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Thanksgiving: What Native Americans can teach us about sustainability

(Photo illustration by Rani Chor)

Thanksgiving this year will definitely be different. 

Besides having fewer people at the table, it is important not to overindulge in the holiday’s present-day sentiments of thankfulness without acknowledging its history. With social media playing such an integral role in our current lives, at least one “Unthanksgiving Day” post is likely to cloud your feed.

These protests and counter celebrations scold the fabrication of the typical Thanksgiving narrative and the whitewashing of colonial history in America. Not unlike Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is a glaring reminder of conquest, genocide and the continued marginalization of Indigenous peoples to this day. 

Considering that the mention of Thanksgiving often induces a mouthwatering image of a factory-farmed turkey, it is a bit ironic that November is World Vegan Month. More importantly, this month is also National Native American Heritage Month making it the perfect time to learn from traditional and modern Indigenous sustainability lessons, food systems and environmentalism.

Despite differing cultures and geographic locations, Native Americans were essentially the first environmentalists. Archeologist Elizabeth Chilton said that in the 14,000 years before colonization, their ecological footprint was practically invisible.

Today, Indigenous people comprise less than 5% of the global population yet actively protect 80% of global biodiversity, according to National Geographic. Self-restraint and accountability are core pillars in the relationship between Indigenous sciences and healthy interaction with nature.

Valérie Courtois, a director at The Indigenous Leadership, is an outspoken advocate of First Nations-led conservation and sustainable development efforts. Contrary to prejudiced Western veganism, Courtois calls for sustainable hunting, foraging and fishing as well as permaculture and regenerative farming practices. 

So how should we translate these sustainable practices onto our dining tables? Learning about, cooking and consuming pre-colonial foods is one step you can take to start decolonizing Thanksgiving dinner!

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,” Craig explained. “It could be a plant-based meal, either completely vegan or with a little bit of meat.” 

Personally, to get a better understanding of what ingredients to use this Thanksgiving, I started by researching native tribes in my region.

According to the Los Angeles City Council Native American Indian Commission, Los Angeles County is home to three Native American Indian tribes that predate the establishment of California Missions: the Ventureño, Gabrieleño and Fernandeño.

This map can help you find Indigenous history in your area. After doing further research, I had compiled a list of foreign-sounding native plants such as pinole, chia and miner’s lettuce. Blackberries were also commonplace among various climates, however, they are not in season right now.

Various websites also recommended substituting conventional sugars with maple syrup or honey. Thankfully, items like chia are already part of my breakfast porridge, demonstrating that implementing the healthy foods already in our day to day meals is one way to swap colonized dishes for their decolonized version instead.

Better yet, you could also incorporate more local vegetables such as sweet potato and root vegetables into your meal. Additionally, many local farmers’ markets around California are still open for socially distant shopping, offering healthier and more sustainable food alternatives than a typical grocery store. 

An Indigenous food system contrasts greatly with the colonized, industrial food system that we have grown so used to today. This Thanksgiving, we can give thanks for the cultivation of thousands of years of Indigenous environmentalism and sustainability by fixing what’s on our dining tables. There is no better time to “decolonize” our understanding of Thanksgiving and cleanse our palettes as well as our souls. 

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