An Indigenous Chef Reflects On Thanksgiving

Kristina Stanley

Kristina Stanley comes from the Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa. Stanley studies and utilizes Indigenous foodways of the Northern Great Lakes in what is now Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. She’s devoted her life to understanding the way agriculture and food intone our lives — both physically and mentally. Through that practice, Stanley has been able to integrate Indigenous foods into her family and community’s lives in ways that were nearly lost to colonization and outright genocide.

Stanley also represents a forgotten class of Indigenous Americans. An arm of the United States extermination policies of “killing the Indian to save the man” included the wholesale adoption of Indigenous children to predominately white people. This practice peaked between 1941 and 1967 during The Indian Adoption Project years, when one in three Indigenous children were taken from their families. The Mormon Church was a large backer of this movement, taking in 5,000 children alone to live with Mormon families and work their farms.

The brutality of The Indian Adoption Project waned and was replaced by the Indian Child Welfare Act during the Carter administration in 1978. The ICWA softened the United States’ stance on removing children from their homes, but only slightly. The move shifted more Indigenous children into non-stable or impermanent foster homes. Today, Indigenous children are still 40 times more likely to be adopted than any other group in America. Kristina Stanley survived this world and was able to recapture her identity, in part, through Indigenous food.

Stanley currently works as a pastry chef and activist. She runs Abasso Foods in Madison, Wisconsin, and works closely with Indigenous food activists groups like the Intertribal Agriculture Council, Slow Food Turtle Island Association, and i-Collective. We sat down with Stanley to talk about life for an Indigenous person around Thanksgiving to get a little insight into where Indigenous people and food can fit into the holiday and mainstream American life.

Thanksgiving has been, for me, a pretty trying time that I’ve been able to get through with food. What’s the experience of “Thanksgiving” — an unavoidable national holiday — for you?

I come from a family of adoption and was raised celebrating Thanksgiving like most other popular American holidays. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I became more educated and thoughtful about what this time means to me and other Indigenous people. I find this time especially challenging for multiple reasons. While I still join with my family and feast on Thanksgiving, it’s now a significant day of mourning the genocide and intentional destruction of our culture. I definitely utilize food as a means to process this mourning. I try to forage or purchase ingredients from Indigenous producers to honor our history, especially during this time.

It’s very easy for Indigenous voices to get completely drowned out this time of year. Do you feel technology, like social media, has helped to get our voices out there?

Social media has definitely broadened the reach of Indigenous activists and organizations like the i-Collective. Luckily, as an organization comprised largely of chefs, we have a unique ability to utilize pictures of lovingly prepared pre-colonial food which draw people in to hear our messages. Unfortunately, most social media outlets only allow for very short or small amounts of information to be communicated, or the end users often are scrolling with a short attention span. This can cause a need for very complicated and nuanced information to be oversimplified for quick consumption. So, while social media has definitely broadened our reach, the true effect of what we do must be experienced in person.

Yeah, it feels fleeting sometimes…

Indigenous voices have been drowned out since colonization. Over the past few years, it seems Indigenous folks get a lot of media and speaker requests around this time of year, and I often find myself asking if these media outlets or companies will be interested in elevating Indigenous voices the rest of the year. Dealing with the media is something I have found that many within the Indigenous community are very wary of, for risk of being tokenized.

Why is that?

Often we must discern whether the author or media outlet has a proven interest in sharing Indigenous culture in an authentic way. It’s always a personal fear that we might lend our voice and have it edited in a way that further perpetuates false narratives.

Let’s pivot to food. For my family, Thanksgiving was less “traditional.” We’d have a family meal (it was still time off, etc.) but there were oysters, gooey duck, freshly caught steelhead from that morning, venison backstrap (sometimes from that morning as well). Sometimes we’d have a big turkey dinner too. What was it like for you growing up?

I grew up with a family that celebrated Thanksgiving exactly as prescribed. Roast Turkey with all the standard trimmings.

How has the food you ate growing up changed from the foods you’re finding, eating, and preparing now?

For me, this has changed drastically now that I’m the matriarch of my own family, and am often responsible for cooking and building traditions that my child will take with him. In regards to food, I try to incorporate Indigenous ingredients representative of the time and place where we are. For us, this often looks like Smoked Lake Superior whitefish (mitigookamaig), White Earth wild rice (manoomin), squash (okosimaan), and maize (mandaaminag) being some of the staples that you’ll see in our home during many celebrations. Building tradition, while honoring the earth and the people responsible for providing us with these blessings of nourishment, is very important.

Sadly, this was not ever a part of the discussion or tradition I experienced growing up.

What foods and ingredients are you using this season?

Rehydrating mushrooms foraged earlier in the year (wazhashkwedoonsag), wild rice, cranberries (Mashkiigiminag), maple syrup, and a lot of nuts and seeds including acorns harvested from my mother’s yard, black walnut, and squash seeds.

Nice. Do you think it’s important for Indigenous folks to celebrate Thanksgiving? Or, just throwing ideas out, should there be a coinciding but unique celebration?

I think that it’s important for Indigenous folks to work through this time of the year in the way that best suits them individually and honors their truth. We as a people have already survived genocide and our culture and rights are still constantly under attack. I’m part of the large, not often talked about community of Indigenous people who were raised by non-Indigenous families, away from the communities they were born to. I think that Thanksgiving does provide an opportunity for education. It’s a time for community building around learning and preserving our shared histories.

There’s a large dissonance between the colonial and Indigenous world. Do you think a celebration like Thanksgiving could be retconned in a way that’d bring us together today?

We do host events of this nature, year-round, with i-Collective. We craft beautiful menus fusing traditional cooking methods with Indigenous ingredients representative of the time and place from which we are cooking. During an i-Collective event, we will present specific topics for discussion and provide time for open dialogue. We also try to host a free community meal for the local Indigenous community when we are traveling for other events.

If you’re hosting a Thanksgiving meal, what would you serve?

When I host an event for the public I strictly utilize seasonal, pre-colonial ingredients Indigenous to both the region where I am from and the region I am cooking in. Using food in this way is a great catalyst for further discussion.

What would you like to say to non-Indigenous Americans about your life that feels the most important to you?

I think the most important thing for me is that we are still here. Our rich and deep cultural traditions are real and thriving. We are not characters or costumes of a people that once were.

If you’re interested in learning more about Indigenous parental rights and adoption, check out Barbara Kingsolver’s novels The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. For a more historical telling of the travesty of America’s adoption policies towards Indigenous Americans, check out journalist Trace A. DeMeyer’s One Small Sacrifice: A Memoir and Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects.