In a white ceramic bowl, Mariah Gladstone mixes canned salmon, corn meal and chia – creating the kind of nourishing meal anyone can fix at home in minutes. While it’s not exactly what her Blackfeet ancestors ate, the ingredients have a long history: They have helped sustain entire civilizations.
The connection between traditional foods and culture can be lost if it is not practiced. But through outreach endeavors like her cooking videos, Gladstone and other Native cooks are helping their peers embrace their culinary traditions by teaching about traditional foods, what they are, and how to find and cook them.
“We’re missing a lot of information on how to prepare food,” says Gladstone, 24, who started making cooking videos two years ago after she learned about various tribes’ efforts to increase access to affordable, nutritious foods.
When Native Americans were forced to assimilate – confined to reservations and placed in Indian boarding schools – traditional food preparation waned, forgotten in a world of processed foods and modern cooking conveniences. But Gladstone, who shops at the grocery store, hunts or receives food from family and friends, wants to show how easy, affordable and tasty Indigenous cooking can be. Her recipe for salmon cornmeal cakes, which takes just five steps and five ingredients, appears in a how-to video on her “Indigikitchen” (Indigenous kitchen) Facebook page, which has more than 1,400 followers.
“There is also a lot of interest from Native communities across the country to revitalize their Native foods, not only for the health benefit but for the connection to our ancestors and to recognize our identities as Native people,” she said.
Some Indigenous chefs are incorporating traditional foods in anti-Thanksgiving pop-up dinners, cooking without any dairy, processed flour or sugar, all ingredients introduced after European contact. This excludes frybread, often considered a traditional Native food enjoyed at powwows and other Indigenous events. Few realize that frybread was created by Navajos in 1864, during their forced removal, when they had little to eat other than U.S. government rations of white flour, sugar and lard.
But “pre-Contact” cooking is more than a foodie trend for people like 13-year-old Maizie White, an Akwesasne Mohawk seventh-grader who writes about Indigenous food and shares recipes on her blog, NativeHearth.com. Her recipes include avocado hominy salsa, spiced squash waffles, wild rice stuffed squash and venison roast and gravy.
“It helps Indigenous farmers and local people who are growing the food to make a living,” said White, who was invited by Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota also known as “The Sioux Chef,” to cook at the renowned James Beard House in New York City.
“We’re giving back to our community and it is much more healthier and much more economical to cook. It also brings us back to what was here beforehand and respect what was already here.”
According to a report by the Center for Native American Youth, 79 percent of Native children say that their communities lack access to healthy food. On some reservations, the closest thing to a grocery store is a gas station convenience store, where most of the items are processed foods high in sugar, fat and sodium. This contributes to epidemic rates of diabetes and obesity – diseases unknown among Native Americans before colonial contact. Traditional foods can help reduce Type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, as well as address food insecurity in Native communities.
But Native youth are intrigued by more than just the nutritional aspect; many are finding that an Indigenous diet can revitalize their traditions.
Robert Baldy, 18, a Hupa living on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California, was taught the traditional Hupa ways of hunting and fishing by his father. His deer-skinning and fish-filleting videos have appeared on the youth Facebook page of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, a national nonprofit supporting Indigenous agriculture and youth food sovereignty programs. “It keeps the culture alive and not forgetting who we are through our foods,” said Baldy. He started R.O.O.T.S., or Restoring Our Own Traditional Sustainability, last year, a club for those interested in agriculture and tradition.
Robert’s mom, Meagen Baldy, director of the tribe’s community garden and the district’s natural resources, said that many adults and children shy away from traditional practices because they were never taught them or believe they can’t practice them now. “If they’re falling in love with their cultural foods, they are going to make sure that the environment is protected for their kids, and these lands and foods will be available for their kids, too,” she said.
Robert and Meagen Baldy agree that, while it takes time to forage and prepare traditional foods – the acorns used in acorn soup, for example, need to be gathered, dried, ground and bleached – the health benefits and connection to the land make the work worth the time. “If your food dies, your culture kind of dies, too,” Robert Baldy said.
“You can’t truly be sovereign without feeding yourself.”
Kim Baca is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque. She’s covered agriculture, environmental, educational and Native American issues for more than two decades.