Native American Thanksgiving

November 24, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

We tend to think, in our own short-sighted view of history, that everything begins with us. And so it is with Thanksgiving.

Memories of grade school pageants have left us with an image of black-hatted colonists sitting down with the friendly Squanto and Chief Massasoit to a kind of early potluck, a boring meal of tough wild turkeys and corn.

But the true first Thanksgiving began much earlier.

It came out of prehistory, from a reverence for the first green shoots of spring, the first salmon to come upriver, the return of the wild geese.

And these earliest feasts were probably much more varied in flavors than we would believe.

"We think of Thanksgiving and associate it with the Algonquin tribes of the Northeast and Southeast, but actually thanksgiving festivals are very much a part of Indian life all across the country," says Beverly Cox, author with photographer Martin Jacobs of the new book, "Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; hardcover, $35).

"The Iroquois had the wild strawberry festival, the green corn festival. In the Plains there was the first buffalo festival. And in the Pacific Northwest the first salmon was the reason for a big thanksgiving festival."

There were thanksgiving festivals all through the year, she adds, culminating in the final harvest thanksgiving which has passed down to us. "But it would have been earlier, a very early-fall, late-summer festival. The harvest is really over before the date that we celebrate Thanksgiving."

The enjoyment of food was as central to Indian society as to other cultures.

"They had a great sense of hospitality," Ms. Cox says. "If someone arrived at either an Algonquin or Iroquois village, they were first offered food, even before they were asked their business."

Ms. Cox traces her interest in Indian life to her childhood growing up on a ranch in Wyoming near Cheyenne. Every summer members of the Ogalala Lakota Sioux tribe from South Dakota come to Cheyenne to dance at the Frontier Days festival. "They set up a traditional Sioux village, very much like a lot of the Plains villages with a lot of really beautifully decorated hide teepees, and they do a lot of traditional dances," she says.

One member of the tribe, Princess Blue Water, was a longtime friend of her family. "She was a granddaughter of Sitting Bull, which impressed us a lot at the time. When I knew her she was an elderly lady. I think he had quite a few grandchildren. But she was a friend of my mother's and my grandmother's. We always used to get a new pair of moccasins from her every year."

When she was grown, Ms. Cox left Wyoming and lived in France for a time. She studied cooking there for five years.

The author of five previous cookbooks, Ms. Cox now works as a food writer, food consultant, food stylist and developer of recipes. Before the magazine ceased publication, she was food editor, culinary director and food stylist for Cook's magazine.

Ms. Cox calls her latest book a joint effort. "We had help from people all over the country," she says. "I really feel that I was kind of like a scribe because I spent a lot of my time getting in contact with cooks within the tribes, asking them what recipes they thought should be included, what recipes were important within their region and within their tribe.

"We got not only very wonderful recipes but wonderful histories of how those recipes were important and how they were used in various festivals."

The variety of the foods the Indians ate surprised her. "I was really amazed, the more I got into it, at what an important contribution American Indians have made to the food of the world. We'd all eat entirely differently without potatoes and corn, squash, beans, chilies, tomatoes and chocolate. And those of course are all products that are native to the Americas."

Foods were traded among the tribes, she says. "People out in the Plains would end up with wild rice because they traded buffalo meat or hides for it to the people in the Great Lakes region."

People in the Northeast and Southeast had a lush variety of foods to choose from -- berries, wild mushrooms, nuts, wild game. And many of them, like the Algonquin in the Mid-Atlantic region, were excellent farmers.

We are indebted to them not only for their discoveries of foods -- who would have thought to tap maple trees for their sap and turn it into sugar? -- but for their recipes as well. The clambake was an Indian invention. So are codfish balls, strawberry jelly, pumpkin soup, johnnycakes and popcorn balls made with maple syrup. Beans were baked in pottery jars in stone-lined earth ovens. And the Choctaw can be credited with inventing file -- powdered sassafras -- and putting it in stew.

The Algonquin tribes along the Canadian border who made maple sugar and syrup also made maple vinegar. "They used the vinegar in something like a real salad dressing, which would be made with nut oil or seed oil and wild greens -- very much as we do it today," Ms. Cox says.

The Indian diet was so varied and well-balanced, in fact, that when the first Englishmen arrived they found the Indians to be far healthier than they were. "Anthropologists who look back find that they were much taller, straighter-limbed, had better teeth and much stronger bones," says Ms. Cox.

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