Celebrating Traditional Indigenous Foods

In my nearly 10 years with PWNA, I have met many generous people who’ve shared their time, knowledge, stories and sense of humor, whether it’s around a kitchen table, walking along a garden or foraging. From harvested Ceyaka (mint tea) and Tinpsila (wild/prairie turnips) in South Dakota to pinon nuts in Arizona, food sources are all around us and carry their own stories, flavors and uses.

Traditional indigenous foods are medicine. These foodways have suffered greatly due to colonization and federally-imposed nutrition programs that contributed to Native health disparities. Today though, our communities are renewing indigenous foods through seed banks and exchanges, garden projects and nutrition training to learn how best to use what Unci Maka (mother earth) provides us. Better still, Native chefs are using these foods and highlighting local ingredients that will better nourish tribal citizens.

Almost every gardener I have visited with speaks of the special connection between people and plants. The most successful growers shared that they sing and talk to their plants. Care and intention to cultivate nourishment must be given to grow something that will make it onto our tables and into our bodies. I talked to my plants this season and have been harvesting squash for two months.

The time of year is celebratory for many tribal communities, as they harvest fresh fruits and vegetables from individual and community gardens. During the upcoming holidays, many Native families will prepare indigenous foods, such as Salmon from the Northwest, Minnesota wild rice and walleye fish, blue corn and beans from the Southwest, buffalo and squash from the Plains or Montana berries and wild game.

With the support of Newman’s Own Foundation, PWNA is conducting Native food preparation training across Northern Plains and Southwest reservations and participating in the Native American Nutrition Cohort to collaborate on better food systems. The training includes traditional indigenous foods through foraging, ancestral foods and healthy nutrition, cooking techniques and even knife skill training. For many participants, the foraging lessons have been the most eye-opening; they learn that plants they may have deemed weeds have value as medicine and food, and that food is medicine.

Recently, youth and Elders gathered at a college in Wanblee, South Dakota and found an abundance of food sources right outside the door. They gathered Ceyaka used to flavor salad greens and melons and stinging nettle tea to help with muscle and joints aches. Another group from Chinle, Arizona foraged at Canyon de Chelly for Scarlet Globemallow flowers and Mormon and Navajo teas. The flowers are used for garnish and tea infusion, and the leaves can be sautéed with garlic and salt to accompany hummus.

All these efforts build on ancestral knowledge and traditional indigenous foodways. Many Elders and experts from our Native communities have stories and knowledge to share for the generations to come, and food – good food – locally grown with care.

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