Valerie Segrest doesn’t want anybody to give up Thanksgiving. As a Native foods educator and Muckleshoot tribal member, she considers giving thanks for food to be both beautiful and essential, while the act of gathering around the table with gratitude is something that she thinks should take place far more often. Preparatory to this year’s New American holiday, she generously shared her thoughts on the topic, including what non-Indigenous people can do to celebrate Thanksgiving with mindfulness and respect. The recipes also shared here can act as conversation starters for greater truth and understanding at any table, at the holidays or otherwise, while also prompting more gratefulness for deliciousness.
Those seeking knowledge about Indigenous foods and more recipes — and those seeking to give this gift to others — might first turn to “Indigenous Home Cooking: Menus Inspired by the Ancestors,” co-authored by Segrest and the Indigenous Food Lab, and home to two of the dishes here. The book also guides those seeking Native-produced ingredients (also an excellent gift to give) to the Intertribal Agricultural Council’s American Indian Foods, among other resources. “Indigenous Home Cooking” is available on-site or online from Seattle’s Arundel Books. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
On what Thanksgiving — and thanksgiving — means to her: It’s a contentious subject within Native communities, just because the story isn’t really fully accurate. Some people call it Thanks-taking, in fact. But I think what I’ve gleaned from it, personally, is the importance of sitting around a table and connecting to food, and connecting to people through food, which is the broader story. And that is probably something we all need to do more of. In our standard American cultural patterns, we’re sort of eating from one thing to the next, and oftentimes isolated, and oftentimes on the go, and so slowing down and eating a meal with other people is a great unifying moment. And that is something that should be considered a thanksgiving.
It’s a tradition that we all need so badly in this country that I don’t want to vilify it. But I do want the truth to be told, not to romanticize it.
On the Thanksgiving myth and the reality: How we tell the story is really important. I think that not feeling dominion over people, or place, or things, but in community with them is better — that could have been a better outcome of that first Thanksgiving. And then I also think about the people showing up and setting the table, and that it must have been a really scary time, and to show up with a response of generosity and kindness says a lot about a people. And that’s because our foods teach us to be generous and to be kind. So maybe that’s the one right thing that happened — how do we show up in this real world with generosity and kindness, and include food along the way?
On the current traditional Thanksgiving meal, giving thanks for food and what food gives: A lot of the dishes are First Foods for this country … Every [Indigenous] community here has ceremonies that are similar to this meal, where you focus on the food and what it represents, and then you might say a prayer or sing a song to it, and then you eat it, and it’s intentionally honoring that life that’s been given for you to continue to live. And we consider our foods our greatest teachers. They’re more than just commodities and resources to be extracted from the land — they really help us to figure out how to be good humans, or how we might show up in the world as social change agents, or intervene in an environment and make it better.
A lot of our foods do that — salmon is a great example of just being an ecotype in and of itself, its own force that goes in and out of different environments, and returns to ancestral rivers, and gives its life for the health of the land. How can humans be more like that? And I think if we look at those foods through that context, and provide value and connect them to the people who have been stewards and advocates of them for so long — for thousands of years — then that is really what Thanksgiving could be all about.
On making food choices on Thanksgiving: You could take it a step further and say, I’m going to put one food on my table this Thanksgiving that’s produced from a Native community — that has, like wild rice, for example, cultivated it for thousands of years, has origin stories around it. It’s incredibly nutrient-dense. And I’m going to support that food producer, because they were the original food producers of this country. And I want to give thanks for that, because without that stewarding, it wouldn’t be on the table today.
On the first Thanksgiving, what unraveled from it, and trying to heal: I feel like we all come from generational trauma, and for Native people — that’s the history that I am versed in. But I always think about the people who were coming to this continent and what they were leaving behind. And I think that’s part of the pervasive idea of what we have in American cultural patterns today: It’s like we’re all about progress and change … we have our manifest destiny that we’re trying to pursue, and [we’re] not necessarily taking into account the value of the knowledge of the land, the knowledge of the people who have dwelled in that place, and their own ancestors. And the traditions globally that we share are beautiful and uphold health. And we have lived in 600 years of escaping trauma and violence in this country, and we can do a lot of healing through looking at foods in a different way.
We can all be a part of this, and it’s going to take all of us, really — us valuing everybody’s knowledge to be able to save this world
On rejecting division surrounding Thanksgiving: Everything is so polarizing, and maybe it served us for a while … Did Thanksgiving happen? Sure. Yes. And did it suck? Yes … Don’t just harvest the ideas and romanticism about that and not tell the truth, because that doesn’t get us anywhere. But [do] value that story of having community, and centering it around food. And [ask]: What does that have to teach us today? And how can we take from that and move forward with truth, and commitment, and really caring for the food that’s on the table?
On different kinds of Thanksgivings: My family didn’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, but we would go show up to help feed people who needed food. We’d drive around the city and hand it out to people, or show up and sit and eat with them, just to be with them. My mom always taught us that.
[In my family now,] I feel like we have Thanksgiving all the time. Like tonight we’re going to have elk stew with chanterelles. They’re out hunting for cauliflower mushrooms right now. It’s the time of year — this is the season of falling leaves, elk mating-cry, the chum salmon. And so we try to set our table around those things.
On what changes and commitments non-Indigenous people can make this Thanksgiving and into the future: I always give people tangibles of what they can do, because I think it is a part of the healing process … Maybe it is putting one local food on the table. You know, we have cranberry producers here: Put the Washington state cranberries on the table, or apples, or locally sourced squash, or a salmon from a tribal fishery — put that on the table, too.
There’s a lot of land acknowledgments happening right now, but it would be nice to hear more like personal commitments to that. Instead of saying, “I stand on the lands of the Muckleshoot people, and I want to acknowledge the colonial impacts …” — there’s like a zillion of them nowadays — but following up with, “and I’m personally committed to that by teaching the true history and culture of Native people in my family, or to my children.” Part of the impacts of what happened post-supposed-Thanksgiving-dinner is that colonialism perpetuated the idea of erasure and invisibility in our communities. And so part of healing that is promoting the visibility and telling the real story about people in this country that were here precontact.