Midwestern Native Americans Embrace Traditional Foods Rejected by Centuries of Colonization | KCUR 89.3
While on a foraging trip through a wooded area of Kansas City, Jojo Blackwood discovered a plant that would change the way he viewed his food.
“In my head, I was like, ‘This is the weirdest football I’ve ever seen in my life,'” Blackwood recalled.
When she pointed this out to the foraging manager at the Kansas City Indian Center, he gasped.
It was a giant white puffball mushroom, a rare find.
The experience sparked her love for finding edible plants, as well as growing native foods at the two Kansas City Indian Center community gardens.
“It really helps me connect better with my culture,” Blackwood said. “It helps me connect better with my people. I like to think my ancestors are proud of me for doing this.
The idea of food sovereignty — or people having the right to control where and how they get food — is growing across the United States. It resonates particularly with Native Americans, many of whom have been separated from their cultural food by centuries of colonization, leading to food insecurity and health disparities.
“I think we need to be aware of the historic role that the federal government and the American people have played in moving native plants and animals to begin with,” said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the U.S. Department. of Agriculture.
Thompson, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, knows the systemic factors at play. She said the The US government tried to eliminate the bison when colonizing Americaleaving the Native American tribes without a food source and without sovereignty.
The impact of these early settler efforts on Native Americans has not faded in the past. According a study on food safety journal, researchers found that Native Americans make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, yet suffer from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related illnesses and other socio-economic challenges.
Grow against the tide
Indigenous organizations in the Midwest are building new formal food sovereignty programs from the ground up.
At the First Nations Development Institute in Colorado, they fight systemic food insecurity by helping Indigenous communities find grants and other resources to connect with their own food.
“When we talk about indigenous communities, especially on this continent, we have always been here, we have always tried to feed our people, we have always worked to manage land, water and seeds,” said A. -dae Briones, director of programs at the institute. “But it’s only recently that you’re seeing more formal organizations such as Indigenous-led nonprofits that explicitly state it’s part of their job.”
Briones, who is Cochiti Puebloan and Kiowa Indian, said it was less than a century ago that the The U.S. government allowed Indigenous peoples to participate in the U.S. economy. She said it’s no surprise that it’s taken a few generations for Indigenous peoples to gain the skills and access to set up formal food sovereignty programs.
“I think what we’re seeing now in food sovereignty is this attempt to break through some of the colonial structures, whether it’s government regulations or economic disparities that prevent Indigenous peoples from really building food system models or to participate in traditional patterns of food culture,” Briones said.
As these systemic issues persist, more and more Native organizations in the Midwest are taking matters into their own hands.
The Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has been at the forefront of establishing food sovereignty programs. Michelle Bowden is the agriculture and environment specialist for the nation, as well as a member. In 2019, she and her team created the Quapaw Farmers Market after seeing that people were struggling to access fresh food in the area.
“We’re just trying to improve community health, our economic resilience, and bring back cultural heritage,” Bowden said.
The market offers produce from local vendors to traditional foods like Quapaw red corn and bison. Quapaw citizens and non-natives travel from Kansas and Missouri to enjoy food from the market garden.
“I think people really understand the importance of food sovereignty and the fact that we have to be pretty much self-reliant and able to take care of the communities that we live in,” she said.
Health Benefits of Traditional Foods
Indigenous foods, such as squash, blueberries, guava, and wild rice, could help restore the physical, cultural, and general health and well-being of Native American communities. Melissa Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, uses this idea in her research.
While Lewis’s work primarily focuses on cardiovascular disease and her own Cherokee community, she has seen how reintroducing indigenous culture and foods can help reduce health problems.
“I think that’s something that Indigenous people have always known, that our ways of life are protective,” Lewis said. “They have been developed over thousands and thousands of years and adapted and localized to each of the regions we come from. And so the disruption of colonization is tied to the health disparities that we have today.
Native plants can also be used for non-nutritional purposes. At the community garden, Blackwood’s favorite food is raspberry leaves, as they provide health benefits like antioxidants, helping with metabolism and menstrual cramps.
“I think the most important thing is that [Indigneous food is] medicine, but it’s also medicine in the sense that it connects people to their culture,” Blackwood said. “It connects people to the environment they have around them because it opens their eyes to that area they live in.”
However, she knows that the relationship between plants and humans is not a one-way street.
“That’s another important aspect of native agriculture is that you understand that they’re all living things,” Blackwood said. “They’re not just like a thing that you own. They are your relative. You help them, they help you.
Since that fateful foraging trip, Blackwood has devoured all the information she could find on native agriculture and foraging. It fueled her love of gardening and brought her closer to her Aboriginal roots.
Not only did Blackwood find a new purpose, but she earned the respect of her community and herself.
“I used to have this internal problem where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m too white to do this. I’m too white for this,'” Blackwood said. “It was like a huge self-esteem issue. . But now… it makes me feel more capable, like I can help more people.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.