The Indigenous Fight to Bring Back Ancestral Foods

Dallas Goldtooth travels to the homelands of the Dakota Oyate people in Minnesota to visit Indigenous chefs Sean Sherman and Dana Noelle Thompson at their restaurant, Owamni.

When Dallas Goldtooth, an Indigenous actor, comedian and organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network traveled to meet with Indigenous chef Sean Sherman at his restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he tasted red cliff lake trout, cedar and maple baked beans, and blue corn mush—flavors that for decades have been wiped off North American plates.

 

“Seeing all the Indigenous people working here, all the chefs and servers, it fills my heart with joy,” said Goldtooth as he looked around the restaurant. “This is part of a greater movement to renew our relationship to the land.”

 

Before European colonists landed on the shores of Florida in the fifteenth century, the vegetation that populated the North American landscape was fundamentally different. Where today we have industrial crops of wheat and sugar, then we had fields of wild berries and hickory nuts. Instead of factory-farmed cows, buffaloes freely roamed the land. Rather than eating red meat, people ate pemmican.

 

When colonizers took over North America, they intentionally destroyed Indigenous food systems as a way of separating Indigenous people from their culture. Potlatch ceremonies were banned, hunting for traditional Indigenous food such as seals, caribou or elk was criminalized, and people were separated from the plants and seeds that sustained them. Colonizers, followed later by big agricultural and livestock companies, embarked on a mission to clear the land and build industrial-size farms—to the detriment of the planet and the people.

Today, the agricultural sector is one of the leading causes of deforestation worldwide. The industry accounts for 70% of human freshwater consumption. Chemical fertilisers have polluted local ecosystems, from mountain tops to river valleys. And livestock grazing has emitted huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The agricultural industry is now responsible for nearly a quarter of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

 

The planet is not the only victim; people too, have suffered. The agricultural industry has illegally pushed people off their land. Indigenous people in particular, who have lived on their ancestral territory for thousands of years, have been—and continue to be—forcibly removed from their land so that big agricultural companies can profit. At the same time, the global food supply continues to be called out for countless human rights abuses that have left millions harmed and hungry.

 

But the damage is also psychological. Today, most people are disconnected from the food they eat—from how it is grown to where it comes from. We are accustomed to seeing our vegetables wrapped in plastics, our fruits waxed to create an unnatural sheen. We struggle to name the seeds around us, ignorant to how they germinate and grow. We are largely unaware that the staples of many Western diets belie a painful history of colonialism and environmental destruction. In short, we fail to grasp the human and environmental cost baked into each bite we eat.

 

At the climate talks in Egypt last week, we finally saw the IPCC acknowledge the critical need to protect cultural heritage from the impacts of climate change, and respect Indigenous Traditional Knowledge as a resource to strengthen communities in the face of the climate crisis.  Around the world, Indigenous people are fighting to protect and bring back their food systems—where people work with, rather than against, the land. In doing so, they hope to repair the damage the agricultural and livestock industries have caused. And critically, they dream of reconnecting people to the food on their plates and the plants in their backyard.

 

Atmos traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to meet Sean Sherman, one of many people fighting to put Indigenous food at the heart of people’s diets, who below shares one of his favorite recipes from Owamni.

Psíŋ na Čȟaŋnákpa na Úma Cȟeúŋpapi na Watȟókeča T’áǧa

(Wild Rice Pilaf with Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Chestnuts, and Dried Cranberries)

Serves 4 to 6 

 

Wild rice is a flavorful and remarkably satisfying food. The mushrooms add a dark, meaty flavor and texture, while the chestnuts are creamy (and high in protein). This meatless dish will appeal to omnivore and vegetarian alike. Cooked wild rice will keep several weeks in the refrigerator and for at least a year when frozen in a plastic freezer bag.

Ingredients

 

2 tablespoons sunflower or walnut oil

1 pound assorted mushrooms, cleaned

1 tablespoon chopped sage

½ cup chopped wild onion or shallots

½ cup Corn Stock or vegetable stock

2 cups cooked wild rice

½ cup dried cranberries

1 cup roasted, peeled, chopped chestnuts*

1 tablespoon maple syrup to taste

½ to 1 teaspoon smoked salt to taste

 

*To roast and peel chestnuts, use the sharp point of a small knife to score an X on the flat side of the chestnut and place on a baking sheet. Roast in a 350°F oven until the skins begin to peel back. The length of roasting time will depend on the freshness and size of the chestnuts and range from about 10 to 25 minutes. Remove, and when cool enough to handle, peel.

Method

 

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms, sage, and onion. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are nicely browned and the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the stock, wild rice, and cranberries and cook until the liquid has nearly evaporated. Stir in the roasted chestnuts. Season with maple syrup and smoked salt to taste.

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