Local Native perspectives and traditions for Thanksgiving
Throughout the year, Natives all across the country celebrate their cultures—diverse with a multitude of common threads—and not just during November’s National American Indian Heritage Month. Every Nation has its traditional foods, given to us by Mother Earth, that have sustained our people for centuries, and many tribes are returning to these nourishing foods, for better health, wellness and well-being. It bears repeating—lest it be forgotten—that the majority of the foods enjoyed on Thanksgiving tables in America are native to Turtle Island (a.k.a. North America). To acquire, facilitate and consume these traditional foods is a full-bodied labor of love—one that would be futile for anyone who thinks food comes from the grocery store.
As an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, I have a deep affinity for the healing foods endemic to our territories: blueberries, maple sugar and syrup, walleye, venison, an array of game, and mahnomen—a.k.a. “wild rice”—which is actually a native grass, not a grain. On our Leech Lake Reservation, mahnomen is still harvested in the traditional manner: from a canoe, with special tools, and prepared as it has been forever. It’s in our DNA, lifeways and spirituality, and part of our reverence for and bond with Mother Earth. An abundance of ceremony is an essential element in our relationship with the foods Gitche Manitou (Great Spirit) has given us. Mahnomen is easily stored, and can be served hot, as a main or side dish, or as cereal, with blueberries, maple and milk. Sometimes in summer, after the lengthy cooking time until the kernels burst open and release their flavor and Ojibwe medicine, I like to make a chilled salad, blending the mahnomen with dried cranberries, chopped green onions, sage and balsamic vinaigrette.
Warm memories of these foods, juxtaposed with the perpetually manipulated story of the “first Thanksgiving,” multiplied by the assumption-and-consumption characteristic of the contemporary mainstream holiday, tend to trigger an annual avoidance response. Just as diverse as America’s Indian Nations are the different ways in which we choose to acknowledge and participate in the Anglo-based traditions of Thanksgiving … or not. In acknowledgment of the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone Nations of the Great Basin territory, I set out to discover not so much who will admit that they can’t live without green bean casserole, but which traditional foods they harvest, prepare and eat this time of year.
Serendipitously, at Carson City’s Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada on Nov. 16, the inaugural Indigenous Peoples Day event was a cornucopia of cultural exchange.
At a child-size table in the museum, Lisa Enos, a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California’s Dresslerville community, instructed visitors on the traditional way to grind acorns into flour.
“I’m showing the youth here a little bit about our traditional foods that we as Washoe people relied on,” Enos said with a welcoming smile. “Today, we’re using black oak [acorns], and I’m showing them how to process it into a flour, so that we can make soup or acorn biscuits.”
Enos, 40, a tribal language teacher buoyed by the teachings of her elders, happily shared her insight into traditional Washoe foods.
“We have ceremonies leading up to the gathering of pine nuts or acorns, or hunting,” she said. “There would be a four-day gathering and a dance. We’d pick our pine nuts, and some Washoes would go over to the California side of our homeland and gather acorn. We’d also trade with the Miwuk or the Maidu, and have stories from our elders, of our people traveling to the ocean—Chumash people, the Coastal Pomo—to make trades. Our pine nuts are so valuable, so that’s one of our sources that we could trade with the other tribes.”
Naturally, notes Enos, the ceremonies are conducted throughout the year, not simply at harvest time.
“Once we gather them, we don’t use that crop until the following year,” she said. “We let them sit for a year. But you always have your stash, you know? I’m using a portable grinding rock—or, we say, lam. After we have our flour, we have to leach it, with cedar, which pulls that acidic-ness out of the acorn, so that it’s edible. You can’t eat it without getting that out. I leach mine for one full day, near water, and it turn[s] a different color. When I’m done, my acorn will be a little more white.”
The first step is to give the acorn a good crack with the lam, to open the shell, then the nut and skin are removed. Grinding begins and continues many rounds, until the proper consistency is achieved. It takes an experienced hand to get flour that’s worthy of a beaded blue ribbon.
“We joke around that it shows a Washoe woman’s worth, how fine her flour is,” Enos said, adding that the ceremonies and harvest are a community-wide effort, while the women focused on the trees-to-table preparation. When asked to share her recipe for acorn biscuits, Enos is suddenly sly.
“I probably wouldn’t give all my secrets!” she said. Across the table, Enos’ daughter, Itmahawa, 14, patiently worked the acorns.
“I just feel proud to do this, and have my mom and family members teach me,” she said. “I do think about teaching my children, and their children.”
Itmahawa says pine nuts are her favorite Washoe food. What’s unspoken is her radiant self-determination, and the reassurance that her Washoe identity is rooted in the steadfast presence of, instruction by, and love from her mom, aunt Mischelle Dressler and grandmother, Eileen Mazy. Across the room, at a table on the museum stage, Dressler and Mazy instructed children in a mock pine nut picking lesson and the finer points of weaving with willows.
“It’s fun for the kids to see our processes,” Dressler said. “Basketry was definitely a bigger process, because we had to process our willows, gather, clean, strip them and peel the thread away from the insides. It’s a long process. This day and age is hard, because there’s so much poisoning of the willows, along the rivers and streams. So it makes it harder for our gatherers and basketweavers to find good willows that aren’t poisoned.”
“A lot of times when we go out—anywhere, to gather anything, medicine, foods—we come across a lot of private property, a lot of areas that are fenced off, that we can’t get into,” Enos said. “It’s really hard to be an Indian person in this day. It is. We’re fortunate enough to have pine nut allotments. Our people before us fought really hard for our eastern mountain range there, for our pine nuts, so families do have a piece of land that we’re able to gather our pine nuts from. There’s a lot of encroachment, a lot of non-Natives going out to that land and getting pine nuts, and they don’t care for the trees like we do. A lot of times, they’ll damage the tree—cut off whole limbs to get to those pine nuts. We don’t do that. We don’t damage the tree in any way.”
For a few moments, the sounds of acorns being cracked and ground dominated the silence, and it’s a sweet sound. There’s an understanding that there’s both a duty to continue preparing these traditional, medicinal, sacred foods—and a right to continue accessing the lands that produce them. Like the Anishinaabe’s relentless battle against greedy corporations taking more than their share of mahnomen and large profits, the Washoe Nation also stands ready to defend their right to access their own crops, nourish their own and maintain ancient lifeways.
“Even to get to Lake Tahoe—we go up there, we pray just to get to the water’s edge to wash our face, and pray and give thanks,” says Enos. “It makes it very hard to get down there—you have to pay for parking, if there’s parking. There are million-dollar homes there that take up the beach side, so these are [barriers] for us to get to our medicines and our foods.”
On the surface, the breathtaking waters and gigantic boulders of Meeks Bay at Lake Tahoe appear to be a spectacular tourist destination, yet, as the Washoe’s ancestral summer home, the area is fiercely guarded and managed by the Washoe Tribe. It has been, and will remain, for generations, their turf, the welfare of which they will forever defend. Symbolically, throughout our conversation, Enos never stops working the flour.
“It’s not something that we talk about doing, in the past [tense],” she said. “We still do this today. I prefer doing my flour the old-fashioned way. I do have a meat grinder; we could put our flour in it and do it that way, but it’s just really not the same. A lot of families do celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. This acorn you see here, we’ll have incorporated into our Thanksgiving meal. For me and my family, it’s more about just being with family, and giving thanks that way. We’ll incorporate our deer meat, acorn soup and things like that into our meal, and then the usual—we’ll have turkey, and stuffing’s my absolute favorite, and pine nuts.”
Deer meat—a sustaining, versatile food still hunted, prepared and eaten by Nevada’s Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe—was traditionally covered with sage and slow-cooked in a deep pit in the ground. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control have issued warnings about consuming venison meat from deer that may be afflicted with Chronic Wasting Disease. The alarming photographs are a sad commentary on contemporary society’s growing list of threats against Mother Earth, our food supply and food-borne illnesses. Screening for CWD and other diseases is each tribe’s responsibility, according to Darrel Cruz, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Washoe, headquartered in Gardnerville.
On the table with the acorns, willow and grinding stones, were contemporary, footed bowls given to Enos, and a couple of ancient grinding stones with tools.
“They’re not traditional, just this one—it’s a few hundred years old, at least,” Enos said as she pointed out the plant in the middle of the table. Touted for its beneficial properties, this “Indian tea” is known in the Washoe language as megi•¯l, which grows in abundance around Northern Nevada. Enos gathers the bright green stems, and sometimes uses them immediately to make tea, by boiling them in water.
“Megi•¯l has natural ephedra,” she said. “We use this for a girl’s ceremony. When a young girl is becoming a woman, she goes through a rigorous ceremony, and to do that, she’s fasting for four days. This is the only thing she can take, megi•¯l and water. It gives you energy, makes you awake.”
Downstairs in the museum, more vendors sold Native arts and crafts, did beadwork and laughed with one other. Melanie Smokey, a Shoshone basketweaver from Yomba, Nevada, with strong ties to Washoe culture, had a table with jewelry, baby moccasins, and products featuring traditional plants known among Natives to have inherent medicinal properties. Sunupeeh is “Indian glue,” a pine-nut-based salve considered to be “a good medicine that promotes healing, is an expectorant and has anti-inflammatory properties. Prayers and songs were given throughout the process.”
Smokey, who also serves as a Native Wellness Advocate for Alpine County Behavioral Health across the California state line, explained why she remains old-school in her approach to creating these non-commercial ointments and elixirs.
“I have to travel a long ways to find good growing areas, in order to pick,” she said. “So, as a basketweaver, I really have to be aware of that, because when we split our willow into thirds, I have to put it in my mouth. So, the water has to be good, the air has to be clean, the land itself has to be clean. That’s why we do so much prayer and songs for it—we have a basket song that we sing, a water song that we sing, a mountain song. In our pine nut song—they’re not just praying for the pine nut itself. They’re praying for the tree. They’re praying for the snow. One of our songs says, after we harvest, we’re praying for the snow to come over the mountain. Then, in the springtime, it’s praying for the little bud that’s coming out. Throughout the year, those songs travel, just like the seasons. That’s where those prayers come in, to be mindful of that, that the babies are coming alive.”
As with Natives all across Indian Country, accessibility is a top priority and a hot-button issue, one that Smokey understands first-hand.
“You go out again, to check on [pine nuts], so that you know where to harvest,” she said. “I had a big fright last year—commercial pickers were shooting off guns, because they knew my brother and I were close by. We live way out where there’s no cell service, so it’s quite a ways to get any kind of assistance. That’s another reason I don’t go out in some hills, because many people who just walk up on you, and you don’t who they are. It’s scary—with all the harm that we’ve done to our world—but people scare me more.”
Smokey said that when it comes to observing the Thanksgiving holiday, her family has their own traditions—and prefers to maintain its focus on feast and fellowship.
“Traditionally, we’ve always had get-togethers to prepare for winter time,” she said. “We get together so we can trade, just like now. That keeps respect between us, and the relationship open. We’ve done this all along. We trade food, too. Our people over the hill had acorns—that doesn’t grow here—so we, in turn, would trade our pine nuts, our chokecherries, things they don’t have on that side of the mountain. We did that in each direction, so when we get together, we like to have our traditional foods: our chokecherry or buckberry pudding, or pine nut soup, or pine nuts in the shell—everyone likes to sit and crack ’em open and eat them. Of course, we have a contemporary lifestyle also. I personally enjoy going home. I have a cousin who got an elk this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing him, and having elk, and looking forward to my brothers bringing in deer meat. Potatoes grow naturally in our area, so those kinds of things are really important. I’ve tried drying out our wild onions and things like that, so we can have them throughout the year. With our soup, I’m going to add dugga, which is our wild parsley. It just changes everything. So [we enjoy] all of those foods, in addition to contemporary Thanksgiving things.”
These deep-rooted traditions and lifeways add depth to the journeys of these Indigenous women. Like food itself, maintaining cultural traditions nurtures, nourishes, fortifies and sustains the People. A feast, indeed. Reflecting on what it means to continue what they were taught, and teach her children and grandchildren, Lisa Enos pauses, emotion brimming in her eyes and voice.
“I get all sentimental,” she said. “It makes me feel really proud. I’m very proud to be a Washoe woman, and blessed to have been able to learn these traditions, and carry them on. It’s who I am. It makes me a complete, whole person.”
On Sept. 12, 2019, the Reno City Council’s Human Rights Commission “made the recommendation to Council to adopt a resolution proclaiming Indigenous Peoples Day as the second Monday in October of every year.” The Resolution Establishing Indigenous Peoples Day states, “Whereas, the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day was first proposed in 1977 by a delegation of Native Americans to the United Nations … and Whereas, the United States endorsed the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in December 2010, and Article 15 of that declaration reads: 1) Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspiration, which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information; 2) States shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the Indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all segments of society; and Whereas, the City of Reno recognizes that this area of the State of Nevada has had a continual Indigenous presence since time immemorial, and that Indigenous people gathered at many local landmarks and left indelible marks on the history of our community; and Whereas, the City of Reno and the surrounding communities are built upon the ancestral homelands of the Indigenous Nations who utilized and cared for these lands for millennia, and that Reno is currently home to the descendants of more than 100 tribal nations; and Whereas, the City of Reno recognizes and deeply values Indigenous Peoples’ contributions to our community, both historical and contemporary, in the areas of science, art and culture, and that those contributions are never forgotten.”
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s Veterans Day video saluted the consistently high number of Native Americans in the Armed Forces. “This Veterans Day, I wanted to share a special message about the contributions of Native American veterans,” he said. “They’ve served with distinction in every conflict, and they enlist at a higher rate than any other ethnic minority. Please join me in thanking them for their service!”
Paul Schat’s Bakery in Carson City listened to the many complaints that Schat’s “Honey Squaw” bread was offensive to Native American women. “We were aware of that situation for a long, long time,” acknowledged Adela Garcia, sales supervisor for the bakery. “But it’s a trademark, so it took us a little bit of time until we could figure out how to change the name. [Management] decided to do it. It’s a simple, better name—Honey Wheat. Of course, we have some customers that are a little bit confused, because they don’t think it’s the same bread.” The decision to turn away from a centuries-old derogatory term, came from the very top of this popular restaurant, “Paul Schat, the owner. That’s a main priority for Paul—to make this place inclusive, and get rid of the stuff that can be offensive to some people.”