Beyond the Thanksgiving myth

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

“We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life.” – Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address.


Each November families across the country teach their children about the First Thanksgiving, a classic American holiday. They try to give children an accurate picture of what happened in Plymouth in 1621 and explain how that event fits into American history. Unfortunately, many teaching materials give an incomplete, if not completely inaccurate, portrayal of the first Thanksgiving, particularly of the event’s Native American participants.

Most texts and supplementary materials portray Native Americans at the gatherings as supporting players. They are depicted as nameless, faceless, generic “Indians” who merely shared a meal with the valiant Pilgrims. The real story is much deeper, richer, and more nuanced. The “Indians” in attendance, the Wampanoag, played a lead role in the historic encounter, and they had been vital to the survival of the colonists during the newcomers’ first year.


The Teachers

The Wampanoag were a people with a sophisticated society who had occupied the region for thousands of years. They had their own government, their own spiritual and philosophical beliefs, their own knowledge system, and their own culture. They were also a people for whom giving thanks was a part of daily life.

The Wampanoag people have long lived in the area around Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. When the English decided to establish a colony there in the 1600s, the Wampanoag already had a deep understanding of their environment. They maintained a reciprocal relationship with the world around them. As successful hunters, farmers, and fishermen who shared their foods and techniques, they helped the colonists adapt and survive in “the new world”.

Wherever Europeans set foot in the Western Hemisphere, they encountered Native peoples who had similar longstanding relationships with the natural world. With extensive knowledge of their local environments, Native peoples developed philosophies about those places based on deeply rooted traditions.

The ability to live in harmony with the natural world begins with knowing how nature functions. After many generations of observation and experience, Native peoples were intimately familiar with weather patterns, animal behaviors, and the cycles of plant, water supply, and the seasons. They studied the stars, named constellations, and knew when solstices and equinoxes occurred. This kind of knowledge enabled Native peoples to flourish and to hunt, gather, or cultivate the foods they needed, even in the harshest environments.

Traditionally, Native peoples have always been caretakers in a mutual relationship with their environment. This means respecting nature’s gifts by taking only what is necessary and making good use of everything that is harvested. This helps ensure that natural resources, including foods, will be sustainable for the future. In this way of thinking, the Wampanoag along with every other Native tribe believe people should live in a state of balance within the universe.

Native communities throughout the Americas have numerous practices that connect them to the places where they live. They acknowledge the environment and its gifts of food with many kind of ceremonies, songs, prayers, and dances. Such cultural expressions help people to maintain the reciprocal relationship with the natural world. For example, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington conducts a special ceremony every year called Salmon Ceremony that demonstrates respect for the life-sustaining salmon as a gift. By properly respecting the fish, the Salmon King will continue his benevolence through months of salmon returns.


The Immigrants

A majority of those who came to America on the Mayflower came to make a profit from the products of the land, the rest were religious dissenters who fled their own country to escape religious intolerance. The little band of religious refugees and entrepreneurs that arrived on the Mayflower that December of 1620 was poorly prepared to survive in their new environment. They did not bring enough food, and they arrived too late to plant any crops. They were not familiar with the area and lacked the knowledge, tools, and experience, to effectively utilize the bounty of nature that surrounded them. For the first several months, two or three died each day from scurvy, lack of adequate shelter, and poor nutrition. On one exploration trip, the immigrants found a storage pit and stole the corn that a Wampanoag family had set aside for the next season.

As the starving time of the European’s first winter turned to spring, the Wampanoag began to teach them how to survive within their lands. The summer passed and the newcomers learned to plan and care for native crops, to hunt and fish, and to do all the things necessary to partake of the natural abundance of the earth in this particular place. All of this occurred under the watchful instruction and guidance of the Wampanoag.


A Harvest Celebration

As a result of all the help and teachings the Europeans received from the local Wampanoag, they overcame their inexperience and – by the fall of their first year in Wampanoag country, 1621 – they achieved a successful harvest, mostly comprised of corn. They decided to celebrate their success with a harvest festival, mimicking that of the Harvest Home they would have most likely celebrated as children in Europe.

Harvest Home was traditionally held on the Saturday or Sunday nearest to the Harvest Moon, the full moon that occurs closes to the autumn equinox. It was typically held in parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe. The Harvest Home consisted of non-stop feasting and drinking, sporting events, and parading in the fields shooting off muskets.

The “First Thanksgiving” is said to be based on customs that the Europeans brought with them. Even though from ancient times Native people have held ceremonies to give thanks for successful harvests, for the hope of a good growing season in the early spring, and for good fortune. Traditional Wampanoag foods such as wild duck, goose, and turkey were main dishes of the menu.

Although the relatively peaceful relations first established were often strained by dishonest, aggressive, and brutal actions on the part of the “settlers”, the Wampanoag were gracious hosts to their now immigrant neighbors. Edward Winslow (a European attendant at the celebration) stated in a letter from 1621 that the harvest celebration went on for three days and was highlighted by the Wampanoag killing five deer, thus providing the feast with venison.



In only a matter of years following the harvest celebration that would become known as the “First Thanksgiving”, the rarely achieved, temporary state of coexistence had been torn to shreds. The great migration of European refugees and religious zealots to America that ensued brought persecution and death to the Native tribes. Full-scale war erupted in 1637 and again in 1675, ending with the defeat of the Wampanoag by the English. Though decimated by European diseases and defeated in war, the Wampanoag continued to survive through further colonization in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Today, the Wampanoag live within their ancestral homelands and still sustain themselves as their ancestors did by hunting, fishing, gardening, and gathering. Additionally, they maintain a rich and vital oral history and connection to the land.

Sharing agricultural knowledge was one aspect of early Native efforts to live side by side with Europeans. So, the “First Thanksgiving” was just the beginning of a long, brutal history of interaction between Native peoples and the European immigrants. It was not a single event that can easily be recreated. The meal that is ingrained in the American consciousness represents much more than a simple harvest celebration. It was a turning point in history.



Giving daily thanks for nature’s gifts has always been an important way of living for traditional Native peoples. Ultimately, Native peoples’ connection to place is about more than simply caring for the environment. That connection has been maintained through generations of observations, in which people developed environmental knowledge and philosophies. People took actions to ensure the long-term sustainability of their communities and the environment, with which they shared a reciprocal relationship. In their efforts, environmentalists are acknowledging the benefits of traditionally indigenous ways of knowing. Today, Native knowledge can be a key to understanding and solving some of our world’s most pressing problems.



Did you know?


National Day of Mourning


An annual tradition since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Moonanum James, Co-Leader of United American Indians of New England, at the 29th National Day of Mourning.

“Some ask us: Will you ever stop protesting? Some day we will stop protesting. We will stop protesting when the merchants of Plymouth are no longer making millions of dollars off the blood of our slaughtered ancestors. We will stop protesting when we can act as sovereign nations on our own land without the interference of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and what Sitting Bull called the “favorite ration chiefs”. When corporations stop polluting our mother, the earth. When racism has been eradicated. When the oppression of Two-Spirited people is a thing of the past. We will stop protesting when homeless people have homes and no child goes to bed hungry. When police brutality no longer exists in communities of color. Until then, the struggle will continue.”




  • American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving. National Museum of the American Indian. Retrieved from
  • Harvest Ceremony. Johanna Gorelick and Genevieve Simermeyer, the Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from
  • National Day of Mourning (United States protest). Retrieved from

‘All Indians Are Dead?’ At Least That’s What Most Schools Teach Children



Alysa Landry, Indian Country Today


It’s time to break out the construction paper and synthetic feathers.

Students in schools across the country this month will learn about the first Thanksgiving, perpetuating a fairy tale about struggling pilgrims and the friendly Indians who shared a harvest banquet. This usually follows Columbus Day instruction that is similarly celebratory.

But for the vast majority of elementary and secondary students, lessons like these may be the only time they learn about American Indians at all. A staggering 87 percent of references to American Indians in all 50 states’ academic standards portray them in a pre-1900 context.

That means students are graduating from high school without even basic knowledge of contemporary Native challenges or culture, said Sarah Shear, associate professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona. Shear, who this year earned a PhD in learning, teaching and curriculum from the University of Missouri, spent two years examining state-mandated U.S. history standards, coding each state six times in an effort to understand what students are learning about Natives.

The project began when Shear was teaching an undergraduate class in multi-cultural education. When she asked what students knew about America’s indigenous people, hands shot into the air.

“What they told me is that they learned about Thanksgiving and Columbus Day,” she said. “Every once in a while a student would mention something about the Trail of Tears. It was incredibly frustrating. They were coming to college believing that all Indians are dead.”

Shear partnered with other researchers to analyze states’ academic standards, lengthy documents that dictate what topics teachers should emphasize, including names of important people, dates, events and concepts. Textbook authors often tailor materials to meet those standards.

The study revealed a shameful lack of meaningful Native content, Shear said.

“All of the states are teaching that there were civil ways to end problems and that the Indian problem was dealt with nicely,” she said. “They’re teaching that this is what needed to happen in order for the United States to become the United States. The conflict had to be dealt with in order to manifest destiny. The relationship with Indians was a means to an end.”

The study also revealed that all 50 states lack any content about current Native events or challenges.

“Nothing about treaties, land rights, water rights,” Shear said. “Nothing about the fact that tribes are still fighting to be recognized and determine sovereignty.”

In some states, politics plays a huge role in determining academic standards, Shear said. Politicians, not educators, decide the “grand story” that teachers will tell students. In other states, standards may be simply—and shockingly—out of date. Either way, Shear said, the effect is a white-washing of history, a focus on the Euro-American story that is so narrow there’s no room for an indigenous narrative.

While state standards highlight topics that must be covered in the classroom, teachers still have leeway to tailor lessons or add content, said Tony Castro, assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri. Castro, who served as a faculty assistant to Shear’s research project, said he was disappointed with the findings.

RELATED: 7 Things Teachers Need to Know About Native American Heritage Month

RELATED: Native American Heritage Month Resources for Teachers

“This kind of curriculum, these misconceptions, all that has led to the invisibilization of indigenous people,” he said. “What we teach acts as a mirror to what we value and what we recognize as legitimate. These standards are perpetuating a misconception and are continuing to marginalize groups of people and minimize the concerns or issues those people have about being full citizens in the American democracy.”

Shear’s research is being published in an upcoming issue of Theory & Research in Social Education. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot of her findings:

Across all the states, 87 percent of references to Natives portray them prior to 1900, with no clear vision of what happened after that.

In half of the states, no individual Natives or specific tribes are named.

Of the Natives named in standards, the most common are Sacagawea, Squanto, Sequoyah and Sitting Bill.

Only 62 Native nations are named in standards; most are mentioned by only one state. One nation, the Iroquois, is mentioned in six states.

Only four states—Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma and Kansas—include content about Indian boarding schools.

New Mexico is the only state to mention, by name, a member of the American Indian Movement.

Washington is the only state to use the word “genocide” in relation to Natives. That word is used in the standards for fifth grade U.S. history.

Nebraska textbooks portray Natives as lazy, drunk or criminal.

Ninety-percent of all manuscripts written about Native people are authored by non-Native writers.



It’s Nearly Thanksgiving: Try One of These 6 Recipes From the College Fund

This image of another variation on sweet potato soup is from, which provides 8-ingredient vegan recipes.

This image of another variation on sweet potato soup is from, which provides 8-ingredient vegan recipes.



Indian Country Today



The American Indian College Fund is featuring six Native recipes to help families prepare for a wonderful family dinner, whether it’s for Thanksgiving or any time.

Celebrate tradition and stay healthy with this vegan soup:


Sweet Potato Soup
Sweet Potato Soup


If you’re cooking salmon, these potato cakes are a perfect complement:


Smoked Oyster Potato Cakes
Smoked Oyster Potato Cakes


This tasty vegetable dish can be a light lunch, served with tortillas and cheese, or used as a side dish with your favorite Southwestern meal:




Clay Oden’s lean, hearty meatloaf is wonderful with a side of mashed potatoes, sweet potato fries, or just sliced up and served on bread:


Buffalo Meatloaf
Buffalo Meatloaf


Warm, multigrain muffins are a wonderful way to start the day, and blue corn is a staple among Southwestern Pueblos. Add some butter and preserves for a decadent breakfast:


Blue Corn Buttermilk Muffins
Blue Corn Buttermilk Muffins


Want a hearty vegetarian meal with some kick? This delicious posole, a traditional dish among the Southwestern Pueblo peoples, is spicy and satisfying:


Posole With Red Chile
Posole With Red Chile


Check out the educational pieces the College fund is featuring for Native American Heritage Month below:



Thanksgiving Activities for Children

By Toyacoyah Brown,

Just like our Native American culture is not a Halloween costume or a sports mascot, we are also not a cute construction paper project for Thanksgiving.  You are not doing our rich culture any justice when you make brown paper bag vests or paper feather headbands.

Hopefully you’ve read some of the articles recently posted on to know that what we typically learned about Thanksgiving was a romanticized myth.  How I wish we could sugar coat history, and make it easier for our children to understand, but we can not and should not.  Instead I think the focus at Thanksgiving time, should shift away from reenacting the myth of the First Thanksgiving and decorating the classroom with Pilgrims and Indians. We should instead focus on things the children can be thankful for in their own lives. Teaching about Native Americans only at Thanksgiving from a historical perspective will reinforce the idea that they only existed in the past.

Since thanks and giving are in the name of the holiday, it only makes sense to teach the children the meaning of thankfulness and gratitude.  Here are several projects that can help them be grateful.

Give Thanks Calendar Craft

Gratitude Pumpkin

Wreath of Plenty

Thankful Tree

Multicultural Thanksgiving Wreath : This would be great if you want to incorporate some Native American words into the tree such as the Navajo word for Thank You = Ahéhee’

There are many cultures around the world that celebrate autumn harvest.  Why not focus on the season for a craft?

Leaf Suncatchers

Sunburst Wreath

And since corn was a main food staple of the Americas, it makes sense to decorate with it.
Paper Bag Turkey

Paper Indian Corn

Corn Collage

Corn Husk Dolls – On the Native Tech website there is a great story that goes along with the doll instruction if you would like to incorporate some Native American culture.

Hopefully I’ve provided you with some fun activities you can do with your children this season.  However you choose to celebrate I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving!

What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale

 This is a popular image of the first Thanksgiving, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. But this is definitely NOT what happened.
This is a popular image of the first Thanksgiving, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. But this is definitely NOT what happened.

By Gale Courey Toensing, ICTMN

When you hear about the Pilgrims and “the Indians” harmoniously sharing the “first Thanksgiving” meal in 1621, the Indians referred to so generically are the ancestors of the contemporary members of the Wampanoag Nation. As the story commonly goes, the Pilgrims who sailed from England on the Mayflower and landed at what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 had a good harvest the next year. So Plymouth Gov. William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate the harvest and invited a group of “Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit” to the party. The feast lasted three days and, according to chronicler Edward Winslow, Bradford send four men on a “fowling mission” to prepare for the feast and the Wampanoag guests brought five deer to the party. And ever since then, the story goes, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November. Not exactly, Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer told Indian Country Today Media Network in a conversation on the day before Thanksgiving 2012—391 years since that mythological “first Thanksgiving.”

We know what we’re taught in mainstream media and in schools is made up. What’s the Wampanoag version of what happened?

Yeah, it was made up. It was Abraham Lincoln who used the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together. He was trying to calm things down during the Civil War when people were divided. It was like a nice unity story.

So it was a political thing?

Yes, it was public relations. It’s kind of genius, in a way, to get people to sit down and eat dinner together. Families were divided during the Civil War.

So what really happened?

We made a treaty. The leader of our nation at the time—Yellow Feather Oasmeequin [Massasoit] made a treaty with (John) Carver [the first governor of the colony]. They elected an official while they were still on the boat. They had their charter. They were still under the jurisdiction of the king [of England]—at least that’s what they told us. So they couldn’t make a treaty for a boatload of people so they made a treaty between two nations—England and the Wampanoag Nation.

What did the treaty say?

It basically said we’d let them be there and we would protect them against any enemies and they would protect us from any of ours. [The 2011 Native American copy coin commemorates the 1621 treaty between the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony.] It was basically an I’ll watch your back, you watch mine’ agreement. Later on we collaborated on jurisdictions and creating a system so that we could live together.

What’s the Mashpee version of the 1621 meal?

You’ve probably heard the story of how Squanto assisted in their planting of corn? So this was their first successful harvest and they were celebrating that harvest and planning a day of their own thanksgiving. And it’s kind of like what some of the Arab nations do when they celebrate by shooting guns in the air. So this is what was going on over there at Plymouth. They were shooting guns and canons as a celebration, which alerted us because we didn’t know who they were shooting at. So Massasoit gathered up some 90 warriors and showed up at Plymouth prepared to engage, if that was what was happening, if they were taking any of our people. They didn’t know. It was a fact-finding mission.

When they arrived it was explained through a translator that they were celebrating the harvest, so we decided to stay and make sure that was true, because we’d seen in the other landings—[Captain John] Smith, even the Vikings had been here—so we wanted to make sure so we decided to camp nearby for a few days. During those few days, the men went out to hunt and gather food—deer, ducks, geese, and fish. There are 90 men here and at the time I think there are only 23 survivors of that boat, the Mayflower, so you can imagine the fear. You have armed Natives who are camping nearby. They [the colonists] were always vulnerable to the new land, new creatures, even the trees—there were no such trees in England at that time. People forget they had just landed here and this coastline looked very different from what it looks like now. And their culture—new foods, they were afraid to eat a lot of things. So they were very vulnerable and we did protect them, not just support them, we protected them. You can see throughout their journals that they were always nervous and, unfortunately, when they were nervous they were very aggressive.

So the Pilgrims didn’t invite the Wampanoags to sit down and eat turkey and drink some beer?

[laughs] Ah, no. Well, let’s put it this way. People did eat together [but not in what is portrayed as “the first Thanksgiving]. It was our homeland and our territory and we walked all through their villages all the time. The differences in how they behaved, how they ate, how they prepared things was a lot for both cultures to work with each other. But in those days, it was sort of like today when you go out on a boat in the open sea and you see another boat and everyone is waving and very friendly—it’s because they’re vulnerable and need to rely on each other if something happens. In those days, the English really needed to rely on us and, yes, they were polite as best they could be, but they regarded us as savages nonetheless.

So you did eat together sometimes, but not at the legendary Thanksgiving meal.

No. We were there for days. And this is another thing: We give thanks more than once a year in formal ceremony for different season, for the green corn thanksgiving, for the arrival of certain fish species, whales, the first snow, our new year in May—there are so many ceremonies and I think most cultures have similar traditions. It’s not a foreign concept and I think human beings who recognize greater spirit then they would have to say thank you in some formal way.

What are Mashpee Wampanoags taught about Thanksgiving now?

Most of us are taught about the friendly Indians and the friendly Pilgrims and people sitting down and eating together. They really don’t go into any depth about that time period and what was going on in 1620. It was a whole different mindset. There was always focus on food because people had to work hard to go out and forage for food, not the way it is now. I can remember being in Oklahoma amongst a lot of different tribal people when I was in junior college and Thanksgiving was coming around and I couldn’t come home—it was too far and too expensive—and people were talking about, Thanksgiving, and, yeah, the Indians! And I said, yeah, we’re the Wampanoags. They didn’t know! We’re not even taught what kind of Indians, Hopefully, in the future, at least for Americans, we do need to get a lot brighter about other people.

So, basically, today the Wampanoag celebrate Thanksgiving the way Americans celebrate it, or celebrate it as Americans?

Yes, but there’s another element to this that needs to be noted as well. The Puritans believed in Jehovah and they were listening for Jehovah’s directions on a daily basis and trying to figure out what would please their God. So for Americans, for the most part there’s a Christian element to Thanksgiving so formal prayer and some families will go around the table and ask what are you thankful for this year. In Mashpee families we make offerings of tobacco. For traditionalists, we give thanks to our first mother, our human mother, and to Mother Earth. Then, because there’s no real time to it you embrace your thanks in passing them into the tobacco without necessarily speaking out loud, but to actually give your mind and spirit together thankful for so many things… Unfortunately, because we’re trapped in this cash economy and this 9-to-5 [schedule], we can’t spend the normal amount of time on ceremonies, which would last four days for a proper Thanksgiving.

Do you regard Thanksgiving as a positive thing?

As a concept, a heartfelt Thanksgiving is very important to me as a person. It’s important that we give thanks. For me, it’s a state of being. You want to live in a state of thanksgiving, meaning that you use the creativity that the Creator gave you. You use your talents. You find out what those are and you cultivate them and that gives thanks in action.

And will your family do something for Thanksgiving?

Yes, we’ll do the rounds, make sure we contact family members, eat with friends and then we’ll all celebrate on Saturday at the social and dance together with the drum.

Related articles:

Latest copy Coin Celebrates 1621 Wampanoag Treaty

The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story



Calling fowl: How to pick the most humane turkey for Thanksgiving

Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Shulamit Seidler-Feller

By Deena Shanker, Grist

Once upon a time, in a land called the grocery store, customers could walk right in, grab a turkey, and take it home for Thanksgiving. The only choice to make was about size: big, huge, or insanely enormous? It was a time before words like “heritage” and “organic” became part of our food lexicon; back then, a bird was a bird, and feeding it low dosages of antibiotics in every meal had yet to be connected to the spread of antimicrobial resistant superbugs. It was a simpler time for the American Thanksgiving, but not a better one.

The turkey aisle has a lot more variety now, but it hasn’t made picking the best one easy. Free-range? Organic? Heirloom? Heritage? Is there a difference, and does it matter? Yes and maybe.

But before we delve into the specifics of one good bird versus another, it’s worth noting that all of these are better options than your standard Butterball or otherwise-branded factory farmed meal. The overwhelming majority of the 46 million turkeys that will be eaten this year on Thanksgiving will be CAFO-raised Broad Breasted Whites (BBWs) that each spent their lives in a giant, crowded, filthy shed with ten thousand other turkeys, including some that are dead or diseased. Their diets will have included regular dosages of antibiotics, making them more likely to be carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They will grow to be three times heavier than they would have been in 1929, seriously debilitating them as their unnatural weight wears on their crippled feet and swollen joints. Many of these poor birds will have been thrown, beaten, or otherwise brutalized before finally enduring a cruel death. Add to that the environmental damage of industrial farming, allegations of employee abuse, and lurking dangers like salmonella, and your typical Thanksgiving centerpiece becomes a representation of all that is wrong with our food system. So as long as you avoid one of these, applaud yourself: You are doing humanity and turkeydom alike a serious favor.


Mr. Koch stands proudly before his flock of turkeys.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Mr. Koch stands proudly before his flock of turkeys.

But even though the only way is up, it’s still hard to figure out where to go from there. So I ventured into hinterlands of rural Pennsylvania to visit Duane Koch at Koch’s Turkey Farm, where his family has been raising turkeys of all kinds – from organic to free-range to heirloom – since 1939. Rearing about 700,000 turkeys every year, Koch’s farm sounds like a Big Kahuna until you compare it to the rest of the industry: Just three companies raise more than half of the country’s 265 million birds.

Duane himself, in his jeans, hiking boots, and baseball cap, bears little resemblance to his suit-wearing Big Turkey counterparts. It’s hard to imagine Butterball CEO Rod Brenneman spending his days getting gritty on a farm, talking about which of the birds are more docile and which are “spooky.”

But back to the birds. Ninety-nine percent of the turkeys raised in the U.S. are BBWs, and like Butterball and most turkey farms, Koch’s also raises the white-meat-heavy breed. Since the 1960’s, these have been the industry’s choice, largely because they’re so top heavy. But as factory farmers began to rely exclusively on the BBWs, and to breed them for size, turkeys got more and more breasty, until they were so big they were unable to naturally reproduce. (To give you a better visual: The male turkeys’ chests got so big they couldn’t mount the females anymore.) Now, almost all turkeys only reproduce through artificial insemination. But comparing a Butterball BBW to a Koch BBW is like doing a side-by-side of Steve Urkel and his alter ego Stefan Urquelle. Same but not the same.

Yard birds cruisin' because they wanna.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Yard birds cruisin’ because they wanna.

Unlike the industrial version, Koch’s tall, white turkeys are all antibiotic-free and raised with the luxury of space. The free-range BBWs get plenty of outdoor access – though whether they choose to exercise that freedom is a decision every bird gets to make for itself. They leave the spacious barn for the yard outside, according to Duane, “whenever they feel like it.” They have no problem running when they want to, and as little chicks, before their D-Cups begin to runneth over, they can even fly over the surrounding fence. “Not a lot do,” Duane says, “but they can.”

Koch’s farm also raises organics, and more this year than ever. “A lot of people are scared of GMO grains,” Duane says, attributing the 30 percent increase in demand this year to that fear. His organics, like most, are BBWs, and consumers can rest assured that they were raised without antibiotics, growth enhancers, or GMO feed. They also have all the free-range amenities, including the outdoor space and the freedom to go in and out at their own leisure.

But although the BBWs have essentially cornered the Thanksgiving market, heritage and heirloom breed turkeys have been gaining traction. Unlike their modern, bred-for-breasts counterparts, these old birds are actually that: Heritage breeds date back to the 1800s, and so were probably what our colonial forebears were carving into. Heirloom breeds are a bit newer, dating to the early 1920s or 1930s.

A heritage bird, according to Whole Foods Global Meat Buyer Theo Weening, “is as close to a wild turkey as you can get.” They can fly like their wild cousins, and can technically reproduce naturally, though many farmers still “choose to artificially inseminate to meet demands.” Their genetics give them the multicolored feathers we envision on the hallowed First Thanksgiving turkeys, as well as significantly less white meat and a “gamey-er” taste, making them more like wild turkeys and less like the kind we’re used to eating. While Koch’s tried to raise heritages one year, they decided it wasn’t worth the investment. His flock grew slowly and had a higher mortality rate, too. “We can only get the poults [baby males] from these little hatcheries,” he said. “And a lot of them die the first week when you get them.” At $12 a pop, compared to $1 for a BBW, the Koch’s turned their focus to heirlooms, which come in in the middle at $6.

Heirlooms seem to strike a balance for Americans looking for something that harkens back to the days of yore but still tastes somewhat familiar. Like their heritage cousins, they have dark feathers, and their flavor is more robust and the meat more dense than your standard BBW — but they also have plenty of the white meat that Americans inexplicably crave. (Why anyone would prefer white meat over dark still baffles me – I might be a vegetarian, but I remember the dry lack of flavor.) Koch has been raising heirlooms for six years, with demand growing exponentially. “The first year we sold six hundred of them; this year we sold 12,000.” Duane said. “Next year, I’m going to have to grow more.”

On Koch’s farm, the heirlooms also get plenty of outdoor access and seem to enjoy it more than the BBWs in the barn nearby. “You should see them in the morning,” Duane says. “When you lead them out – they’re so happy!” (Barns stay closed at night to protect against predators like coyotes and foxes.) While Koch’s heirlooms aren’t technically organic, they still benefit from their proximity to the organic BBWs: When there’s leftover organic hay, guess who gets to eat it?

Koch's turkey wares, on display.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
Koch’s turkey wares, on display.

All of Koch’s birds, even the ones that aren’t free-range, are Certified Humane, which is representative of the growing third-party certification trend. Other popular certifiers include Animal Welfare Approved, Food Alliance Certified, and American Grassfed, and all come with their own sets of standards, though humane treatment is always part of the deal. (“All natural,” it should be mentioned, is utterly meaningless and should never be solely relied upon when choosing food — whether it’s turkey, pork, or Gatorade.)

For many consumers, animal welfare isn’t the only concern. Price is obviously a big selling point, too. Heritage turkeys (which can fetch as much as $10 per pound) are generally the most expensive, followed by organic, then the heirlooms, and finally, the non-organic, free-range, antibiotic-free BBWs. If cost is your determinative factor, don’t feel bad. There’s no consensus on which bird is the best. Even Duane’s own family, which will be carving up an heirloom on the Big Day, can’t agree that it’s the best option. “My dad’s a firm believer that they’re the best,” Duane says. “But I like them all, and my sisters [prefer] the organics.”

Tanning Salon Promotes ‘Indian Color’ In Misguided Thanksgiving Promo

Thanksgiving means turkey dinners, family reunions… and spray-tanning?

November 6, 2013



Club Sun Tanning Salons’ attempt to make Thanksgiving into a holiday of tanning has gone totally awry with a promotional campaign with the unfortunate slogan: “The Indians brought more than just ‘CORN’ to the first Thanksgiving… they brought SEXY ‘COLOR’!”

In case you miss the point, they’ve got a model dressed up as a Native American, and a slightly paler model dressed up as a prim pilgrim next to her. You can see it all on their Facebook page.

As we’ve seen time and time again, having non-Native American woman dress up as “Indians” in fake fringes, beads and feathers is pretty much always racist and ill-advised, not to mention tacky. Stereotyping Native Americans’ skin color, too? Also highly not recommended.

This year, Club Sun should be giving thanks for the “delete” button on Facebook, not to mention the forgiveness of its customer base. Check it out below.