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Raymond Uses The Knife, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that puts food and people front and center: meat and vegetables, Pilgrims and Indians. But ever since I visited the Sacred Stone Encampment of the Standing Rock Sioux, I’ve been thinking more deeply about the foods and people commonly linked to Thanksgiving, and about the complicated nexus of culture, history, mythology, environment, food, and community that the holiday embodies.

And so it happened that, like Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas, Raymond Uses The Knife became my guide to Thanksgivings past, present, and future–without either of us being aware of it at the time. As the sun was setting on a brilliant early-October day, Raymond fished a piece of golden fry bread out of the kettle of bubbling hot oil. He held it gently yet firmly in his cupped palm and offered it to me and my friends. We took turns breaking off pieces of the crispy crust and soft dough beneath, standing under the true-blue sky arching above the Native American flags, peoples, horses, teepees, land, and river near Cannonball, North Dakota.

That river, the Cannonball, is a tributary of the Missouri River. And these waters are what the people at the Sacred Stone Encampment are protecting from “the black snake,” the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL). The DAPL route was shifted from crossing under the Missouri near Bismarck, to crossing a scant half-mile from the Standing Rock reservation, where any leak or break would devastate the water the tribe uses for irrigation and drinking.

This is far from the first time that Native peoples have sought to preserve and protect water and land. As David Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, wrote in the New York Times:

 When the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River in 1958, it took our riverfront forests, fruit orchards and most fertile farmland to create Lake Oahe. Now the Corps is taking our clean water and sacred places by approving this river crossing. Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity. …  Protecting water and our sacred places has always been at the center of our cause. … As American citizens, we all have a responsibility to speak for a vision of the future that is safe and productive for our grandchildren.

Fry Bread

Fry Bread

The image of Raymond Uses The Knife and other Native peoples protecting water and offering food has stayed with me—and grown in complexity—particularly as Thanksgiving approaches. I have always loved Thanksgiving. After all, what’s not to love about a holiday where family and friends come together to feast in a spirit of gratitude.

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. Genocide, for starters. Land grabs. Treaties broken time and again, from Plymouth Rock to Standing Rock.  Even the fry bread we shared has a painful history. The U.S. government gave white flour, processed sugar, and lard to the peoples they had evicted from their ancestral lands and forced to travel long distances to reservations. While this cheap food prevented people from starving, it led to crippling illnesses over generations.

The “First Thanksgiving”

It turns out that “the first Thanksgiving,” too, has a painful history and is as full of myth as Plymouth Rock itself.  The truth is that, after the brutal first winter of 1620, during which the colonists raided the Wampanoag food supplies and desecrated their grave sites to scavenge seeds, pots, and tools, Native Americans turned the other cheek. They sought out an alliance for mutual protection and taught the colonists their foodways, helping them harvest native plants and animals, and plant and tend their “three sisters of life,” corn, beans, and squashes.

So the next autumn, after a bountiful harvest, the colonists held a harvest festival. The Wampanoag were not invited and did not even know about the feast. But they came running to the colonists’ aid when they heard gunfire. It turns out that the colonists “exercised our arms” and had sent “four men on fowling”–both phrases from the account of Edward Winslow, one of only two historical sources mentioning the harvest celebration. When Chief Massasoit and 90 of his men showed up to help colonists they assumed were under attack, they were invited to join the feast. But because there was not enough food on hand for all the Wampanoag, Massasoit sent his men out hunting and they brought back five deer to present as a gift to William Bradford, governor of the colonists.

And so Thanksgiving has become inextricably linked with the story of mutual kindness and food sharing between colonists and Native Americans. Yet within just a couple of generations, the generosity of the Wampanoag had been repaid with violence and a forced exodus from their ancestral lands. In 1970, Wamsutta (Frank B.) James, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, was invited, and then disinvited, to speak on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival. This is an excerpt from the full text of his suppressed speech:

Today is a time of celebrating for you — a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.

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And yet this year at Standing Rock, Native Americans from across the continent and across the world have come together, with supporters of every nationality and ethnicity, to stand up for what they love: precious land and water.  That deep love was evident from the moment that Raymond Uses The Knife, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, agreed to meet me and a couple of my friends and show us around.

But the most moving moments took place when Raymond escorted us a mile up the road to what he called “ground zero.” This was the high bluff where the earth moving and pipe-laying machinery had been stopped mere miles from the Missouri River. On an impulse, I grabbed seeds from our car — Hidatsa Shield bean seeds and True Gold sweet corn seeds we had received the day before from Teresa, Dan, and Dave Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Seed near Fullerton, North Dakota.

Prairie Road Organic Seed sweet corn

Prairie Road Organic Seed’s True Gold Sweet Corn

We clambered up a steep embankment and stepped over a flimsy fence.  Just inside the fence, facing the long dark scar stretching to the horizon, with the Missouri River back behind his shoulder, Raymond raised his hands up to the heavens.  In a low voice he prayed in his native language, one spoken by just a few thousand people. I did not understand the soft and halting words, but I understood the depth of emotion and unwavering commitment they embodied.

I then handed him some of the seeds, and together we knelt where the machines had stopped, using our fingers to scrape shallow holes out of the hard earth, placing the seeds in, and patting the earth back on top of them. As I patted (longer than was strictly necessary), I imagined the seeds going into dormancy over the winter. And I imagined them sending down roots in early spring, drawing up water and nutrients, the energy for the seedling to shoulder its way out of the dark earth and into the sunlight. Then I imagined the plants growing stronger, leaf by leaf, until they were standing tall, blossoming, and bearing fruit.

From one glossy brown and white patterned Hidatsa Shield bean would come many. And for that miracle we thank soil, sun, and water. And we thank the Hidatsa people, whose villages along the Knife River, another tributary of the Missouri, go back at least to the 13th century. They domesticated, bred, and grew this bean as a delicious and nutritious part of their diet for countless years. The beans are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, and were boarded onto Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste in 2005.

And from one shriveled kernel of sweet corn would come a sturdy stalk bearing one or more ears, boasting 500 or more kernels. And thanks for this, too, goes to sun, soil, water, and countless Native peoples across the continent who developed thousands of varieties of corn.

As I planted, I thought of the words with which Wamsutta closed his unspoken speech: “What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America, where people and nature once again are important.”

And so as the sun set and the light slanted ever more obliquely over the Missouri River, we broke off smaller and smaller pieces of fry bread to delay saying goodbye to Raymond, willing time to move more slowly, the sun to linger longer, and our connection to the land and to each other to continue to gather strength in a new spirit of Thanksgiving.