An Indigenous Chef Examines Her Relationship With Thanksgiving

Tashia Hart/iStockphoto

Tashia Hart doesn’t take shit for granted. The world she lives in will never allow her that luxury. Hart grew up on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, part of the Anishinaabe people who populate the lands stretching west, north, and south from the Great Lakes region. Her early life played out like a tale that most Indigenous Americans know all too well: poverty, identity crises, abuses, and silence.

Hart fought hard to break free of the doldrums of reservation life and find her own path through food, nature, and art. She went to college and studied food via biology, which eventually led to a career as a Culinary Ethnobotanist. Her job is to study, celebrate, and elevate wild and foraged foods from her homelands, acting in concert with people like The Sioux Chef and i-Collective. In the process, Hart has become an integral part of a movement of chefs, thinkers, artists, and writers who are taking purchase back of their culture, foodways, and identity in 2018 America.

To that end, we thought we’d sit down with Hart for a second time, to talk about the intricacies and divisive nature of a holiday that we’re taught “celebrates” the unity of colonial and Indigenous people. In doing so, we were able to investigate the depth to which Indigenous people have to split their personalities to survive in America to this day.

Before we dive in, let’s get a little context. A lot of Indigenous people do not and, likely, will never celebrate Thanksgiving. In their eyes, doing so would be celebrating their people’s demise at the hands of massacring Christian fundamentalists who pursued wealth above all else. For Indigenous Americans, it doesn’t end in the 1600s. The power that this holiday holds carries on throughout history.

Perhaps ironically, it was Abraham Lincoln who enshrined Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. That came less than a year after Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in U.S. history of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota. It was also less than a year before Lincoln ethnically cleansed the Navajo from Arizona in the Long Walk which ended up enslaving many Navajo and killing nearly 90 percent of the adult population. So, yes, Thanksgiving is a beguiling holiday in Indigenous America for a litany of reasons. And Tashia Hart is here to explore that.

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Please welcome our newest collective sister Tashia Hart, who is from the Red Lake Band of Anishinaabe, Ajijaak doodem. (Crane clan). My passion for Indigenous foods began as I learned about the importance and life cycles of plants and animals through daily life growing up on the reservation, watching and helping relatives find, harvest, and care for wild rice, berries, tea, fish, grouse, deer, and other wild foods. I studied plants while attending Bemidji State University, Bemidji, MN, where I earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 2012, and shortly after joined my grandfather in the Red Lake Traditional Foods Program where we started and cared for community gardens, identified wild food sources, and created food habit surveys to get a better understanding of what our community members were eating and what their relationships with food were. In 2016 I started working with the Tatanka Truck and The Sioux Chef Catering Co. in Minneapolis, MN. In June 2017 I moved to Duluth, MN where I continue to research wild foods, as well as create art and currently (among other things, see below) I’m writing an adventure/mystical realism middle grade/YA novel that teaches about Anishinaabe culture and food systems in Minnesota. For me, ‘Indigenous Foods’ is seamlessly woven into the lifeways of the people I love and into my own worldview. They are the physical link between people and all of our relatives, and the spirit world. They fill stories, spaces in our homes, and fill our environment, our dreams and visions. To read more about Tashia click on the link on our bio.

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Thanksgiving is more often than not fraught for Indigenous people in America. Some would argue it’s entirely unavoidable. What is this holiday to you?

This time of year means many things to me, on many levels. I humbly ask the reader to take a moment and follow me into my world, on my terms, where I will explain about some of the “unavoidables” that I deal with on a daily basis.

To create some context for how I feel during this time, I’d like to start at the literal, physical base upon which everything in this country is built — the land that my people, the Anishinaabeg, call Turtle Island aka North America. Now, America got its name from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Just one guy. That’s it. One guy did some explaining back in the old country about ten years after Columbus arrived and started fucking shit up. This one guy is said to have figured it out that the “newly discovered” continents couldn’t have been Asia. One guy supposedly convinced people that they were “new,” and two whole continents were thereafter referred to as his place.

How do you see that in the reality of your everyday life now?

There’s a deeply embedded concept of ownership of “accurate” or “legal” or “right” or “proper” terminology in the mainstream American culture that is unavoidable, imposed, and oftentimes at odds with traditional concepts and verbiage to describe what this land base is: Where it literally came from, what our relationship is to it, and what our responsibilities are as humans living in the presence of [the land]. The hundreds of tribes that exist today on Turtle Island have their own worldview, creation stories, perceptions pertaining to and documenting the passing of time, etc., etc. Yet every day, every day, they’re asked to put their own paradigms aside to placate to the colonizing framework in order for them to simply get by in this ancient cultural landscape that has been Americanized.

This is a trying time for many of us. It’s hard some days more than others to maintain my focus and my identity surrounded by all of these ideas that insist I assimilate the ways of my mind into the mainstream framework. Every day of my life I must internally deal with term after term, ideology upon ideology, insistence upon insistence. That this is America. That this is November. That this is the 2018th year after the earliest years of Christ is how I should lineate my perception and documentation of time. That this day is Thanksgiving.

There are plenty more “unavoidables” than these, but to try and list them all would drive me mad.

It feels like we’re living in two worlds or even two realities sometimes…

I keep this mainstream worldview running alongside the more traditional worldview that has been somehow protected and is still taught in our families, communities, and nowadays in our Tribal Colleges and beyond.

It’s a lot to maintain. When I am asked how I feel during this time of the year, my response might be varied from day to day, season to season, year to year, as there’s much going on in my mind and heart that, in turn, affect the vibrancy of the connection to my spirit with which I navigate through this world of unavoidable terminology, ideology, law, ‘truth’, and ‘facts’. You might catch me on one of my many calm days, or on a day when my insides are a raging storm.

How do you feel about Thanksgiving today?

Thanksgiving is a relatively new timestamp on the Gregorian calendar that originates during a time when the Indigenous peoples of North America were still openly being massacred, and their deaths celebrated. The massacres were followed by feasts and the Puritans would give thanks to their God for the successful massacres, which in turn provided more security for their families to the bounties of the land, free of the local Natives.

Simply having this knowledge makes my stomach churn, my palms sweat, my blood boil. Nonetheless, I am able to find peace and purpose today. I have sent my morning prayer up to the Great Mystery, to ask for guidance on how to be a good relative and example for the next generation today. I have given thanks for my life, my family, and a chance to participate in creation this day. I do this every day.

What will this long weekend bring for you?

Tomorrow I will travel with my husband to visit family during the time off provided by the holiday. We will cook, visit, and eat. I feel grateful to be able to travel like this and see some of the family during this time. And I do give thanks for this. But it’s not because the day is called Thanksgiving. It’s because it’s built into people to be happy and thankful when we are able to come together.

I come from a generation where Indigenous voices were almost completely drowned out or unheard in any mainstream way. Do you think that’s changing via access to social media and the wider umbrella of the internet?

Let me begin by addressing the context of your questions with several questions. Why are Indigenous voices drowned out? By whom? Why is this considered normal and simply a given? Why should it be casually expected by us to have our voices go unheard? How does this type of treatment affect an entire land base of marginalized peoples over extended periods of time? And why do these overpowering voices feel that this kind of regular behavior is okay? Do these overpowering voices act individually or as a collective oppressing voice? How can you tell? What part do you play?

Now, I’ll add that our voices are heard on a regular basis — by us: Our family members, our communities, our nations, and inter-tribally as well. I do think that technology and social media is allowing us the opportunity to create a tighter-woven, inter-tribal community where we express our opinions, our concerns, our stories, our love, our art, and our hopes for the next generations to come. This is beside the fact that many of our families were forced onto reservations where we continue to face poverty and a slew of other problems that make it challenging for us to physically interact in ways we could have in pre-colonial times.

What are you doing to be heard?

Personally, I write, cook, and create art to get my voice heard. I’m currently writing a Middle-Grade series starring a young Anishinaabe woman that has themes of food sovereignty, animal rights, and examines some of the differences and similarities in different perspectives about our place as humans in the landscape and within creation.

I think there’s this idea in American mainstream that Thanksgiving is this universally celebrated holiday. What was it like for you growing up?

We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving when I was a kid. Neither of my parents subscribed to it. Mostly my mom and sometimes my dad would cook at home for every meal. We rarely ate out anywhere. I assume we ate a meal at home like any other day. I honestly can’t remember one Thanksgiving meal at home when I was a kid. Although, I remember liking the fact that we got time off from school.

Yeah, time off from school was always a great perk. You’ve devoted your life to food in many ways. Have you seen any shifts in the food you grew up with and the food you’re working with now?

The foods haven’t changed too much. Growing up in my home, we would eat with the seasons. Fish, deer, grouse, wild rice, hominy, and beans were staples and favorites. We did eat things like boxed cereal, oatmeal, and an occasional frozen pizza, too. In my adult life, I have an intimate, cultivated fondness and relationship with the harvests of the seasons. I guess I do eat more wild veggies and fruits than I did as a kid. As I learned to cook for myself, I wished to learn about more of these types of wild, seasonal foods that are all around us in our landscape. And so I did. I do still have both cereal and oatmeal in the cupboard. I enjoy fresh, locally grown produce. And I still eat that occasional pizza.

What are you cooking right now?

Thanks to the generous sharing of wiiyaas (meat) and manoomin (wild rice) by family members and friends, along with the seasonal harvest of locally grown veggies and fruits, we’ve been eating elk roast, venison, walleye, and bison accompanied by squash and wild rice. I’m also still cooking with some of the dried wild foods I gathered in the spring and summer of this year. I have an assortment of dried wild vegetables, fruits, flowers, and seeds.

Do you think Thanksgiving is important for Indigenous people to celebrate?

I think it’s important for Indigenous people — people from every walk of life, really — to celebrate those things in their life that deserve celebration. Things that change people, that move people, that teach us lessons and bring us together. I can’t tell anyone else what specific things are important to them or what they should be celebrating. Our lives are just that, our own.

Our elders say that we should respect each other’s ways of doing things, like communicating with the creator, how we perform our ceremonies, our songs, our telling of our stories. I can’t speak for what any sort of large-spread, “unavoidable” holiday should look like –unless it could be a day to celebrate in our homes, with our families, for whatever reason we choose. That would be my suggestion. A day off from work and school to spend time with our families and communities and celebrate our differences; a recognized day of choice.

To get deeper insight into the world Tashia Hart grew up in and the lives many Indigenous people live, check out her first book Girl Unreserved (Broken Wings and Things).