This Thanksgiving, we can value food and Native American roots


Gokey said the first Thanksgiving may have not been a simple celebration, but rather an act of diplomacy

WASHINGTON (WDVM) — We all can agree we have new perspectives about life, family, and happiness, to name a few. But this year, we can show gratitude toward what nourishes us – food, and its Native American roots.

When you compare the first Thanksgiving in 1621 to 2020, there are some clear similarities we face today with millions of Americans who are food insecure due to the pandemic, as the Pilgrims were due to the plague.

Giving thanks and recognizing cultural value has always been a practice in Native American culture.  

“I think that’s something we can all benefit from, is really appreciating the life that we have and all the foods, plants, and animals that give us life, ” said Renee Gokey, teacher services coordinator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “So I think building our empathy and adding more diverse perspectives and finding ways to tell a more complete narrative or more accurate histories, will really benefit all of us.”

A sculpture, circa 1880 by L. Gaugen of the Wampanoag American Indian Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, appears in a display case at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, in Plymouth, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005. Squanto, who stayed with the Pilgrims for a two-year period, is said to be the sole survivor of the population of Patuxet, a Wampanoag community in the proximity of where Plymouth now exists, which was wiped out by an unknown European disease before the arrival of the Pilgrims. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

According to history books, Squanto, a Wampanoag Native American, returned to his village after learning English in England following his escape from enslavement in Spain, only to find many had died from the plague.

“The village where he’s from and his Wampanoag people from that village, he was sort of the sole survivor, so it’s this incredible story,” stated Gokey.

Gokey said the first Thanksgiving may have not been a simple celebration, but rather an act of diplomacy by Squanto to teach the Pilgrims how to survive at a time when they were starving. That also includes teaching them how to harvest corn. At the time, the harvesting of corn was vital to survival.

“We have stories in our culture about corn coming to the people and sort of losing our ways in terms of knowing how to always preserve the seeds and grow them in a good way, and then how the corn comes back to us and feeds our people,” expressed Gokey.

Theresa Secord (Penobscot, b. 1958). Ear of corn basket, 2003. Maine. 26/1694
(National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian)

Pumpkin is also a food many Indigenous people have celebrated for centuries. It is assumed pumpkin was a food present at the first Thanksgiving meal, however, there are no accurate records that exist to detail what was on the menu.

Throughout time, it’s possible that the staple of pumpkin pie many Americans eat during Thanksgiving every year, originated from the significance of pumpkins to Native people. During the year of 1621, the Pilgrims had a shortage of sugar on the Mayflower, so they were most likely unable to have dessert with their meal like many Americans do today.

To this day, Native people still use pumpkins to honor people who’ve passed, along with many other purposes, “There’s so many different uses for the pumpkin, and our tribe historically would cut the pumpkin into slices and they would be smoked for the winter, so they could be stored for a long time,” said Gokey.

Earnest L. Spybuck
(Absentee Shawnee,1883-1949).
Pumpkin Dance, 1910. Shawnee,
Oklahoma. 2/6928 (National Museum of
the American Indian, Smithsonian)

With the months of suffering and hardship due to COVID-19, Gokey mentioned how cultural value is relevant and provides people with a sense of empathy with what happened nearly 400 years ago.

“I think it’s okay to talk about this kind of stuff but also it gives us an opportunity to talk about gratitude, and we have a really great opportunity to be thankful for what we have,” stated Gokey.

Gokey suggests exploring your own family traditions and recipes as you celebrate Thanksgiving this year.

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