We are revitalizing sustainable, traditional indigenous food knowledge to improve health and increase wealth in Native communities.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
I was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, as were both my parents. I have been in the culinary world for most of my life, starting after my mother moved me and my younger sister off of Pine Ridge to the small town of Spearfish, South Dakota. I started working in local restaurants there and around the Black Hills, and cooked all through high school and college, then made my way to Minneapolis after college. I continued working restaurants in the city and quickly moved my way into an Executive Chef position in my mid-20s. A few years into my chef career, I had an epiphany: I realized that while we had a vibrant food scene where you could find food from all over the world, there was nothing that represented the land we are currently on, nothing reflecting the traditions of the first people to make this place their home. After some quick research, I also realized this was the norm everywhere -- there were no Native American restaurants. This realization put me on a journey to discover what my direct ancestors were eating, storing, growing, harvesting, trading, and sharing just a couple of generations before me.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, I ran wild with my cousins through my grandparents’ cattle ranch, over the hot, sandy South Dakota land of burrs and paddle cactus, hiding in the sparse grasses and rolling hills. We raced over the open plains, and through shelter belts of tall elm trees, the air full of dust and sagebrush. Our dogs chased prairie dogs, pheasants, grouse and antelope, and alerted us to rattlesnakes and jack rabbits. In late summer, we’d harvest chokecherries and timpsula, a wild prairie turnip, and pick juniper berries off the prickly trees. We camped in the Badlands, sleeping under the stars, and gathered in our family’s rustic log cabin deep in the Black Hills. Back then, there were no restaurants on Pine Ridge, just one grocery store and a couple of gas stations dotting the immense reservation. Our kitchen cupboards were stocked with government commodity food staples — canned fruit, canned meat, powdered milk, bricks of yellow government-issued cheese, and dry cereals and oats packaged in white cardboard boxes with black block lettering. Luckily, we also had the birds we hunted, beef from the ranch and eggs from the chickens my grandmother raised. As members of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, part of the Great Sioux Nation, we took part in many celebrations and gatherings like powwows, sun dances, birthdays, weddings, naming ceremonies and cattle brandings, and our moms, aunts and female cousins cooked up contemporary and traditional dishes, like taniga, the Lakota intestine soup with timpsula. The sweet aroma of simmering wojape, the Lakota chokecherry dish, time-warps me back to my 6-year-old self.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
NATIFS is a Native-led and Native-focused nonprofit organization working to reconnect Native Americans with traditional food systems to improve health, promote economic development, establish food sovereignty, and preserve tribal history and culture across artificial colonial boundaries. Through development of a new food system based around cultivation and incorporation of healthy, wild, culturally appropriate, traditional ingredients and agriculture, NATIFS is empowering Native people to use the power of their history and culture to counter the multigenerational impacts of colonialism and dispossession. To combat the systematic cultural genocide that has taken place here, we feel that we can heal ancestral trauma through both the Indigenous foods themselves, and the knowledge of the history of this land. All of these native plants, specifically, are medicine. We aim to tackle the root causes of deep, persistent problems – not just apply BandAids to the symptoms of health disparities and economic and environmental exploitation. We’re changing the economic and health forecast for our indigenous young people and our planet. Furthermore, we will drive economic health into Indian country by developing food producers, create jobs in native-owned businesses, and develop skills around nutrition and culture.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
NATIFS is dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by reestablishing Native foodways. We imagine a new North American food system that generates wealth and improves health in Native communities through food-related enterprises. NATIFS is establishing an Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis that will house an indigenous restaurant and training center covering all aspects of food service; research and development; indigenous food identification, gathering, cultivation, and preparation; and all components of starting and running a successful culinary business based around Native traditions and indigenous foods. By providing education and training that give Native people access to healthy, local, indigenous food, we can not only address serious issues of malnutrition, food-related illness, and economic impoverishment on tribal lands – we can also use our shared heritage to build bridges and build power within and between Native Communities and our allies. The vision of this work is food business development and economic empowerment that provides Native people across North America with access to healthy indigenous food, preserves Native food traditions, addresses the health crisis on Native lands caused by subsidized commodity agriculture, generates wealth for Native communities, and connects and unites geographically dispersed Native communities around a shared heritage. The model will build demand for indigenous food. By replicating this model in different ecological, economic and social conditions, NATIFS will provide Native communities with a framework for addressing some of the most intractable impacts of multigenerational colonialism through Native culture and traditions. NATIFS’ envisions combined strategic initiatives: The Indigenous Food Lab, and Indigenous Food Satellites. The core of NATIFS’ work is our urban Indigenous Food Lab (IFL), a live restaurant and training center covering all aspects of research and development, indigenous food identification, gathering, cultivation, and preparation, and all components of starting and running a successful culinary business based around Native traditions and indigenous foods. The IFL will serve as an iterative demonstration of our replicable Native empowerment model. Once proof of concept is established, NATIFS will launch a series of Indigenous Food Satellites. Rather than replicating the IFL, the satellites will be based on a framework that takes into account local ecologies, economics and social conditions and provides a roadmap for tribal groups to launch native culinary enterprises in their regions. To support satellites, NATIFS will provide close mentorship, training and counsel through the IFH to ensure that enterprises are successful in bringing job opportunities and good food to the local communities. The initial IFL will be located in Minneapolis, with a longer-term goal of creating Indigenous Food Labs in regions across the United States.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The Indigenous Food Lab will reunite Native and non-Native participants with traditional indigenous foods, including Native American agriculture, farming techniques, seed saving, wild foods, ethnobotany, indigenous medicines, cooking techniques, regional diversity, nutrition, language, history, health, and healing. This knowledge will heal the bodies and the spirits of a historically dispossessed population.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Communities will have access to healthy Indigenous foods that are designed to represent their tribe, in their language, using their regional flavors, and giving them the resources to grow community gardens, create permaculture landscapes, process and preserve foods, and create more Indigenous food leaders and food processors to plug into our growing network. Finally, we will replicate this entire model with Indigenous Food Labs in urban areas in other parts of the country, supporting regional, indigenous-designed and run food entities in tribal communities throughout North America.
NĀTIFS, or North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, is the 501c3 nonprofit that we created at the beginning of 2018. Our mission is to promote indigenous foodways education and facilitate indigenous food access. We spread Indigenous food knowledge, train and develop more Indigenous food producers, create Indigenous food access in tribal communities, and aim to become a resource for Indigenous education focused on Indigenous food systems. We are launching a nonprofit culinary training center and restaurant called the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, MN. The Indigenous Food Lab training will cover: 1) all aspects of food service, research and development, indigenous food identification, gathering, cultivation, and preparation; and 2) all components of starting and running a successful culinary business based around Native traditions and indigenous foods. We will assist trainees with preparing a business plan and launching indigenous food-based businesses in their tribal communities.
The Indigenous Food Lab will be a restaurant that is open to the general public and will allow our nonprofit to be financially sustainable by having an earned income stream, while still being able to bring in charitable gifts through philanthropic foundations, private donors, and the general public to support programming. Creating a model for sustainability was a huge priority for us. The IFL will also become a place for people to sign up for classes on a variety of curriculum we’ve been designing focused on Indigenous food systems. We’ll offer classes on Native American agriculture, farming techniques, seed saving, wild foods, ethnobotany, indigenous medicines, cooking techniques, regional diversity, nutrition, language, history, health, and healing. We will also offer a modular training tract available as short-run workshops intended to train groups coming from various areas who are wanting to learn specific parts of the work around indigenous foods. We will also be able to utilize the restaurant as a live training center, utilizing our staff as trainers to teach hands-on how to process and work with these foods. We will reach out to Native leaders, college and culinary students and K-12 students and work with them to create relevant and engaging classes.
The goal for this training center is to reach out to the tribal communities in our region, and help them to develop, implement, and maintain an Indigenous food entity for their community, which could be as small as a catering operation, or as large as a full-scale restaurant, depending on the means and resources of the community. Once open, these satellite tribal entities will help directly influence community members by giving them access to healthy Indigenous foods that are designed to represent their tribe, in their language, using their regional flavors, and giving them the resources to grow community gardens, create permaculture landscapes, process and preserve foods, and hopefully create more Indigenous food leaders and food processors to plug into our growing network. Another goal is to replicate this entire model with IFLs in other urban areas, supporting regional, indigenous-designed and run food entities in the tribal communities. We hope to open IFLs in cities all across the United States. Each one of these urban IFLs would become a regional center point for Indigenous training, education, development, and support. I believe that through this work, and with the past 5 years of running my business The Sioux Chef, we could make a huge impact on Native communities by helping to bring back a stronger connection to the knowledge of our Indigenous ancestors along with creating health, wellness, economic opportunity, and a deeper connection to our environments that could be producing so much for all of us. Non-Indigenous people will also benefit, by being exposed to a strong and beautiful indigenous perspective around food, culture, region, and history.
In addition, we must first define Indigenous Education to understand that Indigenous Education is 1000s of years of ancestral, regional knowledge that was passed down countless generations giving us the blueprint for a healthy sustainable community based lifestyles. Also realizing the loss of our Indigenous Education through boarding and residential school assimilation efforts, on top of the current euro-centric led propogantic curriculum that is taught in schools today, it is imperative as indigenous peoples that we define and share our own knowledge base.
I will focus part of this potential support towards the creation of our digital app based Indigenous online resource archive I’ve drafted called: W.A.K.A.N.N., or World Ancestral Knowledge Archive of Native Nations. The word itself is derived from the Lakota word, Wakȟáŋ, which signifies everything sacred. This archive will be a central resource for accessible indigenous knowledge around indigenous foods systems including our work with wild plants, native agriculture, seeds keeping, recipes, language, crafting, medicinals, places, histories, health, sports and games, stories, and more. This will be accomplished by connecting already existing indigenous led online resources, on top of creating a digital map based online resource for people to explore, record, and share regional indigenous knowledge that can be continuously built with user interface over many years. Part of our work with the Indigenous Food Lab model is to become a centerpoint for Indigenous Education, and an online portal to access this education is a key part of our vision.
Steps toward the success of a healthier indigenous future begins by replacing colonized thought by learning about our indigenous histories that have been eliminated from history books in schools. Once we engage in this ancestral wisdom, we move into reconnecting spiritually, mentally and physically with the natural world. We then begin to understand and build Indigenous foundations of health so that we can regain, retain and share practical this practical knowledge. There is much to learn, such as food preservation, seasonal eating, using elements like wind, sun and smoke to cure and season foods, soil maintenance and seed saving. This will help us evolve our food systems into the modern day all the while protecting and honoring our natural resources.
Our vision is iterative; we aim to open Indigenous Food Labs in different regions throughout North America as informed by indigenous communities, featuring the traditional Indigenous cuisine of each region. We will be recording our learning in all aspects of opening this first Indigenous Food Lab, including financing, fundraising, communications, working with contractors, research and development, etc., to be used as a resource for future labs. We anticipate that much of what we learn opening this first Lab will also be useful as we begin to assist our trainees in developing satellite Indigenous food businesses.
We will collect economic data on our Indigenous participants, and track their successes in opening their own indigenous food-related enterprises following their training. We will share learnings widely through the W.A.K.A.N.N.
On the policy front, we’re following and supporting those working on federal legislation to safeguard Native seeds, and threats to Indigenous lands by pipelines and pollution. In Minnesota, we have a close relationship with Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Nation of Ojibwe), and we have other allies in the state legislature and in the City of Minneapolis. As our programming develops, we anticipate working to remove barriers to Native people launching indigenous food-related enterprises in their tribal communities.
We are working to unite Native people around our common food heritage and its ability to bridge the tradition of our past with the promise of our shared futures. Food access and justice are inextricably intertwined. By providing education and training that give Native people access to healthy, local, indigenous food, we can not only address serious issues of malnutrition, food-related illness, and economic impoverishment on tribal lands – we can also use our shared heritage to build bridges and build power within and between Native Communities and our allies. The vision of this work is food business development and economic empowerment that provides Native people across North America with access to healthy indigenous food, preserves Native food traditions, addresses the health crisis on Native lands caused by subsidized commodity agriculture, generates wealth for Native communities, and connects and unites geographically dispersed Native communities around a shared heritage. This mission is also intended to offer a healing mechanism for many mental health issues, as this is closely linked to hunger, ancestral trauma, food deserts and the lack of access to healthcare.