Reimagining Thanksgiving

Conversations with Beatrice Ojakangas, Loretta Oden and Denise Alden, from Issue #3, 2020

Mulling over the tradition of Thanksgiving during a year of unprecedented crises, we called up three women we admire to ask how – and whether – they’re celebrating Thanksgiving this year.

Beatrice Ojakangas paused a long moment when we asked what she’s serving. “Memories, my dear. I’m serving memories.” Having recently moved from a sprawling farmhouse to an apartment in Duluth, she kept her meal simple – small turkey breast, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie – leaving plenty of room for the loaves of limpa rye bread she’s cooked daily for friends and neighbors. “In baking bread, I revel in memories.” END. “What continues to engage me and bring me joy, day after day, is baking bread. A different loaf each day, and what we don’t finish, I gift to my neighbors or freeze. The rhythms of kneading dough and the scent of a freshly baked loaf is a ritual I rely on. Meanwhile, I am still trying to figure out how to shrink our outsized life of travel and friends into a smaller space...so, in making and baking bread, I revel in memories.”

Her 31st book, Soup and Bread was recently reissued in paperback - check it out!


Potawotami Chef Loretta Oden is considered a founding mother of contemporary indigenous cooking. Oden’s Corn Dance Cafe in, Santa Fe, N.M. was among the very first to feature a menu of seasonal, indigenous ingredients, and through her PBS series, “Seasoned with Spirit: a Native Cook’s Journey,” Oden introduced the American public to the Native American culinary landscape covering the overlooked riches and stories of our shared history. [She still celebratesThanksgiving, and in her teaching and writing on food history, emphasizes cultural exchange, not appropriation. As descendants of white settlers, we ourselves try to be mindful of the power dynamics within cultural exchange, and to not conflate exchange with theft. But Oden tends to bristle at contemporary debates around cultural appropriation: “Food is food. Food is nourishment and caring; its universal. These ingredients have been around the world and back, and everyone uses them. This is our shared history and bounty.”] END.

 Her drive to reinterpret Native American food has sparked national interest in and respect for indigenous cuisine. She is among the first American Indian chefs to research and work with pre-colonial, pre-contact ingredients, inspiring  a vital group of young chefs across North America and Canada now using food culture to celebrate and empower Native Peoples.

Beth has been working with Oden on a manuscript for a cookbook that tells her story and collects her lively, delicious recipes that seem so right for the way we all want to eat today (gluten-free, dairy-free, high protein). Generous and open-hearted, Oden’s work celebrates “the diversity of our different regions and the foodways of over 500 tribal nations, true American cuisine varied and rich that rivals that of France or Italy,” she says. In her lectures, she explores little-known histories, like  how potatoes became an iconic Irish food, and how tomatoes traveled from the Americas to Italy and back again.”

As descendants of white settlers, we ourselves try to be mindful of the power dynamics within cultural exchange, and to not conflate exchange with theft. But Oden tends to bristle at contemporary debates around cultural appropriation: “Food is food. Food is nourishment and caring; its universal. These ingredients have been around the world and back, and everyone uses them. This is our shared history and bounty.”


Denise Alden of Eagan, Minn. decided in late summer that she wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving this year. “I’m a person who loves to cook. Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl! It was so startling and surprising to me,” to come to that decision, she says. 

Alden co-facilitates Hey White Lady, a “racial work out space for white women to leave denial and enter into anti-racism,” along with Kristen Froebel, a childhood friend of Alden’s (and long-ago music teacher and babysitter of the Dooley boys!) She says the manufactured tradition of Thanksgiving, especially the “obscene fairy tale laid over it about Pilgrims and Indians,” has felt less and less aligned with her values, especially as her consciousness of white supremacy has crystallized during this year of crisis.

As part of her antiracism education, she’s been learning more about the land she lives on, and why there are strange road names like “Yankee Doodle,” and “Pilot Knob” in her neighborhood, which sits near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The confluence was a sacred place of origin for the Mdewakanton Dakota, and what’s called “Pilot Knob” today was for centuries a sacred Dakota burial site called Oheyawahi. In one of countless cruel twists in U.S - Indian relations, Mdewakanton and Wapekute peoples were imprisoned directly beneath Oheyawahi by the U.S. Army in the 1860’s.

Encountering this history spurred Alden to learn about Native land reclamation projects like Makoce Ikikcupi, a Dakota project to create new communities for Dakota peoples on their ancestral lands. To Alden, these kinds of grassroots efforts, along with public policy changes, are the drivers of change. “It’s not some great thing I’m doing,” Alden says of her decision to leave Thanksgiving behind. “and I get it, traditions are comforting...but I practice gratitude every day, and it doesn’t have to be associated with this made up day that supports a rotting foundation.”

In the absence of all that cooking and baking, she’s been reflecting on the dual nature of traditions – how they can be both a comfort and a shackle – and enjoying more time to take long walks along the river after a long year of caretaking for her in-laws. “All I’ve felt in the days and weeks leading up is relief,” she says. “Like, ‘oh yeah, I’m not doing that anymore.’”

Learn more & donate to Makoce Ikikcupi here, and explore the history of Oheyawahi here at Red Hawks Online.