Patricia Joseph is annoyed. “May all beings come to the table and be fed,” reads a handmade sign in her pantry—but even still, that doesn’t mean all beings have to be underfoot in her kitchen today, on Thanksgiving. It’s tight in here after all, one oven and a few burners, tables pushed together to form an island of activity, where turkeys are stuffed and potatoes are mashed and apples are sliced for pies. Grandma sits in the corner slicing ham by a wood stove. In the dining room out front there’s a Christmas tree strung with twinkling lights. If you tighten the focus enough, you might confuse it for an American pastoral; might choose to see only the sentimental bits. But that’s a luxury for a visitor to the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock Sioux reservation. For the thousands of indigenous people who have moved their lives here, it’s hard to see a rosy picture.
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Oceti Sakowin is one of a few encampments that have sprung up on this vast patch of North Dakota prairie, clustered where the Missouri and Cannonball rivers meet. It’s the site of a Native-led resistance to stop the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that will deliver crude oil across four states—blasting through sacred sites and threatening the region’s water supply along the way. Since last spring the protest has drawn representatives from tribes all over the country, who recognize their own long struggles with colonial muscle in the DAPL stand-off. Non-native allies and environmental activists came too, and eventually reporters—a rush of them arrived after footage of police turning water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets on the water protectors went viral just before Thanksgiving. And so, on Thanksgiving day, the grounds at Oceti Sakowin camp were packed. And all of them—the protectors, the elders, the children, the journalists searching for a signal on “Facebook Hill,” the allies, the odd celebrity empath, the lookie-loo vagabonds, the displaced house pets, the legacy horses—all of them needed to eat.
Joseph’s kitchen is just one of a handful of provisional canteens that took root at the camps over the summer. The main kitchen is the first, largest and most ecumenical—one long army tent outfitted with a flattop, a propane range, a dish washing station and prep space; another tent functions as a mess hall and a third stores donations. Joseph’s set-up is the California Kitchen, more commonly called “Grandma’s” in deference to Diane Hart—a Paiute woman from northern California and the kitchen’s resident good cop. Nearby is Winona Kasto's kitchen; she focuses on meat, leaning on a tank-sized smoker and massive kettles perched over a wood-fire. They all rely on donations—hundreds of bags of rice and flour for frybread; hearty greens and dried chiles; bins of acorns and walnuts; every kind of squash and wintery vegetable, sometimes stored in dug-out root cellars; venison dropped off by local hunters; buffalo, beef or elk often destined for stews.
The kitchens thrum with activity all day every day, archetypes of passive resistance. But the food they served on Thanksgiving had an added political dimension, offering a view into the complicated relationship many Native Americans have with the holiday. It’s a fraught subject in indigenous communities, with that placid narrative of pilgrims and natives peacefully breaking bread. (We know now that it didn’t exactly go that way.) The word itself can be charged. “Thanksgiving is associated with genocide for us,” says Olin Tezcatlipoca, director of Mexica Movement, an indigenous rights organization. On Thursday he hosted an event at Standing Rock to honor the holiday’s dark history. He served tamales, he said, “to counter the cultural appropriation of our heritage foods, like turkey and cranberry.” Brian Yazzie, a young Navajo cook, also avoided the classic spread when he took over the main kitchen on Thursday. Yazzie, whose work with Minneapolis catering company the Sioux Chef centers around the revitalization of native foodways, arrived at camp in a 30-foot truck packed with donations. His Thanksgiving menu included bison and hominy soup with dandelion greens, and deviled duck eggs with a “native aioli,” seasoned with sumac and sage. Non-natives who volunteered to cook at Standing Rock took the same oblique tack. Catering chef Kellen Lynch traveled to the reservation with a group of Washington state allies and a kitchen trailer. They scrapped the original name of their project—Standing Rock Thanksgiving Caravan—and brought 300 pounds of whole Pacific Northwest salmon to share.
But there was turkey in Grandma’s kitchen—and cranberry sauce, stuffing, and even pumpkin pie. One group of volunteers spent hours roasting, peeling and cubing hundreds of sweet potatoes. Another dug an earth oven, kept the fire overnight and buried elk ribs, haunches of venison and 22 birds in burlap sacks in the hot coals. “It’s not about the Mayflower, it’s not about the pilgrims,” says Joseph of her choice to reclaim the traditional meal. “We are flipping the coin and choosing to memorialize the graciousness of our ancestors at that moment in time. We’ve always been prayerful, welcoming people and we still are.”
Judy Wicks, an activist and former owner of Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe, also saw redemptive power in serving the classic meal. She used to host a Thanksgiving dinner at her restaurant, inviting the area’s native population and celebrating indigenous foods that are still staples of the North American diet. This year, she organized a delegation called the Wopila Feast Brigade (Lakota for thank you), and produced a Thanksgiving spread for 2000 water protectors at the Standing Rock Community High School, just a few miles from the encampments. To pull it off she enlisted 75 volunteers from 15 states; for the turkeys she called on Massachusetts chef Jeremy Stanton who roasted the birds over wood fires on seven bicycle-powered spits. Guests ate around tables in the gymnasium, halting conversations to tune into the radical open mic night happening up front—live drumming, chanting, singing. They took selfies with the cards from young well wishers that were strung along the walls; they grabbed showers in the locker rooms and crowded around power outlets to charge up.
It was a heartening moment on an otherwise grim day. Rumors of a DAPL raid had spread panic throughout the camp. The first snow had covered the grounds at Oceti Sakowin that morning, hinting at the brutal North Dakota winter to come. The next day, the Army Corps of Engineers would order the area vacated by December 5, citing public safety concerns and threatening arrest for dissenters. “It is both unfortunate and disrespectful that this announcement comes the day after this country celebrates Thanksgiving—a historic exchange of goodwill between Native Americans and the first immigrants from Europe,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe chairman Dave Archambault would say in a statement. “Although the news is saddening, it is not at all surprising given the last 500 years of the mistreatment of our people.”
But that news hadn’t broken back at Grandma’s kitchen on Thursday night, and dinner hour was fast approaching. Joseph was dunking rounds of frybread into hot oil and looking for heads to help serve the meal. Outside a crowd gathered to watch as a volunteer dug up the earth oven, churning up a cloud of smoke and steam. Truk Jantz, a Bay Area cook who’d been helping out at Grandma’s, was standing by with hotel pans and wearing a hand-sewn apron—a gift made with fabric salvaged from a clothing donation. Dawson Davenport was watching too. He’s a Meskwaki who arrived at Standing Rock after unsuccessfully protesting the pipeline when it passed through his home state of Iowa. Word spread quickly as the meat was pulled from the soil and ferried into the kitchen—the turkeys hadn’t cooked through. Just as quickly, a new plan was hatched. The birds were broken down and dunked in Joseph’s bubbling frybread oil.
All is not well at Standing Rock. But as long as there are boots on the ground, dinner, at least, will work itself out.