The Three Sisters: maize, squash and beans. (Ava Fasciano/Sun Graphics Designer)

November 23, 2020

Decolonize Your Thanksgiving Dinner

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As we wrap up semi-finals and transition to break, most students seem excited to go home and celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s been a long and fast-paced semester without many breaks, and being able to relax will come as a relief. For many Cornellians, this holiday is an opportunity to catch up with loved ones and express what we’re grateful for. However, it’s important to recognize the origins of our traditions and critically examine the history that we teach. 

Many American students are still taught the story of Thanksgiving as a peaceful event that celebrated the unity between pilgrims and Native Americans. However, this is far from the truth. The first mention of “Thanksgiving” was a celebration by white colonists after their massacre of 700 Pequot. No part of the colonial Thanksgiving was intended to actually include Native Americans, and the supposed promise of unity has been nonexistent. Despite this understanding, or really lack thereof, people still celebrate Thanksgiving because of the opportunity to come together with family and friends.

There are over five million Native Americans in the United States, with cultures and traditions as diverse as New York City, so there is no way to speak for all of them when deciding how to act on this day. However, being critical of the United States’ history, as well as that of the land you’re living on are both ways to add more thanks to Thanksgiving. For many of us, our celebrations will look different this November due to COVID-19. Why not take this opportunity to introduce some new traditions? Decolonizing your dinner table might be easier than you think.

Recognize the origins of the land you live on — A Canadian organization called Native Land provides an easy resource to figure out who originally lived where you do now. If you text your zip code or city and state to (907) 312-5085, you will receive a reply with the names of the Native groups that originally lived there. This is an extremely simple way to do a little research about your hometown and its history. 

(Sadie Groberg/Sun Contributor)

Understand the history of your favorite foods — The most fruitful agricultural lands have always been indigenous territories, and many crops are modeled after Native American agricultural practices. In fact, the majority of Thanksgiving foods are centered around ingredients that are native to North America. One of the most significant examples of this are the Three Sisters. Kimberly Fuqua, President of the Indigenous Graduate Student Association, is from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. In an email exchange, Fuqua said that the Three Sisters were “crucial to the survival of many Native tribes, and sharing [indigenous] plant patterns and recipes with colonists allowed for them to prosper as well.” 

She highlighted corn as a particularly important crop, as the kernels are eaten and the husk can be used for baskets and moccasins. There are countless other foods that are tied to indigenous history. Cornbread, green bean casserole and cranberry sauce are all made from foods that have been eaten in North America for generations. A simple Google search can show you what remedies and other purposes different foods can be used for. You can even use the information from the Native Land bot to research foods that are significant to the land you live on. 

Follow along with indigenous movements — Celebrating Thanksgiving is a positive act, but it should be partnered with an understanding of the sufferings of Native Americans. Smallpox, genocide and the Indian Removal Act are “reasons that the curriculum needs to be changed in America to fit the narrative of all people, especially Indigenous people. Knowledge is power,” Fuqua said. College students have a lot of power over the knowledge that they internalize. 

Cornell’s Akwe:kon was the nation’s first university residence hall intended to celebrate Native Americans. They often host events that focus on culture and education (mostly over Zoom this year). Additionally, NAISAC is a forum for undergraduate students on campus. They have a voice in many on-campus decisions and aim to promote awareness of Native cultures. Both of these organizations are active on Instagram at @akwekon and @cornell_naisac. Following these campus groups and getting involved are great ways to stay involved with indigenous groups, especially once Thanksgiving has passed. 

Food is one of the most unifying forces of our culture. In this crazy day and age, it’s more important than ever to appreciate the opportunity to sit down with our family and friends and enjoy a meal. Be thankful for your blessings, but enjoy them with a grain of salt, understanding there is a brutal reality behind them all. 

Sadie Groberg is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].