Bring Indigenous Recipes and Traditions to Your Thanksgiving Table (2024)

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    Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart shares her recipes that put a contemporary spin on traditional Lakota ingredients.

    Hopefully it’s not breaking news at this point in our nation’s collective evolution that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t a festive harvest gathering with cheery pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a table overflowing with roasted turkey, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

    “For us, it wasn’t a cornucopia of amazing,” says Chef Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota and co-owner and executive chef of Et-i-quette Catering, a Rapid City-based indigenous artisan boutique catering company. “It was a massacre.”

    Indeed, the disturbing truth is that Columbus’s 1492 arrival in North America unleashed centuries of clashing between Europeans and Native Americans, with millions of Native Americans being slaughtered and any remaining survivors eventually being forced off their ancestral lands and cornered onto reservations. Needless to say, there’s little evidence that Native Americans actually shared in a meal to celebrate North America’s first harvest by Europeans.

    So how do we, at least anyone who has lived in the dream world of the annual tradition of the friendly autumn feast come to terms with that?

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    “We are living in a colonized society,” Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart says. “Many people in the United States think native people don’t exist anymore. We do and we’re alive and we’re thriving. We’re beautiful people with rich history and rich culture. And we are modern, too. We are chefs and lawyers and doctors just like all the other people. What people can do is learn about our indigenous foods, know our history. That’s a way of decolonizing.”

    So what about Thanksgiving? Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart, for one, is not averse to it. Her suggestion? “Bring indigenous food and history and people into your dinner table. No matter where you are, you’re living on the ancestral lands of indigenous tribes. You can do some minimal research to find out the tribes that lived there. Learn about them and understand the real history of Thanksgiving.”

    Bring Indigenous Recipes and Traditions to Your Thanksgiving Table (4)

    Bring Indigenous Recipes and Traditions to Your Thanksgiving Table (5)

    1. Chef Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe in South Dakota and co-owner and executive chef of Et-i-quette Catering.2. Et-i-quette Catering’s charcuterie and crudité treat boxes, filled with smoked elk, buffalo jerky, and other Lakota treats.

    For National Native American History Month, a newly designated celebration of Native American history and culture that spans November, she has created a special menu to help people learn about the culinary traditions of her people.

    “This is my form of decolonizing,” she says. “It’s my way of empowering myself and my children and my people and my community.”

    So this Thanksgiving, think about honoring the original inhabitants of North America. You can do your own research to come up with indigenous recipes where you live, or enjoy this menu that Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart has put together, based on traditional Lakota products with a modern twist.

    INSIDER TIPIf you happen to be in the Rapid City area, be sure to order one of Et-i-quette Catering’s charcuterie and crudité treat boxes, filled with smoked elk, buffalo jerky, and other Lakota treats. Where should you take it? “We go to Sylvan Lake all the time,” says Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart. “It’s a beautiful lake in the [Black] Hills. Pick up some wine from Firehouse downtown, or a growler from Hey Camp Brewing Co., and you’ve got yourself the perfect, socially distant picnic.”

    Bring Indigenous Recipes and Traditions to Your Thanksgiving Table (6)

    Magic Pumpkin Squash Soup

    “Squash is a big part of our diet,” Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart says. “I’m going to be transparent—I didn’t like squash growing up. I didn’t like the texture. But as I became older and a chef, I have found ways to make it more palatable.”

    Since winter prevented growing food year-round in the Dakotas, the Lakota became experts in preserving food.

    “Wasna is the original food of the Lakota people,” says Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart. “It’s dried buffalo and dried chokeberries ground up and made into patties, then preserved in buffalo pouches. That’s how the Lakota survived through winter.”

    They also dried their squash in spirals so they could eat it year-round, cutting off spirals as needed to add to their soups. Squash soup continues to be a perennial favorite.


    • 1 large butternut squash
    • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
    • Kosher salt
    • Black pepper
    • Olive oil
    • 1 stick butter
    • 1 medium yellow onion
    • 1 can organic pumpkin puree
    • 2 cups coconut milk
    • 4 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock
    • Roasted pumpkin seeds (for topping)


    • Peel and cube the butternut squash, toss with olive oil, sprinkle with 1 tbsp. garlic powder, kosher salt, and cracked brown pepper, and place on a baking sheet. Roast at 425 degrees for 20 minutes
    • In a large stockpot, sautée the chopped medium yellow onion in 1 stick melted butter; sprinkle with salt until translucent
    • Add 1 can organic pumpkin puree
    • Add 2 cups coconut milk
    • Add 4 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock
    • Add the roasted butternut squash
    • Simmer for 30 minutes
    • Blend with an immersion blender
    • Top with roasted pumpkin seeds
    Bring Indigenous Recipes and Traditions to Your Thanksgiving Table (7)

    Bison Stew

    “We are very bison based,” Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart says. In the 1800s, the U.S. government massacred the buffalo to kill off the Native Americans, so a lot of Native Americans lost their methods in preparing buffalo and are only recently relearning to cook with it. “The stew is a way to make it easy,” the chef says. “It’s a straight-up staple in every Lakota home. We have it at ceremonies, funerals, celebrations. I would say, on average, everyone’s eating bison stew once or twice a week.”


    • 2 lbs. buffalo meat
    • 3-4 tbsp. olive oil
    • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
    • 2 tbsp. kosher salt
    • 1 tsp. black pepper
    • 1 tsp. paprika
    • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
    • 3-4 bay leaves
    • Mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots, celery)
    • 6-8 cups beef broth/stock or water
    • 6-8 russet potatoes
    • 1 can diced tomatoes


    • Braise 2 lbs. buffalo meat (1-inch cubes) with half an onion (finely chopped), in a warmed stockpot with 3-4 tbsp. olive oil
    • Spice 1 tbsp. garlic powder, 2 tbsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. black pepper, 1 tsp. paprika, 1/2 tsp. turmeric, and 3-4 bay leaves
    • After browned, add mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots, celery) and can diced tomatoes
    • Add 2 cups water or stock/broth and simmer on medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes or until tender. (Stir occasionally; more water or stock/broth may be needed.) Times will vary with the size of meat and location
    • When the meat is tender, add 6-8 cups beef broth/stock or water, bring back to boil. Add 6-8 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces or bigger
    • Cook an additional 15-20 minutes until potatoes are fork-tender
    • Remove from heat and let stand for 10-15 minutes
    • Serve
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    Wild Rice, Cranberry, and Bison-Stuffed Mushrooms

    “We eat all kinds of mushrooms traditionally,” Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart says. “And I love wild rice. We were nomadic so we traded with woodland tribes. Our tribe went all the way into Canada and down past Wyoming. And cranberries are an indigenous berry. I’ve included all of these ingredients.”


    • 1 lb. ground bison
    • 1 lb. Italian sausage
    • 3 tbsp. butter
    • 1 yellow onion
    • 6-8 baby portabella mushrooms
    • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
    • 1 cup wild rice (optional: purchase wild rice from Red Lake Nation Foods)
    • 2 cups bone broth or vegetable stock
    • Olive oil
    • Kosher salt


    • Preheat oven to 350 degrees
    • Melt 3 tbsp. butter with a half chopped yellow onion. Sauté
    • Wash and clean 6-8 baby portabellas, remove stems, and chop; add to the butter and yellow onion
    • Add 1/4 cup dried cranberries
    • Add 1 cup wild rice, continue to sauté all together (you are popping the wild rice; it will become fragrant)
    • Add 2 cups bone broth or vegetable stock, lower heat, and cover to simmer; set timer for 25 minutes
    • In another pan sauté 2 tbsp. butter and the other half of your chopped yellow onion; cook until translucent
    • Add 1 lb. ground bison, 1 lb. Italian sausage, and 1 tbsp. garlic
    • Cook until brown over medium heat
    • Add wild rice and bison mixture together
    • Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle kosher salt over portabellas
    • Stuff with bison/wild rice mixture
    • Bake for 15 minutes
    • Serve warm

    Buffalo, Cranberry, and Wild Rice Meatballs With Blackberry Wojape

    “Most indigenous tribes, wherever you are in the country, have some form of wojabe—or berry soup,” says Chef Tilsen-Brave Heart. “Sixth Nations and Mohawks, for example, do this with strawberries. We do it with blackberries. I never grew up on meatballs, but I’m always looking for ways to blend contemporary concepts with indigenous ingredients.” She adds that she always has leftover bison from the meatballs, which is how the wild rice, cranberry, and bison-stuffed mushroom recipe came about—to use up the leftover bison.



    • 1 lb. buffalo (can be substituted with beef)
    • 1/4 lb. Italian sausage
    • 1 cup wild rice
    • 1/2 cup yellow onion
    • 3 cups chicken bone broth
    • 1/2 cup rehydrated cranberries
    • 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
    • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
    • 1 egg
    • 1 tsp. salt
    • 1 tsp. garlic powder
    • Dash of paprika

    Blackberry Wojape

    • 1 cup blackberries (or any berries of your choosing)
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1 1/2 cups water



    • Clean wild rice with cold water
    • Sauté wild rice with 1/2 cup yellow onion and some oil for 5 minutes, allowing the rice to gently pop
    • Add in 3 cups bone broth per 1 cup wild rice
    • Add in rehydrated cranberries, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes
    • Add in 1 cup finished wild rice to buffalo
    • Add 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
    • Add 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
    • Add in 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. garlic powder, and a dash of paprika
    • Place meatballs on a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until internal temp is 165 degrees

    Blackberry Wojape

    • Add into a pan: 1 cup blackberries, 1 cup sugar, 1 tbsp cornstarch, and 1 1/2 cups water
    • Render down for about 10 minutes

    Drizzle blackberry wojape on top of the meatballs and enjoy!

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