals also vary richly in form, and can include traditional Cherokee foods. Brantly Junaluska, who grew up on the Qualla Boundary, recalls dishes his grandmother would make in her home.  “I know it’s not really a politically correct term, but in Cherokee they use the term ‘Indian,’ and they refer to each other as the Cherokee Indians, and so, they’re called ‘Indian dinners,’ and it would be bean bread and greens and different things,” she says. Because these meals required so much preparation, Indian dinners were usually reserved for special occasions like Thanksgiving and birthdays.

“We didn’t necessarily celebrate Thanksgiving every year,” she says. “I mean, we did get together and eat on the holiday, but it wasn’t about celebrating the holiday, you know; it was more just about getting together with family and eating.” In the Cherokee culture, she says, there is a “closeness you get when you eat together.”

Junaluska, who is also a UNC Asheville student and president of the university’s Native American Student Association, adds that she realizes there may be presumptions about how Native Americans regard Thanksgiving. “I feel like they expect us to have some sort of perspective, or they expect us to say certain things that [are] totally different than what we actually do,” she says. “I mean, we eat turkey and ham. We eat basically what everyone else does, and I think that’s due to the fact that the Cherokee people have been colonized for a long time. We do a lot of things pretty similarly to everyone else.”

Forbes, who identifies as an Urban Indian, says that for her family, Thanksgiving meals have had diverse manifestations throughout the years. “Normally, if I eat with my father-in-law on Thanksgiving, we’ll have deer meat — lots of deer meat,” she says. But last Thanksgiving, she adds, she and her husband ended up eating reheated Chinese takeout food. “So, I mean, Thanksgiving is whatever we want it to be.”

Beyond the Thanksgiving kitchen

Despite the self-defining nature of Thanksgiving for Forbes, Jackson and Junaluska, each circles back to the loss of Cherokee culture and traditions resulting from assimilation — and the importance of sanctifying and preserving Cherokee foodways — that goes beyond the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Junaluska recalls that when she was growing up, her dad loved to cook. “Maybe at least once a week we would have a big meal with several different things like bean bread and chestnut bread,” she says. “And, I know ramps are kind of a Southern thing in general, but that’s a big thing in Cherokee as well. And he would make bear meat, deer meat, when it was in season, of course — hunting season.”

Junaluska has pungent memories of the ramps in particular, which her father fried with eggs. “I know you can do other things with them, but I don’t like them personally — I can’t stand the smell,” she laughs. “You could tell: When we went to school, it was that time of year, you could smell it on people. And people would talk about it.”

(It’s true: ramps are infamously stinky. The wild green has even garnered its very own documentary, The King of Stink, and makes literary appearances, too, as in Virginia poet Jeff Mann’s “Ramps.”)

Changes on the Boundary

The preparation and consumption of wild edibles like ramps, along with foods prepared with fresh ingredients, stands in contrast to abundant fast food and loss of heritage. But how much of the Cherokees’ knowledge of the region’s wild foods is being preserved? Much of this knowledge, explains Jackson, lies within his and older generations — and it’s not being passed on.

“It has really changed now,” Jackson says. “You know, we have McDonald’s, we have Burger King — we have crap. And it’s so unhealthy.” According to Public Health & Human Services for the Cherokee Communities in Western North Carolina, the prevalence rate of Type 2 diabetes among Cherokee men and women combined is 23.8 percent, which is more than three times the combined rate for men and women from all other racial and ethnic groups in the state.

This statistic includes Forbes’ own grandmother and Junaluska’s father. “And so, I don’t know if you can call it an epidemic,” says Forbes, “But it’s pretty concerning.”

Not only are fast-food establishments rampant on the Qualla Boundary, but there is little access to fresh, nutritious food. A Food Lion is the only grocery store in town, which makes it immensely challenging for residents to follow a healthy diet, let alone maintain traditional Cherokee meals and foodways.

With the contemporary state of Cherokee in mind, Jackson’s childhood seems like an anachronism: Raised as one of 11 children on the Qualla Boundary, Jackson recalls that growing up, his family was very poor, but their food was very nutritious. “Most of the time we spent playing in the woods, because we didn’t have nothing. We had one light bulb in the living room and one bedroom for all of us — that included mom and dad,” he recalls. “And so we gathered food from the woods — berries, greens — as well as farming. And that was what we ate.”

Jackson’s father also hunted animals whenever he could. “Dad never hunted bear, but he would hunt deer and hogs, squirrel, rabbits, you know, just the common animals that are in the woods,” he explains. “It’s very healthy. There are no preservatives, no hormones and none of that GMO crap that we have to endure nowadays.”

He says he was taught that “food is a blessing that we were given from our creator and that we should never abuse it. And we only took what we could eat. And it was very sacred that you did not waste food. I mean you couldn’t with 11 of us, and Dad was the only provider. So we just had to subsist on a daily basis, and the next day start over and make sure that there was something.”

Jackson says that this is how it was for many Cherokee people growing up in the region during this time. He and his siblings are vibrantly healthy today, and he attributes this to their upbringing. Impressively, at 63 years old, Jackson hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2014, all the way from Georgia’s turpentine woods to bone-chilling Maine. “I know that I have to give credit to what I eat, because I’m fairly healthy — I’m very healthy,” he says. “I don’t have diabetes, I don’t have high blood pressure.”

The people who know

“So much is lost now,” remarks Jackson. “The people who know cannot get in the woods. They’re too old, too fat, too unhealthy, too weak. They can’t climb mountains. And so they’re sitting at home, unable to pass that information on because a lot of times you have to show people: This is it, you know — this is wisi. A lot of kids don’t know what it looks like. They say, ‘Well what does it look like?’” Wisi, pronounced “wish-ee,” is the Cherokee word for the wild edible mushroom chicken of the wood.

“It’s an odd thing,” notes Junaluska. Jackson’s generation, including her own grandparents, were knowledgeable about and keen on maintaining the culture and botanical wisdom of the Cherokee, but that practice seems to have skipped a generation. “I know far more than my dad or my aunts and my uncles about the culture and the things that go on,” she says. “And I think that’s strange.”

Junaluska largely blames this phenomenon on the boarding schools established by white missionaries for native children in the early 20th century. According to NPR‘s Charla Bear, “Students at federal boarding schools were forbidden to express their culture — everything from wearing long hair to speaking even a single Indian word.”

Indeed, these schools operated under the infamous motto coined by Lt.  Richard Henry Pratt to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Pratt was the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which opened in 1879 and operated as a foundational model for Indian boarding schools for decades to come.

“I think the one in Cherokee closed in the ’40s, maybe the ’50s,” Junaluska says. “My great-grandmother was fluent in Cherokee, but she refused to teach her children — my grandmother — because of the difficulties it caused her. They were punished and beaten and different things for speaking it, because, you know, they [missionaries] wanted to assimilate them [Cherokee] so they could be Americanized, civilized, whatever.”

Jackson sees the effects of assimilation and the boarding school philosophies in today’s Cherokee youths. “I took some kids from [UNCA], they were Native students, and they’d never eaten ramps,” Jackson says. “I take them to sacred spots, but on the way, I’ll teach them, ‘Here, this is a green, this is edible. This mushroom is edible. This has a tuber; you can eat the tuber.’ It was amazing — they didn’t know how to recognize ramps.”

By the moon

Jackson views his generation’s relationship to food as a Catch-22.  “They eat bad, they feel bad, and it’s just a cycle. And I think, for the most part, the ones who know are just not going to be able to pass it on. I’ve been really working hard to learn about the sacred sites, learn about the plants, the edibles, the mushrooms, the greens, the tubers, the berries — the moon,” he says, pointing up at the rising waxing moon, shining newly in the darkness of an oncoming sunset.

“Some of the older folks used to plant exclusively by the moon, and it has a lot of influence. There’s probably no scientific proof about when you plant, when you sow; but the old people know,” he says, noting traditional knowledge about planting potatoes, carrots and other underground crops. “It’s time to plant anything that goes underneath the ground when it’s waning,” he explains. When the moon is waxing, Jackson adds, it’s best to sow above ground crops like beans, corn and squash.

Jackson says that as far as Thanksgiving, people are missing the point. “I think a lot of people will verbalize, ‘Yeah, I’m thankful for my mom, I’m thankful I have a job, and I’m thankful for this.” but, yeah, how about yesterday? How about tomorrow? How about next month? Are you going to be thankful?” he says. “And I don’t know if that’s what America is anymore. Like, are you thankful that we have clean water? Are you thankful that we have water that’s not fracked? I don’t think they are. I don’t think our people are. Our values are lost; we’re assimilated. We’re in the fast lane, for the most part, and it’s very sad.”

But he reflects that as he gets older, Thanksgiving is every day for him. “If I wake up in the morning, I’m thankful. I’m thankful that I’m alive today, and I’ll be thankful in the morning that I’ve had another day,” he says. “I think that for the Cherokee community, Thanksgiving is a day of thanksgiving, when it should be a day of thanksgiving every single day.”

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