Food sovereignty is the right to have a means of obtaining healthy and sustainable food along with the ability to control the production and distribution of such foods. The following meal and the ingredients it contains are important to the food sovereignty and culture of Indigenous peoples.
Main Dish: Buffalo Hunter Stew
Native peoples wasted none of the buffalo following a hunt. A single animal yields up to 250 lbs of meat which can be cut into steak, roast, burger, or ground meat. Meat can also be boiled, broiled, or dried. The inedible pieces are useful materials for shelter, clothing, and tools. Different tribes would hunt Plains Bison at different times of the year, which worked with their schedule for other priorities like planting and likely prevented overhunting and conflict with other tribes (e.g., Plains Cree in spring and summer, Algonquian in winter). Tribes had unique preferences for bison meat, and probably specialized recipes as well. It was a large effort to catch a bison without causing a stampede. It is said that the shaman would carefully lure the bison into a corral by pretending to be a lost calf crying out for its mother with the corral method (Plains Ojibwa, Plains Cree, Assiniboine, and Sioux). Bison played an enormous role in Indigenous culture and food sovereignty. Actions taken by settlers, politicians, and the military led to the destruction of wild bison from a population of 30-60 million prior to the 1800’s to only three-hundred and twenty four by 1884. Bison are beginning to recover, now at a population of a half million, but the impact of ethnic cleansing on Native peoples in the United States and genetic bottleneck on the wild bison is irreversible. This part of the meal is a reminder that political ideologies (i.e. racism) have very tangible and profound impacts on victims’ lives. Bison were the foundational support to a pyramid that connected food, clothing, shelter, culture, tools, and sovereignty. Rebuilding bison as a food source will bring stability back to the pyramid.
The Hunter Stew was filled with new unique flavors. The mushroom base provided an earthy umami flavor that was accompanied by the peppery floral taste of the cedar in tandem with an occasional citrusy punch of the sumac berries. The flavors were tastes that would be unfamiliar to the standard western palette. This stew is highly recommended as an introduction to the flavors of what is now called the United States and the foods of the Indigenous peoples who have called this place home since time immemorial.
- 1 oz dried mushrooms
- 1 cup boiling water
- 3 tbsp sunflower oil
- 3 lbs bison
- coarse salt
- crushed juniper
- greens of ramps
- 8 oz fresh mushrooms
- 1 tbsp fresh oregano
- 2 tsp sumac
- 1 cup stock
* Served with wild rice *
Drink: Sumac Tea
Berries of the red, non-poisonous sumac bush can be found from August to September in the dry soils of grasslands and prairies. It can also be grown. The red berries have medicinal qualities which were used by Native peoples to cure cold, fever, diarrhea, dysentery, sore throats, infections, and more. According to an article in Nature Precedings, its properties are antifibrogenic, antifungal, antiinflammatory, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antioxidant, antithrombin, antitumorigenic, antiviral, cytotoxic, hypoglycaemic, and leukopenic. Many studies regarding sumac explore ways to isolate and extract the different beneficial chemicals within.
Unlike the berries, powdered sumac can be used throughout the year as a bitter yet savory seasoning on foods like fish or poultry; as tea; on a salad; or in sauce. Steeping the powder results in an acidic red tea that is overpowering to some. Instead, allow the flavor to diffuse slowly into water with a hint of lemon and maple. The color should be a very faint reddish-yellow and not dark red. The tangy flavor is immediately noticeable, followed by a slightly metallic aftertaste like the one experienced while eating spinach, due to oxalic acid in the sumac.
Sumac tea or spice pairs well with muted summer flavors of salad or fish, but it also has a range of intensity in flavor depending on the steeping time that can be adjusted to individual preference. Sumac is like an old-world vitamin, which was likely discovered in the same exploratory way Native peoples discovered countless other medicines through dream and experimental application. Red berries are often something people associate with caution – but in the case of sumac it is a blessing in disguise.
- ½ tbsp sumac powder
- 18 oz water
- teaspoon lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons maple syrup
Dessert: Cornmeal Pudding
Cornmeal pudding is a deceptively simple dessert. This recipe was first approached during an in-class cooking exercise and pretty much stuck to the books, not deviating at all from the recipe. However, for the second go around, the ante was upped a little bit. With this recipe being as simple as it is, there is a world of possibilities for potential additions. The ingredients reflected two core tragedies of Indigenous food systems: colonization and imperialism.
Bananas: In Central and South American countries, large US interests were heavily invested in preserving the massive banana plantations owned largely by US companies. Perhaps the most tragic of these events was the overthrow of the democratically elected Arbenz government of Guatemala in 1954. Their crime? Redistributing land away from US interests to the largely Indigenous people that worked the land. The following coup radically damaged Guatemala and installed a brutal dictatorship. The region has still not fully recovered from the nightmare of imperialism.
Chocolate: Indigenous to South America, the cacao tree has spread across the tropics as a cash crop. With its spread came the spread of exploitation of workers, including children who work in what amount to slave conditions. It is a sad reality that many of the men and women farming cacao in Africa and South America have never tasted the chocolate that their cacao pods become.
Instant Coffee: Much like chocolate, coffee is a cash crop in much of the tropical world. With rare exceptions like the EZLN coffee cooperatives of Chiapas, Mexico, much of the coffee trade relies on extremely exploitative and brutal labor practices largely inflicted on Indigenous laborers.
Although these ingredients came together to create a beautiful and sweet final product, their origins harbor darkness. It is only through learning and acknowledging this darkness and pain that we can move forward together to tear down the institutions of oppression that taint these magnificent plants. Let this part of the meal be a reminder of the horrors of colonialism and imperialism, but also of the ingenuity and resilience of Indigenous food systems. Through food sovereignty, the chains of imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism can begin to be broken.
- 1 ½ cups cornmeal
- 2 ½ cups water
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons chia seeds
- ½ cup chocolate chips
- ¾ instant coffee packet
- 1 banana, mashed
- salt to taste
How You Can Support Indigenous Food Sovereignty
In our market-based system, economic autonomy is an important part of food sovereignty. Supporting the economic activities of local tribes empowers the Indigenous people’s sovereignty, while also providing a respectful and sustainable way of appreciating their culture. The American Indian Foods is an organization that provides a trademark, “Made/Produced by American Indians”, that allows consumers to know that the product was produced by a federally recognized tribe. In Wisconsin, there are three vendors that meet this criteria. Purchasing Indigenous foods from one’s own state with this trademark is a great way of supporting the local economy. The American Indian Foods also hosts various trade shows across the globe (including locations such as South Korea, Spain, and the US), and a full list can be found here.
If you wish to make Indigenous food yourself, a good place to start is this New York Times article by Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef. It contains 10 recipes that celebrate the diversity of food all across tribes in America. More recipes can be found in Sean’s book, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. A great alternative and a free source are the three cookbooks and various recipes that the First Nations Development Institute provides.
Another way to support Indigenous food sovereignty is by donating to Indigenous nonprofits. These funds are used to advocate for Indigenous treaty rights, protect tribal resources, promote Indigenous culture, and economically support Indigenous people such as those who are pursuing higher education. Charity Navigator has partnered with the Native Ways Federation to provide a list of organizations that we can donate to. These charities include the First Nations Development Institute and the Native American Rights Fund.
Note: This blog post is part of a final project for the course “Food and Seed Sovereignty” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Authors are Jess Turner, Willow Lovecky, Sam Clayton, and Daniel Ko.