Thanksgiving evokes complex emotions for many Americans. The holiday has much symbolic and emotional work to accomplish: it is a celebration of families (however dysfunctional), a harvest festival, an occasion for civic parades, a last rest before entering the Christmas shopping gauntlet, and an official holiday (for most of us) from work and school. Buried beneath these functions, and distorted by kitsch, lies Thanksgiving's status as the United States' closest national equivalent to an Indigenous People's Day.* The holiday allegedly commemorates the first formal act of friendship, a 1621 exchange of food and hospitable company, between English colonists and Wampanoag townsmen in southeastern Massachusetts. The feast probably did not occur, at least not in the form portrayed in countless school pageants (and mercilessly skewered by Addams Family Values), but if we think of Indigenous American history more broadly, the holiday can remind us of one useful truth: food and hospitality served indispensible functions in Native American diplomacy and political life.
That human beings cannot live without food, that in some ways a human is “merely a bag for putting food into” (as George Orwell remarked in The Road to Wigan Pier ), was a truth obvious to early modern Europeans and Indians. That Eastern Indians and Europeans initially considered one another's foodstuffs peculiar and hard to digest is a point worth recalling. Eighteenth-century Pennsylvanians found their Indian neighbors' diet bland at best and indigestible at worst - “not all Asseroni [axe-makers]” could eat Native foods, one Seneca observed. A few decades later the fur trader George Nelson complained that the Ojibwas' intermittent and meat-rich winter diet gave him severe digestive trouble. Doubtless Native Americans had similar reactions to Europeans' glutinous wheat bread and well-nigh-indigestible cow's milk. Yet learning to eat one another's food, and even to find it savory, helped diminish the alienness of the other ethnic group. If one can derive vital sustenance from a stranger's foodways, that stranger becomes slightly less strange, slightly more like a kinsman. Mary Rowlandson, captured and held for ransom during King Philip's (Metacom's) War, initially found herself unable to eat her Wampanoag captors' survival rations – their “filthy trash,” she called it. Hunger, however, soon drove her to appreciate such delicacies as ground nuts, bear meat, and deer fetus, and as she did so she found it easier to appreciate some of the small kindnesses and considerations her captors extended to her, like giving her a larger portion of tree-bark broth or trading extra food for sewing.
Dining together could counter cultural alienation (much of the time), and it usually raised the diners' blood-sugar levels and lowered their anxiety. It thus became a common feature of interethnic diplomacy. Pennsylvanians, James Merrell noted, held dinners at treaty conferences where they fed anywhere from a dozen to three hundred Indian men, women, and children. American commissioners at the 1785 Hopewell conference, cash-strapped as they were, still made sure to feed the 900 Cherokees in attendance and then invited several of their chiefs to a Christmas dinner. Attending another treaty council with the southern Great Lakes Indians in 1792, commissioner Rufus Putnam brought with him several tons of beef, flour, whiskey, and other provisions for the Native American conferees. Even the dyspeptic John Adams attended a diplomatic dinner for the American-allied Kahnewakes, though he confided that he found their table manners appalling.
Native American leaders, meanwhile, offered hospitality to whites who visited them or took up residence near their communities. The Peorias larded Jacques Marquette and his companions with meat and corn during their visit in 1673, practically feeding the French emissaries by hand. The Mandan chief Sheheke gave William Clark a dish of corn and an honored seat in his home when the Corps of Discovery first visited him in 1804. For the Iroquois and Great Lakes Indians, eating became part of their repertoire of diplomatic metaphors, as speakers from these nations referred to friendly relations as “eating from a common dish” or “common bowl.”
Food also became an important element of Indian-European commerce. Ojibwa and Menominee families sold some of their surplus staples, like wild rice and maple sugar, to white fur traders and copper miners. Indeed, once they realized they would starve without Indians, whites in northern Wisconsin and Michigan petitioned the U.S. War Department not to remove the Odawas and Ojibwas, most of whom successfully avoided Removal in the 1850s. On the Canadian Plains, the trade in pemmican, the dried mixture of fat and meat and berries that served as concentrated trail rations, became a vital supplement to the Cree peltry trade. Commerce was not always the same thing as diplomacy, but most Indians saw the two as complementary.
Some Native Americans even identified two commonly-traded drugs, liquor and tobacco, with food. The northern Great Lakes Indians referred to alcohol as “milk,” the fundamental foodstuff binding families (and, by extension, peoples) together, while tobacco, in addition to its role as a ritual agent joining smokers in a common circle, also suppressed the appetite and made one feel full. Smoke this tobacco, the Odawa chief Kitanokey told American correspondents in a message accompanying a gift of that plant, and “you [will] feel as you would after a full meal.”
This is not to suggest I want Americans to start lighting up at Thanksgiving, or drinking more alcohol than they already do, or even supplementing their usual quasi-indigenous courses of turkey and cranberry sauce with wild rice, bison steaks, bean bread, or maple candy. Rather, I want to suggest that in making Thanksgiving a celebration of one's blood relations, we have lost sight of its historical roots (invented though the tradition may be), and that we do well to consider the role food played in Indian-white relations. Feasting turned strangers into potential friends, and humanized people in the eyes of potential enemies. If we want to apply this useful lesson to our own experience, we should perhaps turn Thanksgiving into a meal we eat with friends and acquaintances we would like to know better, rather than with our extended families.** We will have time enough, in any case, to dine and laugh and fight with our relatives at our other national debauch, Christmas.
* Columbus Day, as currently conceived, represents the near-opposite: a negation of Indians' lives and importance.
** One of your humble narrator's best Thanksgivings he spent in Kentucky, where friends invited him to three separate dinners. By dint of careful planning he was able to attend all three.
John Bakeless and Landon Jones, eds., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (rep., New York, 2011)
Brenda Child, Holding Our World Together (New York, 2012).
Allan Greer, ed., The Jesuit Relations (Boston, 2000)
Michael LaCombe, Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World (Philadelphia, 2012)
James Merrell, Into the American Woods (New York, 1999), “Asseroni” at 137.
Lucy Murphy, “Autonomy and the Economic Roles of Indian Women of the Fox-Wisconsin River Region,” in Nancy Shoemaker, ed., Negotiators of Change (New York, 1995), 72-89.
George Nelson, My First Years in the Fur Trade (St. Paul, 2002)
Nichols, Red Gentlemen & White Savages (Charlottesville, 2008), Kitanokey quote at 48.
Arthur Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade (Toronto, 1974)
Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, ed. Neil Salisbury (Boston, 1997), “filthy trash” at 79.
Daniel Usner, “'A Savage Feast They Made of It,'” Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Winter 2013): 607-41.
Bruce White, “'Give Us a Little Milk',” Minnesota History 48 (Summer 1982): 60-71.
Robert Williams, Linking Arms Together (New York, 1997) - “common dish” at 126-131.