A whole new world: Beyond the Thanksgiving myth

That meal again

Before you sit down at the groaning board to tuck into that Thanksgiving feast, pause a moment.

If you’re going traditional, here’s what is probably on your table:

strip of dinner table showing dishes of unfocused red food in foreground (possibly cranberries), green beans sharply focused behind them, and then, in succession and gradually losing focus, bread stuffing and a platter of turkey slices and pieces

Look familiar?
“Thanksgiving Spread” by CarbonNYC [in SF!] is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  • turkey
  • cranberry sauce
  • some kind of bread stuffing–cornbread, perhaps?
  • mashed potatoes
  • sweet potatoes
  • green beans
  • pumpkin or squash pie

We’ll set aside the creamed onions and the brussels sprouts, occasionally subjects of controversy. Besides, they don’t really belong there with the others. Because there is one big thing the others have in common with each other besides the table:

They are all native to the Americas, and the vegetable elements were all developed by the original inhabitants of our hemisphere. (Humor me on the cornbread stuffing. It tastes better, anyway. Or maybe you could have a corn pudding.)

Official tribal seal with Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe lettering in purple around outside circumference, 2 golden lines circling inside that, around a purple strip containing several names, and a circle in center with deer antlers, a wolf or coyote, a sea turtle atop waving blue lines in front of a sun with long rays, grasses, a plant and ceremonial object, against a white background

“Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Seal” by Native American Seals/Logos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I figured that for this week I should say something about Thanksgiving, since I’m sure that is much on most of our minds right now.

I considered a number of possible themes. Gratitude that those of us celebrating are still alive and mostly healthy, despite the losses to pandemic that probably every one of us has suffered by now in some way—loved ones, livelihoods, sense of safety, and, of course, the loss for most of the chance of sitting down with loved ones outside our households—and still mostly sane despite the insanity raging around us.

Or I could note that the holiday supposedly marks a celebration between peoples: the original inhabitants of what we now call Massachusetts, and the pale-faced interlopers who arrived and took it upon themselves to name it that, before they also took it upon themselves to claim most of the land and….

But I promised myself not to rant. That rules out a number of other themes that might pertain to this week.

Back to the garden…

So I will move sideways. This is, after all, a gardening blog, so I can always get into plants. Most of that first Thanksgiving feast, which was not called Thanksgiving until some time later, was plant-based, but let’s give the native wild turkey a nod. They may have shown up too.

Five wild turkeys in a line on grass at top of a rise, with trees and blue sky showing behind them

“Five Wild Turkeys” by Me in ME is licensed under CC BY 2.0

But actually, most of the meat probably was venison, from the five deer contributed by the native people, the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Even if the Pilgrims grew most of the vegetable matter served at that feast, a lot of it has to have originated from their new environment, thanks to knowledge imparted by their generous neighbors.

I suspected that, but when I went looking for information about the food and other useful plants we now take for granted that are native to the Americas, I was stunned to find how much the Native American peoples had made use of what they found growing when they first got here many thousands of years back.

Some plants they foraged for rather than domesticating. Others, they cultivated. Like me, you are probably most aware of the plants they cultivated, especially:

Corn. Photo showing top half of a partly-husked ear of corn, resting horizontally on a purple and white-striped cloth

Corn, or maize
“corn” by Muffet is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Two halves of cooked delicata squash lying on a wooden surface with tablespoon behind them.

“delicata squash” by Stacy Spensley is licensed under CC BY 2.0

closeup of fresh green beans, tossed randomly and filling entire frame

“green beans” by Chasqui (Luis Tamayo) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Dried beans randomly combined (red kidney beans, buff-and-brown pinto beans, small white beans, and one tiny black bean) with the mouth of a metal scoop digging into them, and a circular magnified section of beans showing in the center

… and more beans.
“Beans – Magnified” by Scott 97006 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Corn or maize began in what is now Mexico, where Native American agriculturalists selectively bred from a seed-bearing grass called teosinte.

The first peoples of the Americas were not just crackerjack farmers but also amazing plant breeders, and not just in Mexico. Maize proved a great staple for many of the Indigenous people living further north, since it stored well when dried. The peoples in different regions gradually adapted corn to their local growing conditions.

In what ended up as the northeastern part of the US, well before the English arrived the Native American peoples had developed varieties of maize that could mature in the short northern growing season, ripening in as little as 60 to 65 days from planting. They used a cultivation practice called “three sisters,” in which maize, squash, and beans planted together maximized harvests. The beans replenished nitrogen in the soil, and the squash vines spread out and suppressed most weeds.

Other contributions by the Americas to our food-plant pantheon include Chilis and Chocolate. These, as you may know, are two of the basic food groups. The others are Butter, Garlic, and Sugar, and aside from Garlic, I think the Native American foods are by far the healthiest.

Turkey leg in mole sauce with small seeds, with small scoop of rice and a couple of indistinct greens behind it, all on a blue and white patterned plate

“Turkey mole” by monoglot is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Well, they’re my basic food groups. I know the killjoys at the USDA have a different take.

If you want to celebrate those two C’s on Thanksgiving, let me recommend turkey mole (pronounced mo-lay), with a sauce that combines the two of them along with a bunch of other delectable ingredients.

Scene from Ecuadorian market, with two market women seated on ground, wearing white narrow-brimmed hats and red shawls, behind a mat displaying ten or more different types of potato; market-goers in background stand behind the woman, while another woman sits or kneels behind the two

“Ecuadorian Women Sitting Behind a Variety of Potatoes” by Global Crop Diversity Trust is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This list already seems like a lot of contributions, but there truly is a mind-boggling variety and abundance of native plants discovered, developed, and used as food by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I could mention potatoes, if only for the shock effect. According to the International Potato Center, as many as four thousand different potato varieties originated in the Americas, mostly in the Andes. These do not include the sweet potato, a different plant altogether, which also hails from the Americas.

The Americas have given us vegetables galore. In addition to those commonly on the Thanksgiving table, we have avocados (I know, technically a fruit), fiddleheads, peanuts (a legume, not a real nut), ramps, Jerusalem artichokes. In addition to corn and potatoes, North and South America have provided staples such as wild rice, amaranth (the leaves make nice greens as well), cassava, and quinoa. Numerous fruits hail from this hemisphere, including pawpaws, papayas, pineapples, and American persimmon, along with raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, ground cherries, elderberries, and salmonberries. And of course the tomato, technically an oversized berry. Then we have black walnuts, beechnuts, butternuts, sunflower seeds. Even vanilla!

Going geeky for a moment

This list is far from exhaustive. Native Americans knew everything on whole long list that grew in their environments, and sometimes introduced more from other Indigenous groups they interacted with. In 2010, the ethnobotanist Daniel E. Moerman published a compilation, Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, in which the listing of plants runs for approximately 250 pages. (I would love to read it; unfortunately, the only copy for sale anywhere right now is a used one running $562, a fair bit more than the publisher’s $39.95 list price, and interlibrary loans these days are as slow as the Mayflower’s trip across the Atlantic.)

Prof. Moerman has also given us a second ethnobotanical dictionary, Native American Medicinal Plants, which catalogs some 3000 plants in whose medical uses Native American tribes developed expertise. That one is available in paperback, and if you are herbalistically inclined you might want to take a look. If you just want to check out a few native plants as food or medicine, you could resort to the the good professor’s searchable online database, Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants. You can search by common or botanical name of plants, or by just about any term you’re interested in.

Closeup of monarch butterfly perched atop yellow and orange flower cluster of asclepias plant, a few small leaves under the flowers

Asclepias, not just for butterflies any more!
“Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed” by Martin LaBar is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Somewhere among these or other sources I’ve been consulting, I’ve gained new respect for the native flowers I planted in my rudimentary pollinator garden. Turns out they’re good for a lot more than bringing in butterflies. Various parts of the echinacea (coneflower) can be used to relieve the pain of toothache, burns, or sore throat; to make a poultice to reduce swelling from mumps; to make an antidote to some poisons and venoms. Different species of asclepias (milkweed) not only nourish the monarch butterfly’s caterpillars, but also furnish everything from candy to cordage to snakebite remedies to relief from nasal congestion. Achillea (yarrow) can lower a fever, control a cold, or ease labor pains.

You get the idea. I am already hatching new plans about what should go into the pollinator garden next year.

Making up lost ground

All of this, and much, much more, the peoples of the Americas—many of them supposedly “primitive”—had figured out well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue or the Mayflower crew picked a landing spot. In the decades and centuries after Europeans rammed their way in, Indigenous civilizations were disrupted by a massive wave of death caused by imported diseases like smallpox, which in the century or so after the Spanish conquest may have killed off as many as 8 or 9 in 10 of the original population. In the US, with westward expansion, Indigenous peoples were repeatedly forced from their land, were subjected to forced marches, lost their traditional livelihoods, and even (by the early 20th century) often had their children wrested from them and sent off to boarding schools designed to teach traditional culture out of them. (This is a recitation of facts, not a rant.)

Not surprisingly, under such circumstances, much of the indigenous knowledge was lost or vitiated. But in recent decades, tribes and their allies have been gradually reconstructing their knowledge heritage, and some of that means reviving the old understandings of agriculture and native plants. The revival is taking different forms in different places, but tribes engaged in these efforts communicate on their work and sometimes collaborate; they find, preserve, and sometimes distribute heritage seeds, and educate the public on the agricultural wisdom and related cultural practices recovered. You can find many stories about how this work began, and possibly (once pandemic times have ended) visit some of the experiments. Here is a partial list, arranged by region:

  • New England:

Abenaki tribe, Vermont: Seeds of Renewal at Vermont Indigenous Heritage Center, and the Abenaki Heritage Garden; this latter link is to a PDF document designed for folding after printing.

  • Great Lakes Region:

Great Lakes Region IAC. Tribal agriculture in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. https://iacgreatlakes.com

White Earth Lands Recovery Project, Archive for seed sovereignty (https://welrp.wordpress.com/category/seed-sovereignty/)

  • New Mexico and Arizona:

Traditional Native American Farmers Association

New Mexico Acequia Association (promoting agriculture by protecting water)

Declaration of Seed Sovereignty (highlights threat to indigenous agriculture and crops from genetically modified organisms)

Native Seeds Search (finds, saves, and sells native varieties suited to Southwest climate; you can order seeds online or put in an order for the 2021 catalog)

  • If you know of any other such efforts in your region, please tell us about them in a comment, or shoot me an email.

Right now is the perfect time to dig into these and other materials, because November is Native American and Alaska Native Heritage Month. And on Turkey Day, before or after or instead of a football game, and after you’ve eaten all those good things that we’d never have known about if it weren’t for Native Americans, you could watch some of the short clips from PBS American Experience: Native Americans collection or check out some of the films at the Smithsonian Institution’s Native Cinema Showcase (films may be available for only a limited time after the official showing date, so don’t wait!).

For the longer term, if you’re the reading type, you may want to take a look at Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, which, by shifting perspective to that of the continent’s native peoples, offers your brain a revivifying workout. It did for me, anyway. There’s also a version of the book for young people, in case you’re starting your holiday gift shopping. (The links in this paragraph and one above are affiliate links for Bookshop.org; if you buy from them, you help support independent bookstores across the country. But full disclosure: your purchase would also provide a tiny bit of income to help support this blog.)

Tying up one little loose end

2 tractor plants (Giant leopard plant) in bloom in front of tree trunk; large medium-green leaves low to ground, with spires of yellow flower clusters rising well above the leaves

Giant leopard plants, locally known as “tractor plants,” in bloom in November
Photo by Hillary

Closeup of the bright yellow flower clusters, each small flower daisy-shaped with bright yellow petals and darker yellow centers, with a couple of tiny bees visiting a couple of flowers; backdrop of the bright green leaves

Giant leopard plant, known to the botanists’ world as Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’
Photo by Hillary

Hillary’s garden in Charleston, SC is a gift that goes on giving. Next week we are promised a photo of the sasanqua camellia in full flaunt. In the meantime, she tells me she has found out what that “tractor plant” is called beyond the local area: Giant leopard plant. She sent photos of it coming into bloom.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, this is a native of Japan and/or East Asia. The leaves of the Giant variety can grow to 18 inches across–as big as a tractor seat, for sure.

The plant grows in USDA Zones 7 to 10, which means its territory can extend along the US’s east coast all the way from Florida up till you butt against PA and NJ’s southern borders, all across the southern parts of the US, and nearly all of west-coast areas except for where mountains mess up the fun.

Your turn!

I’d love to hear back from you. The easiest way is for you to post a comment below. If you haven’t posted before, there may be a brief delay because I have to approve new comments in order to avoid spamming. After your first comment, though, anything you post after giving the same email address should sail right through. (I am the only one who sees you email address.)

And please do consider subscribing to the “newsletter” (which at this point consists only of notifications when new blog posts go up).

Do you need a discussion question to get you going? Here are a few:

  1. What native foods, and what imports, will be on your Thanksgiving table?
  2. Do you think I should provide more of this sort of informational posting?
  3. How is biodiversity faring in the area where you live?


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6 Responses to A whole new world: Beyond the Thanksgiving myth

  1. Laurie says:

    I love this view that includes so richly the wealth of food history from our first family of these lands! It is good to know they are reclaiming the knowledge that was systematically stamped down and thrown away in an attempt to make them disappear. We are blessed that some currently say “we are still here”. Embracing them now is our hope for a healed healthy future.

    • Kateri says:

      Amen to that, Laurie!
      After the post went up, I got the post-Thanksgiving newsletter from one of our local CSA farms, which included a list of books recommended by an Indigenous people’s collective. I’ll follow up on that at some point in the next couple of posts.

  2. This is excellent Kate! Thanks so all the cool native info. peace.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for visiting, Teague, and come back again soon! (And pass the word to your gardening friends, when you can.)

  3. Teresa Woodland says:

    I will share this with my kids. Kaishang calls Massachusetts magic cheezits!

    • Kateri says:

      I think that is the best mnemonic I’ve ever heard of!
      By the way, some of those PBS clips might be great for the kids to learn from about Native Americans and their history.

Comments are closed.