This Native American Ethnobotanist Is Using Science To Restore A Lost Food Culture

Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.

Tashia Hart grew up on the Red Lake Reservation of Northern Minnesota. Her childhood was spent exploring the wilds with her father and two brothers — fishing, hunting, and foraging for food. During these adventures, she developed a deep love for animals and a passion for science.

After studying biology at Bemidji State University, Hart met Sean Sherman, a chef fighting to recover the Native American food culture of Minnesota, and soon began working with him as a “Culinary Ethnobotanist.” Whether in the lab or in the kitchen, she uses scientific methods to uncover plants that we can cook and eat, applying a modern approach to the age-old act of foraging. In doing so, she’s become a sort of Indiana Jones for foods and flavors, rediscovering the past and sharing it with others.

Together, Hart and Sherman are fighting to restore a food way which was nearly obliterated by colonization. It’s important work, which led to the most quickly crowdfunded restaurant ever.

As part of STEM Innovators Month, we sat down with Hart to talk about the importance of using scientific methods to uncover long forgotten foods in the United States. She also spoke about how the nature-driven Native American food culture might change the way we eat, by making us more aware of how our local ecosystems can nourish us.

Where did you grow up?

I spent a lot of time growing up on the Red Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota.

When did you discover that the natural world around you was full of food?

From an early age, my dad did everything he could to instill a love and respect of the land, plants, animals, and people. He’d take me and my two brothers everywhere with him. In the spring we went to the creeks so he could spear suckers. In the summer he’d take us pole fishing. We’d go out all over on the backroads of the rez, scouting for upcoming sources of things like blueberries, looking for deer trails, and we’d go around checking on how the rice was coming, along on the water.

Later in the summer, we’d pick berries and watch my dad get his equipment together for the ricing season. The backyard would soon be full of drying rice which he would then bring over to his friend’s house to parch. He taught us how to winnow and clean the wild rice.

The fall was deer and grouse hunting. We learned how to clean the birds. We’d have fun racing to see who could do it the fastest … and cleanest.

In winter he’d go ice fishing, but it was usually too cold for us to tag along with the cold wind on the big lake.

What drew you into the sciences as a kid?

Having an upbringing set in the outdoors, I naturally developed a fascination and love of animals. At the age of eight, I wanted to be a zoologist.

What difficulties did you face as a Native American pursuing a life in science?

When I left the reservation at 18, I didn’t know anything about how systems like universities or the government worked. I had seen a fair amount of troubled times as a teenager and ended up dropping out of high school around the 11th grade. I ended up in my then boyfriend’s family’s farmhouse, about 10 miles south of the reservation, where I was guided through the hoops needed to get a state ID, G.E.D., and eventually sign up for college with the help of my boyfriend’s mother, a non-Native, inspiring woman who was very encouraging all through my young adult years.

I was disadvantaged in that it took me years to grow my sense of self beyond what I had thought I was worth — nothing — to what I was realistically capable of. Being Native isn’t easy; it comes with hand-me-down, inter-generational trauma that is passed on in blood memory and runs especially deep on reservations…

What was your next step?

Once I figured the systems out, I relaxed enough to realize that my desire to succeed in the sciences was stronger than a lot of my younger fellow students. I was in my mid 20’s and had tired of being stuck in jobs I hated or jobs that my heart just couldn’t agree with.

Being a sick and tired Native might have put me at an advantage in my drive to succeed. Being exposed to traditional natural sciences was a huge advantage. I had already learned how to observe natural things and processes, how to be out in the environment in all types of weather, how to be patient and accepting of how things were and not try to alter them in my mind or on paper, but instead do my best to learn from them — all useful skills for a field scientist.

Did you have assistance in getting into college or schools?

I never received help from any tribes or programs that give financial assistance specifically to Native Americans. So I do indeed have a good chunk of debt from my college experience.

When did you start to associate the sciences with cooking?

The traditional natural sciences I was exposed to as a kid tied knowledge of the environment into everyday meals growing up. I didn’t have a moment where I thought about it like that, where science could be seen colliding with cooking. The overlap was just always there.

And when did that become something you could take back home?

In college, I developed an interest in cooking with the wild plants that had not been on my plate as a kid but were no doubt eaten by my Anishinaabe ancestors. I became obsessed with learning about plant families and identification of unfamiliar species. Understanding and using the sciences as tools for expanding my appreciation and understanding of the place I love and call home, Minnesota — and the Earth, for that matter –has become something that I feel blessed to carry with me for the rest of my life.

How do you use your scientific background in your day-to-day job in a kitchen?

Lots of simple things, but mostly I’m there to verify what a plant in question is, along with identifying its flavor profile before it is incorporated into a dish. I also experiment with plants at home, requiring the use of science before bringing my results to the kitchen.

How does your background in science change the way your look at the natural world?

I see more shapes, sizes, and the habits of plants. If I’m unfamiliar with a plant, I know how to observe these features to find out what its scientific and common names are, which leads to basically an endless body of information about them in books, scholarly essays, blogs, even Wikipedia (laughs).

I wonder about the chemical processes going on in plants as I observe the geography, soil conditions, and so on and think about how these factors are contributing to the medicines found in the plant communities of a place, and lots of other thoughts one obsessed with plants might have. The questions I have about the natural world also evolve as I look to the body of traditional sciences that are held by members of the Native community. This is a living body of knowledge, one that is of vital importance.

How do you think other kitchens, chefs, restaurants can benefit from using biology, chemistry, and ethnobotany is their kitchens and pantries?

It’s compelling, enlivening, freeing good stuff, when you can merge the natural world, the kitchen, and what it means to be a human being making that connection, being that connective piece between people and place.

As individuals responsible for the sourcing, preparation, and presentation of food, it’s so important to be intentional with what that entire process looks like, as we are impacting many natural systems that can have a big impact on the health of the land, and everything that depends upon it for life. Having an understanding of biology and environmental systems is helpful in making good choices along the way. I believe everything in life either nurtures or poisons us as humans in some way, whether its thoughts, feelings, words, or physical food. It’s good to be educated in different ways about what your food is and where it comes from.

What advice would you give to a young Native kid who wants to get into the sciences?

It depends on their ambitions, passions, and their background. Science can lead you in all sorts of directions, whether you want to be a physicist, a natural interpreter, a physician, a botanist, or anything in between.

You can look into your local tribal college; they typically have classes that combine traditional knowledge and teachings with what we think of as classical science and focus on the needs and knowledge of the local community and environment. Having the option of getting an associate’s degree at a tribal college is huge for a lot of Native students, as it can be helpful in procuring confidence and comfortability in a secondary learning environment.

And maybe you’re that kid who is ready to get off the rez, or you come from an area that doesn’t have a tribal college, or you’re from the suburbs, or wherever you are from, whatever your life experience has been up until this point, just know that you are awesome and really can do anything you set your mind to. Never give up. Believe in yourself. I believe in you. Research the classes and programs of at least a handful of schools, and apply to the ones you think has the most to offer you in way of whatever goals you might have for yourself. If you need help with applying to schools, or financial assistance, don’t be afraid to seek out help and ask for it. Or if you’re not sure what your goals are yet — other than you want to learn more about science — you can do what I did and apply to the nearest university and just let yourself explore your interests.

Follow your passion, be respectful of yourself and others, be humble, be tenacious…you’ll get there.

You can read more about Tashia Hart’s story in her autobiographical book Girl Unreserved. If you’re in Minnesota, check out the food at the Tatanka Truck and the upcoming Sioux Chef Restaurant.

More Photos from the Sioux Chef kitchen: