Native Foodways

photo by Sarah Whiting

I was born to a mother whose Dakota ancestry defined how she interacted with nature. It was inherent. Walks in the woods with her were a joyful visit to our plant relatives. The garden in our backyard was the center of our summer. It was also often our only access to fresh produce.

Later in life, when I first met my partner, Sean Sherman, and heard his vision for The Sioux Chef, I knew instantly why this was deeply important. As I ate the regional Dakota foods that he had prepared at that first event I attended, I felt the nutrients absorb into my bloodstream. That first decolonized meal I was gifted consisted of bison and wild rice meatballs in a corn and herb broth, alongside a salad of wild greens and edible flowers. I realized that the meal tasted like home — like this specific food was meant to be eaten on the land where I was standing.

Sean and I have been running the business jointly for six years. Our mission is to solve the economic and health crisis affecting tribal communities by re- establishing Native foodways. We have two overall goals: to provide food that is relevant to each tribal area, and to develop access to decolonized education. My focus in the organization is addressing the ancestral trauma present in communities affected by generations of genocide, forced assimilation, and other abuses.

I had an epiphany during a trip to the Bois Forte reservation, where I witnessed the profound experience of ancestral memory. Sean and I had served a meal for 150 people, largely using the community’s own foods. 

As I walked through the tables, an elder grasped my hand and pulled me down next to her. She looked  at me with joyful tears in her eyes and said that she remembered these flavors from her childhood. Memories began to flow out of her.

“In the summer, my grandmother would send my cousins and me out to the middle of that lake. This plant would grow up past the water line in July,” she said. “We would harvest and she would cook it for us. It doesn’t grow there anymore. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager.”

As I heard what she was saying, and realized the knowledge that she held, I panicked, thinking of the wisdom that we lose with each elder who passes. It was also clear that our meal had been therapeutic for this person, as it likely was for those around her.

After this interaction, I realized that it would be short-sighted to only use a Western, colonized treatment method — such as talk therapy on a psychiatrist couch — to heal trauma. Many of the Indigenous people I know resist even going to a general physician. We need to identify a more Indigenous, holistic approach.

There is evidence to prove that generational trauma is handed down epigenetically, and is held within the body. Talk therapy can be useful, but in certain cases it can also be re-traumatizing. This is something I experienced while navigating my own childhood trauma.

There are things in nature that trigger the release of calming hormones, such as oxytocin and serotonin. Trees, soil, animals, water, rocks, food, and clanship are all examples of things that are known to reduce cortisol levels in humans. All of these things are medicine.

This understanding was supported by my travels and interactions with nutritionists, academics, tribal physicians, and scientists. Avoiding foods brought to North America by colonizers — such as wheat, dairy, and cane sugar — reduces inflammation in the body, notably in the brain and endocrine system.

Through The Sioux Chef’s new nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), and the training restaurant we have called Indigenous Food Lab (opening in 2020), we will work with the medical, research, and clinician communities to explore how food may be used to mitigate mental and physical health disparities. We will support education in activities such as mindfulness, movement, foraging, and agriculture in the tribal communities around us.

Looking back, I can see how these things offered my mother a healing path throughout poverty, abuse, and intense stress. The garden and woods were where she sustained a healing bond with the land — one that connected her with those who came before and with me.

Dana Thompson (she/her) is a descendant of the Wahpeton- Sisseton and Mdewakanton Dakota tribes and a Minnesota native.