Thanksgiving: Celebrating Responsible Harvest

Consider Replacing Domestic Turkey with Wild Salmon This Thanksgiving

By Jenna Talbott, Alaska Select Representative

Fall is upon us, bringing with it the air and smells of the holidays. However, subversive undertones continue to gain momentum, regarding Thanksgiving as a holiday steeped in cultural appropriation and unconscious consumer behaviors. Without delving into the controversies regarding history and the roots of the Protestant tradition, we agree that the holiday festivities could use some attention and intention to respectfully evoke the spirit of gratitude. The gathering of communities to celebrate the harvest, abundance, unity, and the cycles of life, is an ancient and trans-cultural rite that is as much about the future as it is about the past.

Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author and botanist of indigenous descent, found that the native peoples of the Haudenosaunee have set out to share their version of “an ancient protocol [that] sets gratitude as the highest priority.” The protocol is widely known as the Thanksgiving Address. The Haudenosaunee have translated it into over 40 languages. Their version as told to Kimmerer begins:

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now are minds are one.”

Kimmerer notes that beneath the unifying credo is a scientific inventory of ecosystem services. One example of the many-parted pledge is:

“We turn our thoughts to all of the Fish life in the water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to food. We are grateful that they continue to do their duties and we send to the Fish our greetings and our thanks. Now our minds are one.”

While "thanksgivings" (or “friendsgivings”) are largely about communion, the meal itself can and should serve as our own modern inventory of that which sustains us. 

Where do we turn our thoughts? What are we grateful for? 

How the turkey became the symbol and staple of the national Thanksgiving holiday is less confusing than how Santa Claus became the father of Christmas, but is still controversial. Regardless of what bird was served at that dinner table in 1621, it wasn’t the turkey we now find in stores today. Mainstream domestic turkeys in 2019 have been selectively bred for rapid growth of breast tissue, resulting in a bird whose life span is only a couple years due to the inability of their organs and skeletons to keep up with their outsized exteriors. These heavy-chested birds cannot fly or mate naturally, which is why they are physically man-handled through the process of artificial insemination. 

To meet “free range” label requirements, modern turkey farms must present the ratio of 2 square feet per bird and they must “have access to the outdoors for at least 51% of their life,” with no further regulations. As a result of birds pecking and clawing at each other in their close proximity, it is a common preventative practice to cut off their beaks, claws, and susceptible snoods. The industry's dependency on high levels of antibiotics continues to raise concern, and the injection of preservatives into the meat remains a common practice.

The symbol of the domestic turkey has generally been pumped up and out with little regard for quality of life--that of the bird, or our own. 245 million turkeys are raised for consumption every year--46 million of which are produced for Thanksgiving rituals.  

The fundamental concept behind any “thanksgiving” seems to be the celebration of that which we are grateful for through sharing in those things and calling them into our future. A religious or spiritual way to call a thing into the future is to pray for it--in whatever capacity that means to an individual or to a culture. A concrete and literal way to call a thing into the future is to pay for it. We “vote with our dollar,” it is said. Americans spent a total of 3.88 billion dollars on turkeys over 2018--a big statement, however intentional.

While families and communities across the nation surely feel drawn to different stories (since our ecosystems and resources vary), our modern world is a global one. Sourcing local, responsibly-produced foods seems to be the most obvious way to stay connected with one’s local environment. We can turn our thoughts there. Yet on a national scale, the most obvious candidate for a Thanksgiving centerpiece is already an ancient symbol of abundance, fertility, prosperity, and renewal

Wild salmon is America’s most abundant of what New York Times journalist and author Paul Greenburg calls “the last wild food.”  Bristol Bay, in Alaska, is the largest most sustainable sockeye salmon fishery in the world and in recent years has provided over half the world’s wild sockeye salmon. 

Wild Alaskan salmon venture out into the oceans and return to the rivers and streams where they were born--completing a cycle of life with one last push to reproduce. Their bodies sacrifice themselves for the journey back into freshwater. When salmon return to spawn, they return to die. Nutrients from their bodies are found in the trees and vegetation along abundant waterways--unless they were harvested for a nutritious meal.

The responsible stewardship of Alaskan salmon fisheries--in particular, Bristol Bay--is something we as a nation can be proud of. At this point, fishermen are a part of what keeps the run steady. If no wild salmon were harvested next summer, there would be too much fish for the river systems and a near-collapse would be necessary before populations would stabilize again.

We celebrate that which we are grateful for through sharing in those things and calling them into our future. 

Wild salmon is at risk. Salmon farms and hatcheries, perhaps meaning well, provide new complications that threaten wild salmon stocks. The development of salmon habitats is often out of the hands of sustainably-managed fisheries--there is nothing anyone can do to maintain salmon stocks if their ecosystems are inhospitable. A proposal for North America’s largest mine (the "Pebble Project") is currently in review to be constructed over two key arteries of the Bristol Bay watershed, and would contain toxins known to be detrimental to salmon habitat. 

By intentionally supporting sustainable practices in the salmon industry, we are voting to protect our nation’s natural resources. By honoring salmon as an ancient symbol of abundance and renewal, we put value on the cycles of life, and in turn, salmon becomes a symbol of preservation and hope. 

If what I’ve said is true--that a “thanksgiving” is as much about the future as it is about the past--(and you love a good fish!) let us honor and celebrate wild food, relish in salmon’s symbolism of sacrifice and new life, and call into our future more responsible management of the world's natural resources.


Jenna Talbott is an Alaska Select representative and a new member of the Bristol Bay fishing community. She spent the sockeye salmon season 2018 in a Quality Control position and 2019 as a deckhand tendering on the f/v Summer Bay.
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