How to Decolonize Your Thanksgiving Dinner
We reached out to chef Nephi Craig, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe. It starts with identifying foods that are indigenous to the Americas and asking yourself, "What do these ingredients mean to me?”
Nada'pan, which translates from White Mountain Apache to English as "corn bread." Photo courtesy of Andi Murphy
If your favorite meats, legumes, vegetables, and fruits could talk to you this Thanksgiving, they would probably tell you all about the historical traumas that they've endured as they traveled and evolved through the Old World, New World, and finally as components in your favorite dish.
Welcome to the world of decolonial cuisine, a culinary movement with the goal of getting people with indigenous roots to honor their heritage through their dietary choices. In addition, the movement aims to simply allow people to become more conscious of where their food comes from and how it got there. The cuisine is not unlike Hawaii's pre-contact movement, which focuses on cooking Hawaiian food using only foods that were native to the islands before Captain Cook dropped anchor there in 1778.
Decolonizing your diet means something different for every person, since it depends on the individual's personal heritage and identifying the foods that are original to your ancestors. For example, for a Mexican-American, that may mean adhering to a diet of corn, tomatoes, cacao, spirulina, avocado, and other foods that are indigenous to Mexico.
MUNCHIES reached out to chef Nephi Craig, a half-Navajo member of the White Mountain Apache tribe of Whiteriver, Arizona, to get a deeper understanding of this complex movement. He is a pioneer of decolonizing diets and has talked about the importance of Native American foods around the world. He is also the founder of the Native American Culinary Association and writes for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC and the Center for American Indian Elderly about the current state of Native American culinary traditions affected by hunting, fishing and agricultural rights.
It is definitely safe to say that for Craig, the subject of Native American cuisine and decolonization is more of a way of life than just a way to eat.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Nephi. What does Thanksgiving mean to you as a Native American chef? Nephi Craig: The meaning of Thanksgiving has changed for me. It's interesting because it was native foods that brought me to the threshold of decolonization. Before I embraced native foods as a young adult, I always knew that the American narrative of Thanksgiving wasn't true. Now, today, I prefer to call Thanksgiving "indigenous foods day," because that is what the holiday is traditionally based on. In the southwest, in western Apache land, you grow up being taught that Thanksgiving was a myth because it happened on the other side of the country.
What does decolonizing your diet mean to you? For the indigenous reader, it means to examine what you've been taught around food or nutrition, and to take a deep look to see if the standard American dietary pyramid reflects you as an individual. It begins with your mind and spirit, and being conscious of what the term "decolonization" means to you. At the same time, you can't force decolonization into anyone, because then you are re-colonizing. You have to be sensitive to people's backgrounds and histories.
Can you give me an example of what a decolonized Thanksgiving would look like? It all depends on the person. It could be a plant-based meal, either completely vegan or with a little bit of meat. Another example is your Thanksgiving turkey. Are you going to choose to buy a Butterball turkey or are you going to try to hunt, or get a wild, heritage breed? It comes down to responsibly sourcing your food based on your views on decolonization and food security. It is very complex.
For me, in our region of Arizona within our own home, decolonizing our Thanksgiving would mean having a discussion with my family and people that I love and trust about indigenous foods: "What do they mean to you?"
How can our readers decolonize their Thanksgiving feast this year? The first step is to be able to identify which foods are indigenous to the Americas. Then, identify which foods are indigenous to the region you live in. When talking about the Americas, think every single strain of corn, beans, squash, potatoes, chiles, chocolate, and all of these dishes that we fortunately can easily eat all the time.
There is no handbook on how to decolonize your life. It is place-based. It's ancestrally based, and it's based on your own intuition. Decolonizing your life and diet has gotten trendy lately and everyone can sound cool saying that, but who can live it out? Can you really confront the colonialism within you and the privileges because of it that you benefit from?
For Native Americans and the indigenous, decolonization is a journey of healing from our historical trauma narrative. We shouldn't be offended by our truth.
Will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year? For the past nine years, I've been in full restaurant production on Thanksgiving nights, cooking meals of varying quality for hundreds and hundreds of people. As a working chef, you have no way out of it. Though, I did grow up celebrating it with my family, so we didn't revolt against it or anything. I live in a reservation and everybody celebrates Thanksgiving here. Some people will choose to only serve native foods, though.
If I could celebrate at home, I would do a spread of native foods: quinoa, wild rice, heavily roasted squash, a lot of three sisters, a wild bird maybe, and maybe some roasted wild deer or elk if I had some. If I had access to fresh cranberries, then that, too.
What is a simple dish that people can make at home to honor Native Americans? Three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Just because you can take the time to learn about companion planting and how this ancestral technology made its way all over the Americas. As a dish, it makes sense. But also, it makes even more sense as a product of indigenous food science. When I learned about this as a young adult, this dish gave me a really important sense of validation of my ancestral intelligence. We were scientists, botanists, and powerhouse eaters in our own way, man.
Don't worry about the recipe. It doesn't have to be fancy. Just remember equal parts corn, beans, and squash. You can do many variations using your preferred cooking method. There are millions of combinations if you think about all the different strains of beans, squash, and corn. This is the gateway dish to decolonizing your diet and it will add the history of Native Americans to any Thanksgiving spread.
Do you have any advice on saying a toast this Thanksgiving? I would hate to tell people what to be grateful for, but I think that by taking that first step into identifying what indigenous foods are, you will realize that you've been eating them all the time already. Let's say you're passionate about the French dish ratatouille; you will see that 90 percent of that dish are indigenous foods. It is likely that a strong sense of gratitude will come from that realization.
I would say: Consider giving thanks for ancestral landscapes. All over the coasts and the United States, the most fruitful and agriculturally productive landscapes were once territories of native peoples. Rivers, fisheries, waterways, and other sources of food on land have genetic memories of food, just like we do.
Keep all these things in mind as you feast this year and always remember that we can cook and eat our way towards peace.
Thank you for speaking with me.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.