For Natives, holiday a melting pot of cultural traditions

Thanksgiving dinner doesn't always mean turkey and potatoes

Posted: Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn-on-the-cob ... and gumboots, hooligan oil and wild celery sauce?

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"We eat gumboots and wild celery, and devil's club," said Metlakatla native Hannah Henderson, whose mother is Tsimshian and father Irish. "I've been out picking wild cranberries all day, in the pouring rain. My dad gets hot dogs because my mom is racist two days out of the year. We'll eat turkey the day after Thanksgiving."

For many Natives, Thanksgiving isn't only the bounty crop pilgrims shared in recognition of their good fortune for surviving a ruthless first winter with the help of the local Wampanoag Indians in a "harvest feast," but a chance to enjoy a taste of traditional ancestral foods from the land.

In Barrow, Inupiat Eskimo Herman Ahsoak and his family will delve into such tasty dishes as fermented seal flipper, muktuk (whale blubber and skin), boiled seal meat and seal blood soup, walrus, caribou and various fish.

"People expect us to eat polar bear," Ahsoak laughed. "I've tried it once and didn't like it. Of course we will have some turkey, but the cost of food in the stores here and being able to have a freezer right under our house makes it easier to store and eat whatever we harvest."

Juneau residents Pedro and Ligia Romero were born in Nicaragua and came to the U.S. in 1989. Their family will enjoy mostly American Thanksgiving fare but also include the homeland specialties of pork with yucca (a root similar to taro).

"For us Thanksgiving is more than food," Romero, who recently had heart surgery, said. "We are friends on more days than just Thanksgiving. It's being thankful for a lot. It's forgiveness and prayer and laughter."

Juneau's Marlene Cesar, a Tlingit, and her husband Del Cesar, Tsimshian, will enjoy the traditional American turkey and stuffing.

"We have Native food once in a while," Marlene said. "We will get together with friends occasionally for herring eggs, half-smoked and half-dried fish and dried seaweeds."

The family also eats lots of rice, as many Tlingits do, and because Del has Filipino ancestry. They also enjoy "Tlingit delight."

"It is just the basic fruit cocktail," Cesar said. "Except sometimes the older people put seal oil in it ... the Tsimshian add hooligan oil. Our son-in-law, Les Jensen, is part Inupiat Eskimo, he enjoys a bit of muktuk on occasion as well."

The Watanabe family in Juneau loves the chance to splurge on holiday meals and will be catering to about 15 people. Part Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, their meals are a smorgasbord of live-off-the-land delicacies.

"We will pull moose meat or venison roast out of the freezer," Libby Watanabe said. "We do that with any larger gathering or special occasion. We are going to have herring egg salad, beach asparagus, blueberries for pie, smoked salmon for dip ... we basically raid our freezer."

The Watanabes, who recently moved from Sitka, brought with them herring eggs harvested during the season and highbush cranberries picked during the long summer days.

"My husband laid out hemlock branches at low tide and that can be a three- or four-day process," Libby said. "Then we freeze the eggs, defrost and cook them, and clean the hemlock away. We infuse the love of traditional foods in whatever we can prepare, it's labor of love."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at

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