The food we grow up with is part of what makes us whole. Cuisine is an inextricable piece of identity, no matter where you hail from. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think Russia? Vodka and caviar, right? Italy? Pizza or pasta with vino? Germany? Brats, beer, and pretzels? Try to think about France and not conjure images of food or drink.
Numerous studies (and an endless stream of travel/food shows) tell us that our pride and confidence in who we are is deeply rooted in the food we cook, share, and pass down. Food instructs habits, rituals, religion, and even the way our brains function. Saying you’re Sicilian carries as much culinary weight as saying you’re kosher or halal. These become vital clues, windows into our what makes us us.
Consider the food you connect with on a cultural level — not just based on flavor, but based on your own unique history. Now, imagine that it was gone. Scrubbed from the earth and replaced with “comfort foods” that offer no real comfort. Empty calories, devoid of connection. This is the plight of Native American and First Nations people throughout the U.S. and Canada. Hundreds of cultures scattered across what is left of their homelands, raising families completely dislocated from their traditional foodways.
I. When Inspiration Comes
A long time ago Raven looked down from the sky and saw that the people were living in darkness
The sun had been hidden far away by an old, selfish man – Part I of Salish Creation Myth
As an indigenous person you get used to saying “we used to” a lot. We used to live sustainability. We used to have cities. We used to have infrastructure that rivaled Europe’s. We used to have law and order. We used to have land to roam. We used to have our salmon…our buffalo…our freedom. Then it came to be that we had none of those things.
So complete was the decimation of the indigenous peoples of North America that the food and infrastructure supporting them were wiped from the face of the earth. Our cuisine was replaced by the ultimate food of oppression — fry bread and government cheese. How can a person feel complete when the only food anyone associates with your culture is the result of oppression?
A few years back, chef Sean Sherman had a similar epiphany, while sitting on a beach in Mexico. He was on a trip, honing his cooking skills, and noticed a world were the indigenous population boasted an ever-evolving yet deeply traditional food culture. He saw dishes and ingredients that had survived colonization and were now part of a broader Mexican identity — a foodway which is now spreading across the world. This got Sherman thinking.
When he returned home, he quickly realized that the food of his people was invisible.
When I was living in Mexico I saw how well the indigenous food systems were able to thrive. I saw so many commonalities in the food from where I grew up on Pine Ridge. In that moment it seemed so obvious that I should be focusing on my indigenous foods.
I went home and first I tried to buy every book I could find on Native American cuisine. I remember being so excited, then so disappointed because nothing was speaking the way I had envisioned it — with an intense knowledge of medicine, foods, or craft. I knew there had to be more than just wild rice and cream of mushroom soup, or smoked salmon with risotto.
I started looking at eastern medicine and finding parallels with how plants were treated there and how indigenous groups in North America treated them. Slowly, things started opening up.