Thanksgiving with a Native American spin

November 26, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY – Visitors to Friendship Botanic Gardens got to experience Thanksgiving with a Native American accent at the annual Turkey Walk and Native American Celebration on Thursday, though the weather wasn’t much to be thankful for.

Jude Rakowski, head naturalist who has volunteered at the gardens for the past 20 years, set up a Native American display with blankets, artifacts, dried foods and herbs, along with music and literature about the culture.

She explained the history of the gardens to visitors walking the “turkey trail,” while showing off Native American artifacts and the art of open-fire cooking.

She said about 150 people braved the cold to spend Thanksgiving the original way.

“It’s a little down this year,” she said. “I think because of the cold. Normally we have 300 attendees.”

But a day that started in 20s and barely reached 32 by mid-day didn’t stop the volunteers and visitors from enjoying the event.

Rakowski helped warm things up by roasting rabbit and pumpkin stew. The stew, cooked inside a hollowed-out pumpkin atop heated flatrocks between two fires, contained vegetables grown in the garden right behind her. Beans, pumpkin, squash, cranberry, wild rice and sunchoke – a root vegetable similar to artichoke – made up her stew, which was sweetened with maple sugar tapped from the trees in on the property.

The site of the gardens was formerly home to Algonquian Woodland Natives – the Potawatomi tribe – who lived, held council meetings and friendship circles there. They hunted the woods, fished the creek and nearby Lake Michigan, and grew crops, trading excess with neighboring tribes and settlers.

Rakowski said the area around Trail Creek was prone to flooding — flood waters shut down the maple syrup-making event in February.

For children 13 and under, there were several contests and prizes, from a roulette-style wheel which dished out stuffed toys, stickers and candy; to a walk along the trails to count turkey cutouts.

Rebecca York and Doug Berta manned the prize tables. The four-year volunteers also assist with educational events, cleaning and upkeep of the Gardens, and coming up with games for the kids. That’s York’s favorite part – she filled a jar with candy corn and counted each piece for a guessing game; and made the paper cutouts for the turkey trail.

The Gardens Volunteer of the Year for 2018, York also helps run the Bug Safari, which contains hissing cockroaches she takes care of. Purdue University assists in the Bug Safari, bringing specimens of insects for visitors to learn about.

Along with handing out prizes, Ronald Taylor, a three-year volunteer, ran a craft booth where children could paint wooden figures and create Thanksgiving displays out of colored paper and candles.

Taylor also speaks at educational events, and helps write grant proposals for the park.

“It’s rewarding to see families out in nature, in a natural setting. There’s also the cultural diversity of the gardens from different countries,” Taylor said.

Nick and Colleen Meyer, along with their three children – Jack, Riley and Nora – of Long Beach, make Friendship Botanic Gardens a traditional Thanksgiving activity. They’ve come the last 13 years.

They like to walk the trails and take part in the games and contests, learning about the various cultures – including Native American – displayed in various specialty gardens.

“We like to come out here before dinner,” Nick Meyer said. “It’s nice exercise. We come out to a lot of events here, but the Thanksgiving Turkey Walk is our favorite.”

According to his children, counting turkeys and eating donuts was their favorite part. Asked how many candy corns were in the jar, Jack thought there were 500; sister Riley guessed 100, and Nora estimated 365, a kernel for each day of the year.

For a list of future events ands opportunities to volunteer at Friendship Botanic Gardens, check out the website friendshipgardens.org.

Part of the mission, according to the website, is “to create a nature-filled sanctuary for all people, as we enrich our community through cultural, educational, and social events.”

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