Instead of turning a blind eye to the colonialism of Thanksgiving, about 70 people gathered last week to bring indigenous representation to the holiday through a discussion of indigenous issues and food at this year’s Indigethanx event.
“People have such a misconception of what actually happened and the meanings behind Thanksgiving. So I think this is really important in […] educating people about what Thanksgiving actually is,” said American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) student intern and co-planner for the event Warner Scheibe, who identifies as part of the Cherokee Nation.
Scheibe and other AIRC interns hosted Indigethanx on Nov. 17 in the Namaste Lounge at UC Santa Cruz. Attendees discussed the history behind Thanksgiving and injustices still affecting Native communities, including food insecurity.
Each year, the AIRC alternates between hosting a large feast with indigenous foods to focus on community building and hosting an educational event with speakers to address systemic problems affecting Native communities. This year’s Indigethanx featured executive director of Mesa Verde Gardens Vicente Lara as the speaker to address food accessibility and traditional indigenous food systems.
In schools, according to AIRC members, Thanksgiving is often taught in an oversimplified way that can perpetuate inaccurate history — many lesson plans found online focus on the single harvest festival in 1621 and few other interactions between Natives and settlers. Aniela Quintanilla, a lead AIRC student intern who identifies as Oklahoma Choctaw, grew up celebrating Thanksgiving and was taught these same narratives.
“Through my school […] we would make little headdresses and we’d learn about the pilgrims and the Indians and I didn’t think anything weird of it. […] That’s the narrative that goes around, that a lot of people are used to,” Quintanilla said.
But, Quintanilla said, this story overlooks the centuries of oppression and genocide of Native peoples by white settlers. The AIRC community wanted to use Indigethanx to combat this misinformation and provide a more accurate narrative of Thanksgiving that includes indigenous people beyond food and headdresses.
“We focus on the things that keep our communities really thriving and a lot of those things are our traditional foods and our traditional practices,” said AIRC Director Rebecca Rosser.
Executive director of Mesa Verde Gardens and keynote speaker Lara primarily works with farm workers from Mexico and Central America who’ve migrated to the U.S. and are food insecure or removed from their traditional food practices.
Members of the AIRC talked about similar situations in indigenous communities. In addition to marginalized communities of farm workers, many reservations and indigenous communities are also situated in food deserts.
According to the First Nations Development Institute, almost 25 percent of American Indians are food insecure, compared with 15 percent of U.S. households overall.
Lara began his presentation by addressing inequity as a result of North American colonization and the role of food in indigenous cultures.
“Talking about our traditional foods allows us to reconnect with identities and cultures that were left out of elementary school textbooks,” he said.
Lara and the Mesa Verde Garden Project combat food deserts and increase access to healthy, traditional foods in Watsonville by renting 12×15-foot garden plots to about 200 families for $8 a month. The plots come with seeds, seedlings, water, compost and tools so the families can grow their own produce.
“I want people to be inspired to start growing their own food and really [think] about building a different relationship with the food that they consume,” Lara said.
Long-time gardener from the Mesa Verde Gardens, Abel Herrera, also spoke at the event about his experiences and connection to the gardens. Herrera has been working in the gardens since 2011 using traditional farming and gardening practices learned from his hometown in Guerrero, Mexico. Now, he teaches community members how to grow quality food from traditional, heirloom seeds.
“Whenever someone I know goes to Mexico I ask them to bring back a variety of seeds that we can’t get here,” Herrera said in Spanish. “I ask them for chile seeds, watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds, corn seeds and many others. There is much more seed variety in Mexico.”
During the presentation Herrera displayed various types of maize from this year’s harvest, grown from seeds sent to him by his cousin in Mexico. He also spoke passionately about the difference between indigenous, self-grown food and mass-produced foods, particularly in the U.S.
“We have to give to those who are in need, not to those who don’t need it,” he said. “Whenever you grow something, you have to grow it with love. If you grow it with love, the fruits and vegetables will be big and strong.”
This event brought indigenous activists and scholars together with community members and students to challenge and inspire more conversations about indigenous food and issues to take place, this Thanksgiving and beyond.
“Still enjoy the day but […] mention what’s really going on,” said fourth-year Aniela Quintanilla. “And it can’t just be one day where we talk about Native peoples, it has to be something that’s thought of fairly often because Natives are always going through this struggle.”