An Indigenous Thanksgiving

Did you know that the New England indigenous tribes had been celebrating “Thanksgiving” for centuries, long before the Pilgrims came to America? Not only had these tribes been celebrating the fall harvest for generations, it was part of their culture to celebrate the Earth’s bounty and the Creator every single day. 

The Thanksgiving that has been made famous by American fable happened in 1621. It was less of the indigenous tribes teaching the Pilgrims how to survive the winter, and more of a political move by the Pilgrims. The Plymouth Colony governor, William Bradford, invited Massasoit, the Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Federation, to join the Pilgrims for the Pilgrim’s fall harvest feast. What the Pilgrims didn’t expect was that Massasoit brought 90 warriors with him in order to prevent any kind of funny business. Massasoit and his warriors brought plenty to contribute to the feast including lobster, oysters, venison, squash, and even maple syrup! 

For years, the tribes in New England and Plymouth Colony were able to keep the peace. But as we know from history, peace never lasts very long. 

This Thanksgiving, whether we choose to stay put or safely gather (in groups less than 10 and with other quarantining family members), let’s remember the rich history and traditions of the hundreds of individual Indigenous tribes who took care of this land long before it became the United States we know today. 

This Thanksgiving, consider making an indigenous American recipe in order to learn about a new culture and keep these rich cultures alive.

Mette Nielsen

Wild Rice Cakes

Recipe courtesy of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley

Makes about 4 to 6 cakes

The recipe for these couldn’t be simpler. It’s just overcooked wild rice, pureed into a thick dough. We like to stir in a little cooked wild rice for texture. Once shaped, these will keep several days in the refrigerator, so feel free to make them ahead. Leftovers may be re-crisped in a low oven until warmed through.

2 cups cooked wild rice

About 3 cups water

Pinch salt

Generous pinch maple sugar

3 to 4 tablespoons sunflower oil or more as needed


Put 1 1/2 cups cooked wild rice and water into a saucepan, reserving 1/2 cup. Place over high heat, bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the rice is very soft and the water has evaporated. Drain. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree the rice into a sticky dough. Place the dough into a medium bowl and work in the salt, sugar and the remaining cooked rice.

Scoop out a scant 1/4 cup dough for each patty and shape to rounds about 1/2-inch thick. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and brown the patties about 5 to 8 minutes per side until lightly browned. Transfer the patties to a baking sheet and place in a warm oven until ready to serve.

Wikimedia Commons / Tim1965

Baked Pumpkin

Members of the Chippewa tribe near Lake Superior have been enjoying this savory side dish for generations.


1 small pumpkin

1/4 cup apple cider

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup melted butter


Put the entire pumpkin in your oven and bake at 350 °F for about two hours. Cut the baked pumpkin in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds from inside, spreading the pulp into a casserole dish.

Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour over the pumpkin. Bake for another 35 minutes.

YouTube / Visit Finger Lakes

Three Sisters Soup

Several tribes relied on the “three sisters” of corn, squash, and beans to survive harsh winters back in the day.


4 lbs. winter squash

4 quarts vegetable stock (or water)

2 small diced yellow onions

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup chopped garlic

2 tsps. dried thyme

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1 lb. fresh or frozen corn kernels

4 cans cannellini beans

1 bunch sliced green onions

1/2 cup white wine

1 large bay leaf


Preheat your oven to 350 °F. Slice your squash in half and scoop out the seeds, then roast for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool once soft, then scrape out the flesh and save the liquid for later. Blend until totally smooth (you can use a food processor or blender).

Sauté onions in a large pot over medium heat until brown, then add garlic, thyme, and black pepper, stirring until the garlic turns brown as well.

Pour in the stock and follow with the bay leaf, wine, and squash. Allow it to simmer for a few minutes before adding the rest of your ingredients. Simmer for about 20 minutes total.