Rethinking Thanksgiving: Restorative ways to process a complicated holiday in Fort Wayne

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, some Americans might have mixed feelings about the celebration. While it can be an occasion to gather and reflect with family and friends, some find themselves grappling with inaccurate and harmful folklore of “pilgrims and Indians,” masking the harsh reality of U.S. history.

Diane Hunter is a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, based in northeastern Oklahoma, who acts as its Historic Preservation Officer. The Miami people, originally native to the Fort Wayne area, have been resettled in northeastern Oklahoma, eastern Kansas, and northern Indiana. Several members, like Hunter, are active in their communities and still connected to their native lands.

From right are Diane Hunter, Dani Tippmann, and Claudia Hedeen all of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma forage persimmon, an edible fruit off of a tree, on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne

In 1846, the tribe split into two groups when some of the Miami people living in Indiana were forcefully removed by the U.S. government and resettled to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River. The eastern group became known as the Miami Nation of Indians of the State of Indiana; the western group became the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The latter is federally recognized, while the Indiana group is not.

The Miami were not the only tribe to be uprooted, of course. Along with displacement, many Indigenous people have faced illness and genocide due to white settlers. This is why, to some, like Founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, the mainstream Thanksgiving narrative represents a “harmful lie,” as he opines in a November 2019 piece in Time Magazine.

“The thing is, we do not need the poisonous 'pilgrims and Indians' narrative,” he writes. “We do not need that illusion of past unity to actually unite people today. Instead, we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: Togetherness, generosity, and gratitude. And we can make the day about what everybody wants to talk and think about anyway: the food.”

Claudia Hedeen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, forages a mushroom from the genus Suillus with her dog Hobbes on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne.

Hunter herself does celebrate the holiday, but like Sherman, she looks at it differently from the Americana image portrayed by artist Norman Rockwell. She, too, prefers to fixate on shared values, while also correcting fictional historic accounts. 

For Fort Wayne and all U.S. residents, Hunter says it’s important to view the day through an objective lens, remembering that Thanksgiving, as a U.S. holiday, came out of an American Civil War-era effort to create unity in the country. It was during a more recent chapter in our country’s history that we began to whitewash, or soften, some of the more uncomfortable parts of our nation’s origin story.
 
“It was only in the mid-20th century that the focus turned to myths of pilgrims and Indians,” she says. “It is long past time to stop telling that myth, especially around Thanksgiving. Instead, people should learn and tell the more accurate story of early Europeans on Native land.” 

Claudia Hedeen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, forages a mushroom from the genus Suillus with her dog Hobbes on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne.

Along with correcting inaccurate depictions of the past and educating ourselves on the true stories of Indigenous people in the U.S., Hunter believes food can also play a role in rethinking Thanksgiving. As our land and food system are inextricably linked, she says dietary choices on Thanksgiving Day—and throughout the year—can be a starting point toward more mindful living and consuming.

“To make food less colonized might be to focus on foods from your local area or region or foods connected to your heritage,” she suggests.

Claudia Hedeen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma forages persimmon, an edible fruit off of a tree, on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne.

Still, she cautions that food itself is only a small step toward questioning cultural narratives and the deeper value systems that belie them. She relays a quote from Dani Tippmann, Kiihkayonki ARPA Community Food Program Director for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma: "It's not about what they put in their stomachs; it's what they put in their hearts.”
  
Regardless of what specifically you consume, it’s more about questioning your core values and what types of values your actions express to the world and those around you. This might involve changing your mindset around consumption, or reciprocating your consumption with thankfulness and regenerative action.

Claudia Hedeen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma forages persimmon, an edible fruit off of a tree, on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne.

Claudia Hadeen, ARPA Education and Wellness Coordinator for the Miami Tribe, suggests: “Every time we harvest, we have a thanksgiving. When we forage, as we take, we offer tobacco or hair to the plant—gratitude for the bounty available to us from the earth, from the Creator."

While foraging and harvesting might not be part of your weekly agenda, Thanksgiving offers us a reminder to reconsider how we consume multiple types of resources, what we offer in return, and how our decisions impact the broader community and world around us. These considerations are gaining momentum in Indiana as part of a movement to rethink and rebuild national and state-wide agricultural systems. 

Persimmon, an edible fruit, on the trees on Miami tribal property in Fort Wayne.

It’s a concept Michael Hoag of Fort Wayne, Founder of the permaculture consulting group Transformative Adventures, has explored in a project called “Decolonizing Permaculture.” 

For those who might not know, "permaculture," a term coined by Bill Mollison, refers to the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Hoag's business is an emerging nonprofit that offers a playbook of sorts for anyone wanting to participate in replicable, economically viable social and agricultural change.

Michael Hoag forages for edible plants and fruit including crab apples at Foster Park in Fort Wayne.

He believes "decolonizing permaculture" is necessary because, as Jesse Watson one permaculture activist writes in Permaculture Design Magazine, how we behave and interact with ecosystems is connected to the sordid history of our land. 

“If we genuinely care about the regeneration of ecosystems and culture, we should talk more openly about this tension of 'owning' 'stolen' land, especially when seeking relationships with contemporary Native peoples,” Watson writes.

With this in mind, Hoag regularly consults experts who are challenging the status quo. For instance, he had a recent conversation with the Indigenous consultant and Coach Dan Wapepah of First Nations Radio on the topic. When asked about his contributions to the "decolonizing permaculture" movement, Hoag shares his approach to “co-evolving and interacting with the land" in a way that benefits humans, animals, and the ecosystem.

Michael Hoag forages for edible plants and fruit including crab apples at Foster Park in Fort Wayne.

For instance, one favorite tool in his toolbox is known as zoning, or designating land for multiple uses, which can be applied to a variety of contexts and on different scales. A key takeaway from this practice is that “not every space has to be intensively managed for human needs,” he says. You still might gather firewood or forage in certain areas of your yard or undeveloped land, but you must be intentional to set aside land for other species—not just your own interests.

Michael Hoag forages for edible plants and fruit including wood sorrel at Foster Park in Fort Wayne.

In Hoag's estimation, Americans can be better stewards of the environment by looking to groups, like Indiana’s Indigenous people, for clues on how to move forward. 

“The Indigenous communities are the great stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity,” he says. “They've been doing the work they've been doing for thousands of years, so we should continue to support this work (instead of duplicating efforts).”

Michael Hoag forages for edible plants and fruit including chickweed at Foster Park in Fort Wayne.

One example of stewardship Hoag shares is attending an event, like the Food Sovereignty Symposium & Festival in Michigan. This is an occasion to meet Native leaders in the movement and learn more about how to support their work. To this end, Hoag suggests anyone interested in being an ally should first try to advance and amplify the work of Indigenous people instead of competing with them for limited resources.

He notes that, in many ways, U.S. and global corporations are making decisions about our food systems—and even our sustainability practices—to benefit shareholders, rather than the environment or local communities. He believes the more we can restore connections to each other and to our natural ecosystems, the more we can make true progress on creating a healthier, more conscious society. 

Michael Hoag shows off a hickory nut that he foraged from a hickory tree at Foster Park in Fort Wayne.

As part of his own personal practice of mindfulness, Hoag forages and grows edible plants to feel more rooted in nature. He also tries to shop at local farmers markets and food co-ops, where a greater percentage of profits stay in the local community and support local businesses and growers, replenishing our region’s ability to sustain itself. 

Ultimately, his hope is that by engaging in such activities, people will make more informed choices in all areas of their lives that impact wellbeing and the planet. 

“In building a direct relationship with nature, the more we feel responsible for it and are in kinship with it,” he says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.