Joshua Davis performs Sting's "Fields of Gold" on the April 27 broadcast of NBC's "The Voice." (Photo: NBC)

Food, culture, and economy take center stage at intertribal summit

April 27, 2016 | |

One of the benefits of going to local food conferences is being fed well.

I have to say, though, that the food I ate at last week’s Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, held at the 176-acre Gun Lake Band of Pottawatomi Indian’s Jijak Camp in southwest Michigan, topped anything I’ve experienced.

So, too, did the four-day event, which was co-hosted by the tribe’s Jijak Foundation and the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

As we all work to build resilient communities with strong local food economies as part of the core, we’ll find no finer examples than I saw at the summit. It was engaging, with skill-sharing on cooking, gardening, farming, maple sugaring, and wild food foraging. It fed the soul, as well as the body. And it was strategic in thinking about how food and food cultures are—or can be—at the center of health, community connections, environment, economic development and, in the case of the tribes, sovereignty and leadership.

Members of 42 tribal nations from across the country (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, New York, Arizona, Oklahoma, Alaska) and the world (Canada, Mexico, Belize) attended. And different tribal chefs and their crews took turns preparing foods that are a part of their cultures.

Martin Reinhardt, an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, did a chef demo of deer liver pate and cornbread made of freshly ground corn and pumpkin seeds, taken from the recently published Decolonizing Diet Project Cookbook that he helped to edit. 

Dr. Reinhardt said he lost 35 pounds and saw health measures such as his cholesterol improve after a year on the diet, which focuses on indigenous foods and food traditions around the Great Lakes. That story mirrors experiences elsewhere in the country, where Native Americans eating the typical Western processed-food diet experienced skyrocketing rates of diabetes until they tried a whole foods diet hearkening back to their own traditions.

Just like the deer liver pate—and the Fair Trade espresso-infused maple syrup that’s made at the Jijak Camp—traditional foods today aren’t simply living in the past, nor are they only about “subsistence” or household eating.  They include everything from comfort foods like corn soup—with as many varied recipes as there are chili, I learned over three days of sampling—to gourmet recipes fusing with other cultural flavors and entrepreneurial, commercial enterprises.

Historically, traditional foods weren’t only for subsistence eating, either.  Historical research is revealing a much more multi-faceted history as Native Americans reclaim their heritage after surviving everything from forced relocations early in U.S. history to the severing of children from their culture and languages in mission schools until just decades ago. One historic 1865 record shows tribes in Michigan trading about 453,250 pounds of maple sugar, said Paul DeMain, of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. At the most conservative prices for maple sugar today, that would be more than $8 million in commercial value. Now, the council hosts an intertribal Farmers Market Truck that travels the country promoting today’s indigenous-made food products.

University of Wisconsin instructor William Gartner showed fascinating agricultural archaeological evidence of ambitious and well-considered raised-field agricultural practices that built soil rather than depleted it, and soil samples show they were revised over time to meet challenges of weather changes. Yet U.S. agricultural “experts” sent to assist the Menominee tribe as part of treaty commitments described the land as “worthless” marshes and sand and they could not conceive of the indigenous people growing food there.

And the food, oh the food. At this 2016 conference: walleye, moose, lamb, bison, ceviche, wild onion soup, winter squash, hummus with Native American beans, a comforting hot corn drink for breakfast, a hot chocolate from fresh-ground cacao, sumac lemonade and a cedar tea sweetened with maple syrup.  I can’t even list it all.  Chi-miigwetch.

About the Author

​​Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at Groundwork. You can reach her at [email protected].

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