Update: The Wopila Feast ended up serving 2,500 people.
Thanksgiving—with its reductionist tales of harmony and shared food—isn’t always a straightforward cause for celebration for Native Americans. So when Judy Wicks thought about bringing a Thanksgiving meal to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, she asked her friend Tom Goldtooth, the Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, what he thought about the idea.
“He said, ‘absolutely.’ He told me most of his friends at Standing Rock celebrated the American holiday,” Wicks recalls. But, more importantly, Goldtooth told her that anything that would bring more attention to the 3,000 people camped along the Missouri river—and the oil pipeline they oppose—would be more than welcome.
That was all that Wicks needed to hear to begin executing her plan. This weekend, she and a group of chefs, activists, and volunteers will be traveling to Standing Rock to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for 500 people while helping build a straw-bale community center.
For Wicks, the idea of supporting the Standing Rock activists didn’t come out of the blue. The author, local food advocate, and former owner of Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe says she’s had a deep respect for indigenous culture since she lived in an Alaskan Eskimo community in 1969. For years, she hosted an annual Native American Thanksgiving dinner at the White Dog Cafe, to which she would invite the native people in her region. “We would recognize them and thank them for the many foods in our contemporary diet that they originally cultivated,” says Wicks.
Now, as people from a wide range of indigenous tribes from across the Americas endure everything from rubber bullets to tear gas in an effort to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Wicks feels more grateful than ever.
“We are rushing toward our own extinction because of climate change,” she says. “Native Americans showed early settlers how to cultivate the crops needed to survive. Now, once again, they’re the ones pointing the way toward the survival of civilization.”
The dinner Wicks is planning will be served in the Oceti Sakowin camp, near the largest of several make-shift, volunteer-run kitchens scattered across the reservation. At the center of the meal will be 30 pasture-raised turkeys from BN Ranch, in Northern California. Jeremy Stanton, owner of a sustainable butcher shop, and fire-roasted catering business in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, plans to spit-roast the turkeys using a pedal-powered system he calls the “spit cycle,” reducing the man-power it normally takes to turn animals on a spit.
Stanton is bringing the core of his catering staff to help serve the food, and he’ll be joined by a group from Santa Fe in preparing other dishes made with Native ingredients like squash, wild rice, sweet potatoes, ground corn, and cranberries.
Stanton and Wicks crossed paths at a Wendell Berry event earlier this fall; when she saw the spit cycle in action and invited him to join the delegation to Standing Rock, he didn’t hesitate. “I’m very excited about being of service in this exact way at this exact time,” Stanton said. “We’re talking about 500 years of oppression; we’re talking about taking a stand and saying, ‘We’re not doing that anymore.’ You can’t just plow your way through this land because the Army Core of Engineers said you could.”
Feeding people, Stanton says, feels like an obvious way to show his respect. “This is about being an activist in the way that I know how to be an activist—by feeding people,” he said.
With help from 350.org, Food & Water Watch, and Code Pink (which will also be in attendance), some in Wicks’ group will be spending the early part of the week working to fund and build a straw bale community center called Makagi Oti that was planned by native leaders.
“The Magaki-Oti or Brown Earth Lodge is being designed as a place for Protectors who need shelter during the coming winter months with gusty winds and temperatures in the minus 20s or lower,” said Bob Gough, Secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, in a press release. Actress Jane Fonda will also be contributing five bison and four Mongolian yurts to the camp, as well as helping to serve the dinner.
For Wicks, this sizable outpouring of effort feels like the least she and the others can do. “To me, this is about a life-or-death struggle and the native people are on the front lines,” she says. “I’m going to honor the values they’re demonstrating—non-violence, cooperation, generosity, respect for mother earth and for others—even in the face of these armed riot police. So bringing them this dinner is a small token of my gratitude.”
Honor the Earth is collecting funds for the Brown Earth Lodge at www.honorearth.org/makagioti.