Minneapolis-based Sioux chef Sean Sherman prepares a Thanksgiving feast. (Photo: Isabel Subtil)

Topics: Ethical Living, Oct/Nov 2022 | History

It’s time to take a closer look at what we’re eating for Thanksgiving

We can't ignore the contributions that Indigenous people have made to this holiday


Thanksgiving is one of the few North American celebrations I enjoy as a second-generation Canadian, with no religious attachments holding me back. My family’s intimate Thanksgiving festivities, however, have always been about the food. Instead of joining hands with loved ones to declare what I’ve been most thankful for over the past 12 months, my mind is usually elsewhere: Have I made enough stuffing? Is the turkey perfectly golden? How much butter is too much butter?

For many Canadians, the Thanksgiving feast will always be one of the most important parts of the holiday. It’s time we acknowledge that the food on our table has Indigenous roots.

Thanksgiving in Canada officially began in 1859, when Protestant leaders looked to their southern neighbours for inspiration and called on the colonial government to dedicate a day for giving thanks. The Province of Canada was about to break away from Great Britain, and this national celebration was supposed to represent a rebirth. As Maclean’s notes, it became a day to pay tribute to “farm, family and religious devotion.”

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More than 160 years later, many Canadians still cherish Thanksgiving — despite its colonial underpinnings — as a day for spending time with family and partaking in that central feast. But folks like Sean Sherman have helped me to think more deeply about this holiday and to start taking a closer look at the food.

The Oglala Lakota Sioux chef and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author is one of the leading figures in the revitalization of Indigenous cuisine in North America. “Food is at the heart of cultural reclamation,” he wrote in HuffPost in 2020. Pumpkin-coloured squash, golden potatoes, sweet corn and the crown-jewel turkey are all Thanksgiving staples — and all traditional Indigenous foods. The Wampanoag, in what is now southeastern Massachusetts, along with other Indigenous groups, may have raised and eaten turkeys for hundreds of years, recent research suggests. 

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North Americans often drench their Thanksgiving dishes with generous helpings of butter, gravy, cream and melted cheese. Some have even gone so far as to deep-fry their turkeys. Sherman emphasizes using locally sourced items and cooking with far fewer ingredients to give the food the chance to shine for itself.

While we use Thanksgiving to express gratitude for the bounty of the harvest, we must not ignore the contributions that Indigenous people have made to this holiday. After all, as University of Manitoba professor and Mohawk Nation member Brian Rice pointed out in a 2017 CBC interview, giving thanks has been part of Indigenous ceremonies for thousands of years. The history of the food we eat must not be forgotten either. 

This year, I plan to be more mindful of the land, the food and the community of people who brought us where we are today, shifting the meaning of what this celebration once sought to be. 


Nuha Khan is a writer in Toronto.

This column first appeared in Broadview’s October/November 2022 issue with the title “Grown local.”

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  • says:

    Thank you for the article and reminding us you are of no particular faith persuasion. Your remark reminds me that at least one secular encyclopaedica defines thanksgiving "as the time to give thanks for the harvest and to express gratitude in general". I am reminded of Frobisher's thanksgiving in the year 1578. He believed he had discovered the NWP. Frobisher brought 120 would-be settlers, miners, carpenters, and an Anglican priest named Rev. Robert Wolfall to Baffin Island. On their way to they faced desperate circumstances due to icebergs that could crush their ships. The sailors knelt down on the decks and prayed for God’s mercy. The sailors’ prayers are actually known to us through the diaries of one Captain Best. One prayer went ‘Lord help us now or never’. After the prayer they consumed a feast of salted meat and moulding biscuits. A meal as good as any modern top chef might prepare in anytime or place. Reminding us that no one lives by bread alone. A blessed thanksgiving to all whatever you eat.