NATIVE AMERICAN ISSUES
When you talk American cuisine, you’re talking Native American cuisine
Green Bay Press-Gazette
An ongoing resurgence in Native American cuisine has chefs rethinking the purpose of food, especially across Indian Country.
Among those inspiring new interest is Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, whose Indigenous restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis has gained national acclaim. This year Owamni, which opened in 2021, won a James Beard award for best new restaurant.
But these aren’t new concepts and, in fact, many of the foods we have today actually originated as Indigenous foods.
Ahead of Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 10, three Native chefs talked about their heritage.
“We’re breaking the mold of what people think of as Indigenous foods,” said Oneida chef Arlie Doxtator. “When you talk American cuisine, you’re talking Native American cuisine, such as barbecues, Boston baked beans and clam chowder.”
Doxtator has been a professional chef for more than 30 years in northeast Wisconsin and has worked as executive chef at the Oneida Hotel and Casino. Now he teaches traditional food concepts to his tribe.
Many of the staple ingredients we use, such as corn, tomatoes and several types of squash, were developed through thousands of years of cultivation by Indigenous peoples.
Although many of these foods have made it into mainstream culture, how we think about them largely had been forgotten, but a revitalization of Indigenous culture is aiming to change that.
“Many foods come from our creation teaching about Sky Woman, who (on her descent) to Turtle Island (North America), grabbed seeds of medicine, such as tobacco, strawberries and other fruits,” Doxtator said.
Indigenous people considered every seed and crop to have a special purpose, especially pre-European contact.
“It’s wasn’t just to fill our bellies,” Doxtator said. “There was medicine involved. If there were illnesses throughout the village, the grandmothers knew what to cook. But food’s greatest responsibility is to bring us together as human beings. And they’re still doing that today.”
He said it’s important to remember that each Indigenous culture had and still has its own specialty foods and there is still a lot of diversity among the more than 500 first nations within the U.S.
White corn was a cornerstone
While bison is a major staple in the diet of many Western first nations, it wasn’t as important for the Oneida.
The ancestors of Oneida Nation citizens in Wisconsin had been forcefully removed from their original homeland in upstate New York, despite helping to defeat the British during the American Revolution.
The Oneida had always been an agrarian people and brought some of their staple seed crops to Wisconsin, such as white corn.
Doxtator said many Oneida families in Wisconsin had been forced to become dairy farmers, but white corn contains nine times more calcium than milk and is much healthier when processed the Indigenous way of nixtamalization, or soaking and cooking in an alkaline solution, using hardwood ash.
“Some of the Oneida major recipes are built around white corn,” he said.
Oneida corn soup is popular on the reservation just west of Green Bay. One recipe includes 1 pound of dehydrated Oneida white corn, 2 cups of cooked beans, 1 to 2 pounds of cooked meat, such as pork hocks or smoked turkey legs, and optional salt and pepper.
The corn is immersed in an 8-quart kettle of boiling water or broth and simmered for three hours before the meat and beans are added.
Oneida white corn also can be dried and made into a flour to make a white cornbread, which is not really a bread, but is boiled like polenta, Doxtator said.
Today, the Oneida Cannery produces the corn and other foods that are available for sale in mini-food markets at the One-Stop gas stations on the reservation.
Traditionally prepared Oneida foods are also available at powwows and festivals on the reservation and at the restaurant in the Radisson Hotel in Oneida.
Protein in winter, greens in spring
Doxtator said many of the Indigenous chefs and foodies he’s worked with over 20 years focus on pre-European contact foods, which can be sophisticated, including for meats.
He said the Oneida would incorporate meat into their diet, such as from bear, elk, moose and small woodland animals, but used several different cooking methods.
“We didn’t just stick everything on a stick and put it on an open fire,” Doxtator said. “We did a lot of cooking in clay pots.”
While Europeans used salt to preserve all their meat, the Oneida used smoking and drying techniques, he said.
They also dried fruit and vegetables.
“We ate according to the season,” Doxtator said. “The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois, including Oneida) focused a lot on protein during the winter months. We foraged in the spring for new greens. And in the summer months, we ate a lot of green beans and berries. To go along with these, we always had a special ceremony for that time of year.”
Other foods foraged and grown included sunchokes, cucumbers, melons, wild leeks and onions.
Doxtator said the Oneida also obtained foods through trade with other tribes, such as quinoa from the Incas in South America and chiles all the from southwestern North American tribes in pre-colonial times.
Bringing Indigenous food to Chicago
Jessica Pamonicutt, an executive chef and a citizen of the Menominee Nation, saw a niche for Indigenous food service in Chicago, where she was raised, and started Ketapanen Kitchen in that city late last year.
“Chicago is a culinary mecca,” she said. “You can find cuisine for every ethnicity under the sun, except for Indigenous people.”
She believes she owns the only Native American catering company in Illinois.
“I don’t know why there haven’t been other (Indigenous food providers),” Pamonicutt said. “I think one issue is visibility. But also food sovereignty is a relatively new concept. I’m paving the way for other (Indigenous chefs). Even my last name means ‘walks first.’”
She said Indigenous foods have always been a big part of her family in both Chicago and on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, where she visits several times a month.
“As Native people, food is part of everything we do,” Pamonicutt said. “Food is a way to connect people.”
She said most people don’t realize that more than half of the grown foods we eat were first cultivated by Indigenous people.
One food native to Wisconsin is wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibwe.
Manoomin is a central focus in Ojibwe culture and is ingrained in their migration story. The Ojibwe were originally from the East Coast hundreds of years ago but slowly made their way to northern Wisconsin, following a prophecy that they should settle “where the food grows on water.”
That food, wild rice, can be harvested in late summer for highly nutritious sustenance throughout winter.
Wild rice used to grow all the way from the Dakotas to New York and lower Canada, but climate change has reduced it to northern parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, said chef Dana Thompson, co-owner of The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis and founder of the nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems.
As spring arrived in Wisconsin, she said, Indigenous people knew what foods would start to grow and where to harvest them.
It started with the maple sugar season in late winter.
“Indigenous wisdom was passed from generation to generation,” Thompson said.
She said the variety found in Wisconsin forests was much more diverse than what could be found in grocery stores today.
And the food planted by Indigenous people in Wisconsin was much better for the environment than the factory farms today.
“Indigenous people practiced healthy agriculture that nourished the soil, instead of depleted the soil like farms today that are not absorbing carbon anymore,” Thompson said.
Certain plants were put next to each other to help the other grow and replenish the soil, she said.
One well-known example is the Three Sisters, which include squash, corn and beans. They work together naturally to protect each other from pests and disease.
Other Indigenous food knowledge included knowing which tree species in Wisconsin could help boost immunity during winter.
Thompson said the bark from cedar, pine and spruce when boiled in water contains a massive amount of vitamin C.
Wild bergamot, is a common herb found in Wisconsin, is known to Oneida and other Indigenous peoples to treat colds and the flu when made into a tea.
“With the use of natural remedies, one has to be careful they are not encouraging someone who might not use it properly,” said Bobbi Webster, public relations director for the Oneida Nation.
One popular food attributed to Indigenous people is fry bread, but Doxtator explains this is not a traditional, pre-European contact food.
“Fry bread comes from a traumatic point of our history,” he said.
When Indigenous people were forced onto reservations, it was often on land that wasn’t good for farming, so hunger and starvation became an issue during the 1800s.
Doxtator said the U.S. government would provide leftover food rations, which often included moldy flour, to tribes.
Indigenous people did what they could with this flour and fried it in grease to make a bread.
It has evolved, and many modern recipes can be found online.
“It helped keep many people from starving, but it also represents a part of our history in which health took a decline,” Doxtator said. “These unhealthy foods contributed to an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.”
Still, he said, fry bread is a big part of modern Indigenous culture and is eaten on special occasions, such as birthday parties or holidays.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him email@example.com or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. You can directly support his work with a tax-deductible donation online at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Drive, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.
This recipe, which used the three sisters plants common in Native American cuisine, is a reprint from a Journal Sentinel story in 2018. The recipe was on the menu and provided by The Fire Pit Sports Bar & Grill at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.
Three Sisters Stew
Recipe tested by Joanne Kempinger Demski
Makes about 8 main-dish servings
- 8 teaspoons canola oil (divided)
- 2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
- ½ cup finely diced red bell pepper
- ½ cup finely diced green bell pepper
- ½ cup finely diced yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
- 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 pinches dried oregano
- 2 pinches cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 can (4 ounces) diced green chiles
- 2 cans (8 ounces each) black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 pound frozen corn
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into medium dice
- 1 green bell pepper, cut into medium dice
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes
2 small or 1 medium butternut squash, cut into large cubes as for stew (about 3 pounds total; see note)
In a food processor, puree 4 teaspoons of the canola oil with the cilantro, finely diced red and green peppers, yellow onion and garlic.
Add remaining 4 teaspoons canola oil to a stockpot and heat. Add mixture from food processor and sauté about 5 minutes.
Add cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper, paprika, green chiles, black beans, corn, medium diced red pepper and green pepper, and salt. Cook over medium heat 10 to 12 minutes.
Add stock and bouillon cubes to pot. Bring to a simmer and cook 30 minutes over medium heat.
Add squash. Cook an additional 15 minutes, or until squash is cooked through. Serve immediately.
Note: Because squash comes in different sizes, if you have a larger squash, you can still use it, but the liquid should be increased.
Krista’s Kitchen is a creation of Krista Cheeseman who with her husband Alan Cheeseman own and operate Wilderness North. Krista’s Culinary Arts Degree and Food Management Certification makes her the perfect match for the foods and meals prepared for Wilderness North guests.