The Indigenous Tradition That Michigan’s Native People Celebrate Instead of Thanksgiving

In Center Line, 101.9 WDET’s “Crossing the Lines” community, native people hold a “ghost supper” meant to assist relatives who have passed move on in lieu of Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving holiday most people in the United States are familiar with is different from the one originally practiced in the Native American community.  However, there are those who still celebrate the day in a more traditional fashion.

One place where this occurs is at South Eastern Michigan Indians Inc. — a Center Line-based non-profit that works with issues relevant to members of the North American Indian community.

Crossing the Lines

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Why Center Line? The city is a community with a deep history as well as a significant shift in diversity over the past 20 years. See more coverage

Sue Franklin is director of the group. She speaks with WDET’s Alex McLenon about how her community celebrates the holiday.

Click on the player above to hear Sue Franklin talk about “ghost supper” and read a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity, below.

Alex McLenon, 101.9 WDET: How is Thanksgiving celebrated in the Native American community?

Sue Franklin, South Eastern Michigan Indians Inc.:  We call it a ghost supper and that is actually what is happening with what is labeled as the first Thanksgiving.

We all get together and this is a ceremony to help our relatives who are transitioning to the spirit world. We fix our traditional foods, we make a pumpkin that is stuffed with wild rice, venison, and cranberries – that’s how I make it. There’s different kind of soups that are made from my husband’s Nation, Oneida. 

I make a three sisters soup that has corn, beans, and squash in it. It’s really, really good. And there are other things, like my mother would make a white fish soup.  And we also will make a wild rice soup; corn soup. A long time ago they use that with salt pork, which was one of the commodity foods that came and that is just terrible for the diet. I use smoked turkey legs in the broth now for that. It’s a lot healthier and people seem to like it.

And you guys hold this every year at the center, right?

Yes, every year. And we use to give baskets out with turkeys and things to people. But a long time ago it really put me in a spot because I thought about the people. You can give people a basket of food but they might not have a stove to cook it on. What happens to those people in our community? They don’t have family to spend that with.

So when I came to work here, I talked to the board of directors here at South Eastern Michigan Indians – they are a group of wonderful people to work with. And I told them that this is what we’d like to do and we started doing this 15 years ago. We’ve been doing it ever since and conduct it like the old way.  Everything is ‘smudged’, you know, like a cleansing that’s done. A spirit plate is prepared.

And you just used the word “smudge.” Can you tell me more about that word?

Smudging is where we predominantly use sage.

Sage is one of the four medicines that we use a lot. There’s sage, sweet grass, cedar and tobacco. And I can say some of those in the language but not all four of them. But the sage is a white sage that we use. We grow that. It grows in our backward and it just takes off. But after it’s harvested and dries, you’ll take it and make a little ball with it and put it in. We use abalone shells, they’re about this big around, and light it and it’ll start producing a smoke. It doesn’t have a flame to it. And my husband uses an eagle feather. He’s a Native, he has an eagle feather. And he gets that smoke going and you use that smoke to bathe yourself with. Just like you’re refreshing yourself with cool water, over your face and hair. And it cleanses you spiritually.


  • Alex McLenon
    Alex McLenon is a Reporter with 101.9 WDET. McLenon is a graduate of Wayne State University, where he studied Media Arts & Production and Broadcast Journalism.