Indigenous corn in a soup made in the Menominee Nation in 2019. Credit: Robyn Katona | MPR News

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“There’s no spirit left in a Twinkie,” Linda Black Elk, an ethnobotanist from Catawba First Nation, joked.

We often forget the relationship we have with food, but many Natives, myself included, understand the statement “no spirit left.” We might call it soul, nutrients, or energy. Nonetheless, there’s no spirit left in processed foods that restrict any natural interaction with pollinators and animals. Nor is there spirit in foods genetically modified to look “perfect” instead of focusing on planting a healthier seed diversity.

Black Elk was speaking at an Indigenous conference about First Medicines in September at Mystic Lake Casino. The focus was on several Native peoples finding ways to return to a traditional diet—Indigenous foods are our “First Medicines.” 

My relationship with food is complicated. Though I am Cree, I grew up in small towns in Crow Wing County with a single white mother. My three sisters and I grew up low-income and sometimes on food stamps, so now I am a speed eater as a result. My favorite food is raspberries and I remember up until my early teens begging my mother to buy them, but they were too expensive and spoiled too quickly to make sense to buy for four kids.

I’ve had occasional experiences with Indigenous foods: I blueberry picked with my dad once as a kid, and my mom sometimes treated my siblings and me to fry bread when she could. She also has a green thumb, so I always lived in a house with plants around me.

My first relationship with First Medicines was aloe—I learned its healing properties helped my family with their sun allergy. Throughout the years I’ve learned more about our relationship with several plants and the land, and how we should thank the forest, the food, who are the First medicines. How we offer tobacco to plants as thanks, and never take the first plant we see because it could be the last of its kind. 

When I heard of this three-day conference as a writer in a fellowship with MPR News, I sought the opportunity to visit with Natives and learn more about Indigenous ways of eating. At the conference, there were more than 100 Indigenous biologists, nutritionists, gardeners, non-profit organizers, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community workers and academics who shared how they approach expanding “First Medicines” in our landscape and our diets.

Fry bread and food sovereignty

In the same way we value tribal sovereignty, many at the conference spoke of a similar concept of “food sovereignty,” which focuses on sustainable and local food availability and aims to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to control how they distribute what they grow and harvest.

Food sovereignty protects the right to feed the community without the worry of affording it. It also protects fish and game practices, which may not sound important until you learn that there were laws that prohibited how Indigenous peoples could obtain food on reservations. They were forced to survive off of ration cards that provided beans, corn and foreign foods like flour, salt and sugar—which led to the creation of the reservation food fry bread.

I was relieved to learn this concept of returning to a traditional diet does not dismiss survival food, like the fry bread I grew up eating. Black Elk asks fellow Native people to avoid white sugar and flour, but with the understanding that there is a “sacredness in survival food.”

Still, Black Elk’s family hardly goes to the grocery store since the food and medicines they gather are originally grown in the Bismark, North Dakota area, including dandelions, which she said are good for liver health and can alleviate anxiety. Black Elk said you can prepare tea from dandelion, but your palate might not enjoy it.

“Our ancestors ate specific plants because they knew it helped the body,” not because Indigenous people found it delicious, she said. Non-Natives can also eat such foods as bitter greens; First Medicines provides nourishment and health benefits for anyone willing to transition towards a more traditional diet. 

The conversation of guilty pleasures also came up, and Black Elk shared she can’t stop eating brownies, revealing her diet is not 100 percent traditional. The goal is growing food and knowing where your food is grown. One food that anyone can find to start their journey toward consuming traditional foods and medicines is a fruit we actually might find delicious: blueberries.

The lessons from blueberries

According to Linda Black Elk, blueberries contain antioxidants and can help people recover from addiction. Another medicinal property, more commonly known as a “nutritious benefit,” is they help maintain blood sugar. Gathering from wild blueberry bushes is difficult, though. Blueberry bushes require a certain condition to grow well. 

They thrive off of wildfires since they burn away pests and competing plant species, at the same time enriching the topsoil that wild blueberry root systems particularly enjoy. Underground, fires preserve a particular part of the stem’s energy called “rhizome” that helps the blueberries grow.

In the prairies, Dakota peoples originally burn-controlled the landscape in low flammable seasons for the bushes to grow. They understood that fire was the perfect medicine for wild blueberries.

U.S. fire officials made these controlled burns illegal when they implemented policies in the early 1900s to stop wildfires, viewing all fires as “bad.” Not everything dangerous is bad. Stopping all fires during that period damaged several ecosystems.

Ferin Davis Anderson, an ecologist/biologist working for Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, pointed out that the present-day Minnesota government requires special permits for controlled bushfires, and the state only allows burning to occur in spring—causing restrictions which Davis Anderson said impacts healing the land for blueberry bushes. 

Spirit is tied to our food, where each plant and animal is our relative, and we are making several paths to return to a more Indigenous diet that stimulates and returns species to the Minnesota landscape. Fires are just one way that keeps the landscape healthy. Another approach on a smaller scale is growing plants in the home.

Finding ceremony in seeds

While other conference panels begin with projectors and PowerPoints, Jeff Savage’s began with a bag of dirt. For his panel on “seed keeping,” he brought the bag to show how to grow sweet grass in portable containers. Between the smell of the soil and the lingering scent of cedar and tobacco in the room, the air reminded me of ceremony. The few that I’ve been to always have that calming aroma and I always feel more welcomed when I am in a place that offers this scent. It’s a type of cleansing, a type of healing and a bit of a spirit returning to me. 

Savage is Anishinaabe from Fond du Lac, and one of the first things he shares is that he’s a gardener. In Anishinaabe culture, there is a prophecy their ancestors followed which said to “move where the food grows on the water,” a reference to wild rice. Wild rice, though, isn’t the only plant he makes an effort to continue growing for future generations. 

One of his approaches is spreading seeds in a bag of dirt, because a bag can stay anywhere in the home. Savage says, “Sweetgrass is hard to grow in the wild due to the seeds spreading first instead of growing leaves first like other plants,” so they need a lot of space to have a chance even to sprout, hence a bag. He saves several types of non-invasive seeds in old prescription bottles for when they will have a home.

One plant, in a sense, has returned home. Davis Anderson said that while she was visiting Hocokata Ti, which is the SMSC’s cultural center in Shakopee, she spotted a tipsinna. It’s a rare turnip and, according to her, it was probably the first one seen growing in Minnesota in 100 years. A few of us were awed by her news, and some even said “tipsinna!” with excitement upon seeing the photo.  

“When you bring a plant back, it brings along others,” said Davis Anderson. She’s not just talking about other plants that come along, or the zitkadan bird that returned to the area. She’s including the fact it brings along the original insect pollinators: Bees. Davis Anderson mentions how honey bees aren’t the ones who do most of the pollinating. It’s the native bees that were here before colonialism that do most of the pollination. 

Who knows? I can imagine if more pollinators return, it’ll become more common to find tipsinna in the Minnesota landscape once more. 

Respect in a raspberry

Through the teachings of these Indigenous food leaders, I gained a closer relationship with food and quiet respect for what the land provides. A panelist handed me a black walnut, and instead of the slightly sweet taste of English walnuts sold in stores, this one carried a smokey perfume and stung the back of the throat almost like tasting scotch. Terry Maresca, a professor in family medicine, explained that the black walnuts we sampled have half our daily value of magnesium and 195 percent daily value of manganese. Magnesium is believed to help regulate depression and physical pain, while manganese may promote healthy gut bacteria.

Like Black Elk said, enjoying every food we eat isn’t needed to appreciate what First medicines provide. We don’t have to eat them just when we are sick; we can eat treatment to prevent us from getting ill. The main Indigenous form of preventive care or prescription is “almost always in the form of a soup,” Black Elk said. Ingredients like tipsinna (prairie turnip), hominy, nettles, yellow crookneck squash, and mushrooms are just a few First medicines that make a robust nutritious soup.

Her words reminded me that the most cherished soup I have ever had was, in fact, completely Indigenous and traditional. It was at Menominee Nation in 2019, when I was at a week-long summer institute. We were planting corn for their community, and a seed keeper began preparing soup in a large outdoor cooking pot after the work was done. There were plenty of vegetables in it, but the star of the show was the Native corn we thanked and added to the soup.

All the food we ate there was respected and thanked before we ate. We thanked the food for growing and offering itself to us. There was wild rice and berries for dessert. With each meal there I felt lighter with a full stomach compared with store-bought meals that weighed down my stomach and spirit.

At the conference, we all ate together in a large banquet room in the casino. On the last day, dessert was a cup of berries topped with a small dollop of whipped cream. I started with the blueberries, then the blackberries mand saved the raspberries for last.

I didn’t expect this conference to impact my relationship with food, but I gained a greater appreciation for even simple foods that we sometimes forget are Indigenous and for their impact on us. Instead of scarfing my food, as usual, there was an effort as I savored this dessert, silently thanking the fruit for growing and offering itself as food.

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Robyn Katona

Robyn Katona is the Toni Randolph Fellow for MPR News.