What is Native American Cuisine? TRANSCRIPT

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode What is Native American Cuisine?, first released on November 1, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

TASHIA HART: That’s your cedar, bergamot, maple tea.

NICOLA TWILLEY: And does it have particular… you know, powers?

HART: Oh yeah, it’ll make you feel really good.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Is cedar used traditionally for anything in particular or…?

HART: Oh yeah, it’s used for all kinds of stuff. Like here we braise meat with it, it’s used as like a lot of seasoning. And then also people use it in the wintertime as a tea, like to help prevent from getting like flus, colds, things like that, so… It’s also burned, sort of like as an incense, like a smudge.

ALL: Cheers.

GRABER: I’d never tasted cedar in food before. I’d also never had that bergamot—it’s not the perfumey citrus from Italy, but a wildflower in the mint family. It’s also known as bee balm.

TWILLEY: Yeah, me neither. OK, pop quiz people. What do all these ingredients—the cedar, the maple, and the wild bergamot—what do they have in common? Apart from being in our tea, I mean.

GRABER: Anyone? Yeah, you’re probably not going to come up with the answer here. These are all Native American ingredients brewed into a tea for us in Minnesota.

TWILLEY: So this was a delicious tea with Native American ingredients and we washed it down with a delicious meal made with Native American ingredients and you know what’s weird? I’ve lived in the U.S. for fifteen years now, but before we had that meal, I would have not have been able to describe traditional Native American cuisine and flavors at all.

GRABER: But why is that? That’s what we’re asking in today’s episode. We’ll explore the history—why it is that basically none of us have ever tasted Native American cuisine. And we’ll meet people who are trying to change that today. Not just for us—more importantly, for Native Americans themselves, who have some of the highest rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes in the country. Could a return to a Native diet help?

TWILLEY: You are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And before we get back to Minnesota, we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.


GRABER: This episode is supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research.

TWILLEY: And our travel was supported in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism.


GRABER: The voice you heard earlier is Tashia Hart. She forages wild foods for chef Sean Sherman.

SEAN SHERMAN: My name is Sean Sherman. I am the owner and CEO of The Sioux Chef. I grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation which is in south central South Dakota. It is the third largest Native reservation in the United States.

TWILLEY: You might have heard of Sean. He’s getting all kinds of attention right now. He’s just funded his first restaurant on Kickstarter. In fact, it’s the most-backed restaurant project ever on Kickstarter.

GRABER: He’s had a food truck—Tatanka Truck—and a catering company for a few years. His new Minneapolis restaurant will be the first to serve all indigenous foods from Minnesota and the Dakotas.

TWILLEY: The meal we enjoyed—that cedar tea, smoked turkey, hominy, wild rice, and a wild sumac and sorrel pesto—that was a taste of the kinds of foods Sean will be serving at his new restaurant. But he didn’t grow up eating like this.

SHERMAN: You know, on Pine Ridge Reservation, when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, there was only one grocery store on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is a huge area, you know, to have only one food source. And we had to spend a lot of time either going into Rapid City or down into Nebraska to other towns to go to some of the grocery stores.

TWILLEY: A lot of what Sean and his family ate came through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. That’s a federal program that distributes food to low-income Native Americans.

SHERMAN: So, you know, we had the famous government cheese and cereals and various canned foods. But, you know, we did have some traditional pieces here and there. When I look back, you know, we did collect a lot of chokecherries out in the wild and we did collect a lot of tomsula, which is a wild prairie turnip.

GRABER: You may never have eaten what Sean calls “famous government cheese,” but it’s common on the reservation. It’s basically bulk commodity cheese that the government buys to prop up the dairy industry and then gives away.

TWILLEY: But Sean doesn’t want the next generation to grow up eating canned and boxed processed foods like he did. He thinks it’s well past time for Native American foods to have their moment on our tables.

GRABER: Sean Sherman is part of a growing movement today, a rebirth of indigenous North American cuisine.

TWILLEY: But here’s my question. Why does it need a rebirth? I mean, why was it lost in the first place?

CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: When the various waves of colonization occurred it was really about, you know, seizing that land and its natural resources. Which meant increasingly that, you know, native peoples were pushed off their traditional lands where, you know, they harvested game, where they grew crops, where they harvested their traditional, you know, medicines and foods. And so really what that began to do is completely destroy their traditional food systems and the way that they fed themselves and their ability to really be self-sustaining.

TWILLEY: That’s Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting. She’s the co-author of a new report on the history and future of Native American food called Feeding Ourselves. And in the report, she gets into exactly how the traditional Native American food system was lost.

ECHO HAWK: I would give the example of my own tribe. The Pawnee resided within lands kind of around Nebraska and Kansas and we were farmers. We hunted buffalo and game but we were also farmers and we had our crops and our corn, and also we harvested our traditional medicines. So, in 1876, when we were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, you’re talking about two different entirely geographic regions and agricultural zones, right? And climate. And—and so our traditional food systems, the types of crops that we grew, the seeds that we had were no longer really viable in Oklahoma with a very different climate.

TWILLEY: Crystal says that relocation destroyed her tribe’s traditional foodways. In general, putting Native Americans on reservations didn’t just damage their ability to farm, it also really inhibited their ability to hunt. Basically, it made it almost impossible to follow their traditional lifestyles

ECHO HAWK: And in doing so, and in restricting movement and activity, really began to make Native peoples reliant on the government rations that went into those reservations, that were, you know, oftentimes spoiled and rotten food, but began to completely shift Native Americans diets where it began to be flour and sugar and lard and other types of things that were not in our traditional diets.

GRABER: It wasn’t just a matter of people no longer knowing how to farm their crops in new climates or knowing which animals to hunt. Native Americans were moved onto some of the worst lands available. And then given some of the worst food. On top of that, children were forced into boarding schools and kept from speaking their own languages. So a lot of traditional knowledge about food was lost.

TWILLEY: And all of that had a huge impact. Not just on what Native Americans ate, but on their health and well-being, overall.

ECHO HAWK: So I think that it had an incredible and devastating psychological damage to native peoples, wherever they were. You’re talking about Native American people who had sustained themselves. And I think what that is devastating in terms of what it does to the psyche, right, to take away that ability to sustain yourself and to make yourself very dependent on your conqueror.

GRABER: But the change in diet and lifestyle did have very tangible, really enormous effects not just on indigenous people’s minds, but on their bodies as well.

ECHO HAWK: From the health standpoint, when you completely shift a diet away from an incredibly healthy diet of game meat and traditional crops and medicines that people relied on to these processed, you know, forms of food and foods that are very much detrimental to health such as, you know, lard and flour and sugar, what we began to see is the onset of diabetes and other types of diet-related diseases that, you know, really by, you know, the 50s, 60s, 70s had began to explode and which today we have what one Native American public health official recently declared, it’s not only a public health crisis, it’s a humanitarian crisis, with now one out of two Native American children predicted to develop Type 2 diabetes.

TWILLEY: One out of two. In her report, Crystal describes diabetes as the new smallpox. It’s a chilling image, but given those numbers, it’s not an exaggeration. And that’s not all.

ECHO HAWK: 80 percent of Native American people today are either overweight or obese. And we have some of the highest numbers of cardiovascular disease—stroke, cancer, down the line—and many of these, you know, these are all attributable to diet-related diseases—chronic diseases that could be preventable with a healthy diet.

GRABER: Crystal says that the word for diabetes didn’t even exist in Native languages when the Europeans first arrived. Today, Native Americans are among the poorest people in the country. Nearly 20 percent of homes on reservations lack even basic kitchen necessities—running water, a refrigerator, or a stove.

TWILLEY: And according to Crystal, virtually all of Indian country is a food desert—there are no nearby grocery stores so people often have to drive for hours to buy fresh food.

GRABER: But today Crystal is cautiously optimistic.

ECHO HAWK: I’m happy to see the great movement, I think, that is taking place in Indian country where people are really recognizing that the time is now, that we need to take back our traditional food systems.

TWILLEY: Crystal told us there’s a movement to bring back traditional Native American foodways. So we went out to Minnesota, to visit some of the farms and chefs and activists who are making this movement happen.

DIANE WILSON: OK. My name’s Diane Wilson and we are at Dream of Wild Health Farm.

REBECCA YOSHINO: My name is Rebecca Yoshino and I’m the director here at Wozupi Tribal Gardens.

GRABER: Diane and Rebecca are our guides today to growing traditional Native foods. Wozupi and Dream of Wild Health are both about a thirty minute drive away from Minneapolis, on opposite sides of town.

TWILLEY: Rebecca grew up on an organic farm, but she’s not Native American herself. The local Shakopee Sioux community actually headhunted her, because they wanted to start a farm.

YOSHINO: We broke ground here in 2010. It was born out of a health impulse.

GRABER: Over at Dream of Wild Health, Diane is a master gardener who’s a member of Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She started off as a volunteer at the farm and then took over as director a few years ago.

WILSON: And the farm started as a program of Peda Wakan Tipi, and that was a St. Paul based non-profit that provided transitional housing for Native people in recovery. And out of that—out of that work, the clients were asking for a way to reconnect with the land and with traditional foods because it’s such an important part of Native culture. So to do the healing work, to be in recovery, you really need to rebuild that relationship with the land and with your food. So it started as a tiny little garden in 1998. Then we received a gift of a very old, precious seeds from Cora Baker, a Pottawattomi elder in 2000, and then in 2005, we purchased this 10-acre farm. And then we’ve been here ever since, building programs for youth and helping to restore the land.

TWILLEY: We’re going to come back to those precious seeds, but, first things first, I was curious, what exactly do you grow on a Native American farm?

GRABER: Rebecca and Diane walked us around. They’re growing a lot of the foods you’d find at any farmers market—bell peppers and carrots and onions and the like. These are the typical vegetables that any healthy community might want to eat.

TWILLEY: But, and this is what makes them really unique, they’re also growing indigenous crops. Some of them are foods that are very familiar—corn, squash, and beans—but Rebecca and Diane are growing varieties you probably haven’t seen or heard of before.

YOSHINO: Sure. So we are growing a Mizwaki Flint corn that we received from a Mizwaki seed keeper a few years ago. We grow a Ho-Chunk red flour corn. We grow this Dakota yellow corn. We grow an Oneida white hominy corn. Pottawattamie Lima beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans, Arikara red yellow beans, Hidatsa shield figure beans, Lakota squash… just, just to name a few.

GRABER: And it’s not just the varieties— the way they’re growing the corn, squash, and beans, that’s a little different, too.

YOSHINO: Before coming here, I had never thrown a three sisters garden, and so that’s been an adventure.

TWILLEY: Three sisters?

YOSHINO: Yeah, so in a perfect three sisters garden, you grow corn, squash, and beans together. And the pole beans provide an anchor for the corn, and the corn provides stability and a trellis for the beans. You grow squash around the corn and beans and that provides shade and weed suppression. It helps create a more temperate environment for the soil so it doesn’t get too hot, doesn’t get too cold, retains moisture. The beans help fix nitrogen and add fertility to the soil. And then when eaten all together you have all the components for a complete meal.

GRABER: Where are the beans?

YOSHINO: So here we have Pottawattamie lima bean growing on our Dakota yellow corn here.

GRABER: We couldn’t taste the squash or corn, but we did eat some beans right off the stalk.

YOSHINO: These are immature, but I will pop this one open to see if we have any of its exquisite color. Probably not quite yet. Nope, they are still little lima beans. But if you try them in this stage of development—

GRABER: Can we taste one?

YOSHINO: Please do. They’re incredibly sweet.


GRABER: Isn’t that wonderful?

TWILLEY: It’s like candy.

GRABER: Yes. It’s like, sweet and green.

YOSHINO: Oh yeah.

TWILLEY: A normal farmer can order their seeds online, but Diane and Rebecca can’t just go to seeds dot com and get Pottawattamie beans or Dakota yellow corn.

GRABER: And that’s what makes these seeds so rare and special. To have survived all these generations, they had to be saved. Remember how Diane told us that a gift of seeds from a woman named Cora Baker was the inspiration to start a farm at Dream of Wild Health?

WILSON: Well, I heard about the seeds back in 2000. And as soon as I heard that Dream of Wild Health was growing out these seeds, I knew I had to come and get involved. When you come here, you know that these seeds are special and to feel that that understanding when you’re holding them, that these were seeds held by your ancestors… You know, these are seeds that have been grown out by the families that came before you and it was their work, their sacrifice that protected these seeds, sometimes through horrific events.

TWILLEY: Sometimes even the name of the plant tells you about the suffering that went into saving it.

YOSHINO: This is our Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean. These beans were were a part of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, and there are many accounts of women sewing seeds into the hems of their skirts and bringing many, many foods on their journey west. So it is an honor to grow out some of these seeds. And you’ll note that many of those varieties that did make that journey, their names now start, or their English names start, with Cherokee Trail of Tears.

GRABER: The Trail of Tears is a horrific part of American history. It was part of President Andrew Jackson’s policy to remove Indians from their native lands. In 1838 and 39 the Cherokee were forced to migrate from their homelands in the Southeast—Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee—to what’s now Oklahoma. During the forced march, hunger, disease, and exhaustion killed more than a quarter of all the people on that walk. Four thousand people died.

WILSON: The only reason we have some of these seeds is that families made that decision, sometimes in the matter of moments under severe pressure, to protect their seeds because they knew. They knew that they were going to need seeds wherever it was they were going to end up. So on the Cherokee Trail of Tears removal for example, those seeds somehow survived that removal. And that means that even when families were starving that these seeds were protected so that there would always be food. And same with the Dakota removal, there were families that protected enough seeds, no matter what, that we now have food today.

TWILLEY: And the seeds that Native Americans saved on forced relocations like these, even while they were starving—those seeds have been handed down by families and communities over the generations. And one of the women who helped preserve these seeds was Cora Baker.

WILSON: So Cora was a gardener, a traditional gardener who lived by—she lived in the Wisconsin Dells, and she farmed and gardened all her life. And she used to grow the Indian corn, she called it. And she would hang it up—she’d braid it and hang it up outside her barn to dry. And people would come by and they’d stop to visit and they’d see her corn and they would give her seeds. So she ended up with this beautiful collection of seeds from all over this region. But some from as far away as the Southwest. We had, she had Hopi black turtle beans in her collection. She also had Cherokee Trail of Tears corn. And so when she was getting ready to pass in her 90s, her kids didn’t want the responsibility. So she heard about Dream of Wild Health and she wrote a letter and said, “I have prayed and prayed that Indian people would get back to gardening.” And she really believed that these seeds and getting back to traditional foods was the way to rebuild health in the community, so she sent her collection here as a gift. And so we’ve been taking care of that gift, protecting it and growing it out, since 2000.

GRABER: Diane took us downstairs in the farmhouse to show us her treasured seed collection.

WILSON: This is the Cree corn.

TWILLEY: This is?

GRABER: The colors are so different. That’s reddish. The other one is kind of purplish. This is red and blue.

WILSON: Oh yeah, I love this. So this is part of the Dakota corn. So just look at those vibrant colors. The Mandan blue corn, so there’s popcorn, Bear Island, Indian red, the Cree again, amber chip.

TWILLEY: Diane and Rebecca and other native growers have joined together to form an indigenous seed keepers alliance to bring these seeds forward to the next generation. The whole history of these seeds—how rare they are, the fact that they’re this powerful remaining connection to Native American’s original homelands—it definitely inspires a lot of what both Rebecca and Diane do.

WILSON: So what we found is that we tapped into what is a very deep need that people have to connect with traditional foods and also a very deep passion among people for working with these seeds. When you get when you get hooked into seed work it’s—it is definitely a passionate commitment. I was going to say you know it’s like a cult but that goes… Definitely, it brings out the geek in all of us.

GRABER: Rebecca doesn’t have her own Cora Baker at Wozupi Farm. Instead, they’ve gotten seeds from a variety of places—gifts from other tribal communities, for instance, and even seeds saved at the University of Minnesota. The University has also helped both Rebecca and Diane with something else.

WILSON: So we’ve learned all about corn condoms which is just hilarious to the kids when we’re talking about this.

TWILLEY: Yes, Diane said corn condoms.


TWILLEY: Alright! PSA over, back to corn condoms. So, corn condoms are important because without them, these rare indigenous varieties will interbreed with the GMO or industrial varieties growing on nearby farms.

WILSON: And that means that we have to hand pollinate our seeds, because pollen can travel up to three miles. So it’s very labor intensive for us to do that work. But for—in order to protect the genetic integrity of the seeds, we have to hand pollinate.

GRABER: Rebecca walked over to some ears of corn to show us how it works. They put paper bags, like little paper lunch bags, on top of the tassels of the corn.

YOSHINO: And we wait for the pollen to drop. And when the pollen drops it starts dying within 15 minutes. And it can’t be too hot and it can’t get wet, so it’s very particular. And then we gather all of the live pollen from the bags every day and we combine it all.

TWILLEY: Then they go back and dust that pollen on the new baby corn silks, and then they staple the paper bag condoms over the top again to protect the ear as it grows.

YOSHINO: And this bag will remain on that ear of corn until we harvest next month.

TWILLEY: They have to do the same hand pollination thing with squash too, including one of Rebecca’s favorite varieties.

YOSHINO: We grow out to squash called Gete Okosomin, which means “cool old squash” in Ojibway. And this is a squash that has actually become quite renowned in the seed saving and indigenous seed saving community. It is cucurbit maxima, it is Hubbert type squash. It is very cool and long, it looks like almost like a orange and green canoe.

GRABER: The canoe-like cool old squash and the colored corns, those are rare varieties of foods that are still common today. But then there were all sorts of crops I’d never eaten—June berries and wild plums and chokecherries and tiny, tiny fragrant elderberries.

TWILLEY: Growing all these native varieties is really important to Diane and Rebecca and the communities they serve. But it’s also really hard, because a lot of the traditional knowledge about how to grow them has been lost. Some things they can learn from elders, but some things they have to figure out pretty much from scratch.

WILSON: There’s a whole lot of trial and error that happens now.

GRABER: Diane says they have to build a new relationship with each new seed.

WILSON: So there’s this long, years-long process that goes into rebuilding those relationships. So that’s where we’re at. We’re in the midst of that process.

GRABER: Rebecca’s tried and failed at two crops that the elders want the farm to grow—butterfly weed and wild prairie turnips.

YOSHINO: There’s not a lot of research that’s out there on some of these foods so we’ve been doing some experimenting. We’ve been trying to work on cultivating prairie turnips for example, tomsula, for a few years and have not managed to do it successfully yet, but we’ll continue to to work on that. It’s a traditional turnip that grows out in the prairie that—that many of the elders from this community and other Dakota communities and Lakota communities ate traditionally. But I don’t know of any farm or organization that’s been able to cultivate it successfully.

TWILLEY: And, as if the loss of traditional knowledge and the displacement from their original homelands—as if that didn’t make it hard enough to grow these native crops, there’s another challenge.

YOSHINO: And then things that worked one hundred years ago, in a climate one hundred years ago, might not work in today’s climatic conditions.

TWILLEY: Yep, there’s also climate change.

YOSHINO: Well, we’re seeing how far we can stretch the limits of the crops that we’re growing here, and we’re taking notes on what performs an excessive heat, excessive drought, excessive moisture.

WILSON: So with climate change—and we were just talking about this with the kids in our program—we have to be growing those seeds out. And especially if they have been in storage for any length of time, they’re not adapting to the conditions that are changing out here. So for those seeds to remain viable, we have to be growing them.

GRABER: So there are a lot of challenges. There’s the trial and error involved in figuring out how to grow ancient seeds. There’s a changing climate. On top of all that, Rebecca and Diane have to contend with a change in tastes.

WILSON: So that opens up a whole other question, because you know, palates have changed over the years, and especially if you’ve grown up on corn the way it’s grown now, it’s very very sweet.

So what we realized was if, you know, our true work is to grow the seeds out and return them as foods to our community. But in order for us to do that we have to figure out: do people still want to eat them? Because if it’s changed so much that it’s not—it’s not appealing to you then that’s an issue no matter how how nutritious it is.

TWILLEY: The other piece of this is that some of these foods are no longer what people are expecting—they’re not the first thing that comes to mind even when Native Americans think of Native food. When Sean and Tashia and another chef on the team, Brian—when they serve these ancient corns and squash to community members, they get a lot of people asking, where’s the frybread?

BRIAN: Often yeah. Yeah, we do. And we have to explain to them what—the point of view that we have and what we’re focused on. People are slowly catching on. Presenting these different foods beyond frybread.

GRABER: Frybread is just what it sounds like—it’s literally a white bread that’s fried. You’ll find it at any powwow or Native American festival. But it’s actually kind of controversial. Crystal Echo Hawk, for instance, is not a fan.

ECHO HAWK: We really need to look at eradicating many of these foods out of the Native American diet because they’re not traditional. Frybread is not traditional food.

TWILLEY: Diane, on the other hand, thinks frybread still has a place in Native American cuisine

WILSON: Frybread helped people survive. So, you know, I have to—we have to feel grateful to the fact that frybread was there when people had very little to eat. Personally I love frybread, you know, at a pow wow. But like any food it has to be within the context of an overall healthy diet.

TWILLEY: Still, despite these changing palates and expectations, everyone we spoke to agrees—once people try these traditional foods and forgotten flavors, they love them. When we were eating turkey and drinking cedar tea with Brian and Tashia, they’d just served exactly the same dishes to some elders the night before.

BRIAN: The elders—they loved it.

HART: A lot of it is just on their faces like, you know, and they start eating faster and big eyes, you know?

GRABER: This is why the education part of what the farms do is so crucial. Diane and Rebecca both told us that they develop recipes on-site to figure out, say, which corn varieties are for flour, which are best for hominy. They teach cooking classes to the elders—and, maybe even more importantly, to the kids.

WILSON: We’ve got the cookbook, we’ve got the community gardens, we’ve got our youth programs. Feed them. Let them experience those tastes. Let them feel how their body feels afterwards.

TWILLEY: That part—how their body feels afterwards—Diane is talking about avoiding the kinds of sugar crashes that are a precursor to diabetes. She’s seen so many members of her own family, and her community, suffer from the disease, and she doesn’t want to see that happen any more. But can returning to a more traditional diet—however delicious it is—can that make a difference to diabetes levels in the native community?

GRABER: That’s just what Tiffany Beckman wants to find out. She’s an endocrinologist in Minneapolis and a member of the Leech Lake band Ojibway.

TIFFANY BECKMAN: Well, I think as a kid, I was just seeing a lot of people that were sick, you know, in my family and it bothered me. And so that’s how I ended up going into medicine. And then, endocrinology, you know, is my sub-specialty in general medicine and I ended up going into that because I was at an Association of American Indian Physicians meeting when I was a student and I remember hearing people talking in the front seat of the car about the diabetes epidemic in our American Indian population. And I remember them saying, well, what are we going to do. And they were really seriously talking about it. You know, what should we do and they didn’t have clear answers. And then I remember asking if we had an American Indian endocrinologist within the society and they said no. And so I thought well, gee, that seems terrible how—why don’t we have a specialist who can address the—the issues?

TWILLEY: Today, Tiffany is the first and only American Indian adult endocrinologist, at least that she knows of.

BECKMAN: I have this molecular, like, endocrinology background, you know, that can be exceedingly boring for many people, myself included sometimes. And then I have the other part of me that’s the public health part. You know, I have a Master’s of Public Health and I’d say that’s what really defines me and my motivations and what I do. The endocrine, you know, certifications and the credentials—I only got those so that I could speak the language and be a translator for a lot of Native people and have that expertise to be able to say to some of some of my colleagues at other universities, say, you know, I understand what you’re saying but I beg to differ. You know I really don’t want—I don’t think we should be giving pills for these diseases. I think we should be doing X, Y, and Z—lifestyle, wellness, food, activity, and specifically these foods.

GRABER: Tiffany says that the extraordinarily high rates of diabetes aren’t just because of bad diets. Native Americans are genetically predisposed to these types of diseases. And so the Western diet triggers diabetes in Native communities even more than in others.

TWILLEY: Tiffany thinks that the solution is a return to the native diet. This is still a hypothesis, but based on her training as an endocrinologist, it makes sense.

BECKMAN: If you look back at the ancestral diet of American Indians, it was largely more protein based than today’s diet. And, as an endocrinologist, I know that protein modulates gluconeogenesis, the production of sugar by the liver.

GRABER: She’s looked at studies that evaluated how, for male veterans with type 2 diabetes, eating a higher protein diet could modulate their blood sugar levels. It seemed to work.

BECKMAN: So I take that work and sort of extrapolate it to our American Indian population and I look at us and I say, gee whiz, we could really benefit from that especially since our ancestral diet matched that.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Diane told us that there have been some intriguing studies of the nutritional content of Native crops.

WILSON: So one of the things we learned while partnering with the University of Minnesota, another professor who has been a longtime partner, Craig Hassell, helped us do some nutrition testing on these seeds, and what we found in the beans and the—well, the beans were extremely high in antioxidants, the corn was much higher in protein, and just in general when compared to market varieties, these old seeds because they haven’t been manipulated for whatever reason, they maintain that original nutritional value that was so important to our ancestors.

GRABER: There hasn’t yet been any study on whether a traditional Native diet can help combat diabetes and heart disease.

BECKMAN: That work needs to be done.

TWILLEY: And Tiffany wants to spend the rest of her career on it. Right now she’s in the middle of planning a study on the native diet and how it can modulate blood sugars.

BECKMAN: And I have been sitting on it for like a decade, and I think that the communities are ripe and ready for it now. We have enough people on the ground and enough people in the right places now doing things so I think it’s going to be the perfect time to sort of launch it.

GRABER: Just that morning one of the folks in her lab sent a month’s meal plan to review. It incorporates a lot of the foods we’ve already described—native squash, corn, and beans, turkey…

BECKMAN: We didn’t talk about buffalo yet, but that would be a critical piece because I’m looking at increasing the concentration of omega 3 fatty acids in there, and there are certain ways you have to do that, as you guys know. And so that would be one way. Venison, lean meat, salmon, wild rice, berries. Sort of returning to an ancestral diet but doing it in a way where the macronutrients are a certain way and the micronutrients are a certain way. And so, without giving away too much of it, that’s what I’ll say.

TWILLEY: So the plan is, Tiffany will get her Native American research subjects eating this diet, and then she’ll study how it affects them.

BECKMAN: But I would like to look at some markers in the blood and see sort of the diet’s effect on some of the inflammatory mediators and things. So it wouldn’t just be looking at blood sugars and diabetes and cholesterol and classic metabolic markers like waist/hip ratio and blood pressure and things like that, I think we should have some secondary outcomes. And then I suppose specific aim one would focus on some neuro-imaging and looking at maybe pre- and post-. Because you’d want to sort of look at how being on a healthy meal plan changes brain activation, right? Because it does—it will, I know it will. So what we would hope to do is dampen some of the overactive reward pathways in the brain in folks and get them acclimated to a healthy diet. And then sort of show, hey look, your cravings went down for these foods.

GRABER: Tiffany is planning on rolling out her study this fall. She hopes to finally produce the science on what she understands as an endocrinologist. It makes scientific sense to her that a Native diet would help combat diabetes and heart disease; now she has to prove it.

TWILLEY: But this movement to reintroduce Native cuisine, it’s about more than blood sugar levels and diabetes, as important as those issues are.

ECHO HAWK: Absolutely, and that’s very much what Feeding Ourselves is about.

TWILLEY: In the Feeding Ourselves report, Crystal points out that Native Americans are supposed to be a sovereign people—and that regaining the ability to feed themselves will go a long way to restoring that sense of sovereignty.

GRABER: All of this—the health benefits, the food sovereignty, the flavors of their ancestors, the environmental benefits of traditional growing techniques like the three sisters—that all inspired chef Sean Sherman, and his dream of opening a local, all-Native American cuisine restaurant.

SHERMAN: I just see immense benefit for people embracing the indigenous culture of their regions.

TWILLEY: But Sean had a problem. There is no Joy of Native American Cooking cookbook he could go to and find recipes in. He’s had to do a lot of detective work.

SHERMAN: So I started just researching all sorts of different various texts, from ethnobotanical texts to archaeological texts to historical texts. And, you know, really looking at any first-contact texts that were out there. Talking with any of the elders that I could find that might have any food memories. And kind of just really trying to see what was traditional by brushing away anything that looked like it was influenced by European influences or Asian influence or any place outside of the region I was studying. So really just looking all over the place. But it was really kind of like taking a big broken pot and slowly piecing it back together until I started to see a bigger picture of it.

GRABER: The dishes Sean’s creating might not be the exact same ones his ancestors ate. But he thinks they share the same inspiration.

SHERMAN: Because it is just real basic, so we’re just using some simple flavors that are around us. So a lot of these plates that we design, you know, they are extremely hyperlocal, you can find almost every ingredient just like basically walking around a lake in northern Minnesota or on the Dakota plains.

So we might have, for example, a dish that consists of some wild rice and some wild rosehip and some tamarac and some walleye or some hopniss, which is like a kind of like a wild potato. So like all these flavors you can find just walking around the forest in a certain particular area. So we just really kind of design these flavors that grow well together and are together.

So it’s kind of mimicking, like, putting myself in a box. You know, if I was here 200 years ago, I had cooking skills but I just wanted to create food with you know the food that’s directly around me, like what can I use, like, how can I build these plates. And we do have to, of course, grow and create as we move forward. But that’s kind of the fun of being in culinary, too. So we always get to explore new ways of kind of mixing these flavors as we move forward.

TWILLEY: Sean has been enormously successful at getting his first restaurant funded. Now he’s working on opening it.

GRABER: We heard the same theme in all our interviews: this movement is really just beginning, and not just in Minnesota, but around the country. Diane and Rebecca need more money to expand the farms, to grow out the seeds and study them, and to expand the education activities.

TWILLEY: Tiffany is writing a grant to get her study funded. And Crystal pointed out that there are still a lot of government policy changes needed, to actually get the food that Diane and Rebecca grow into the mouths of the people who need it most.

GRABER: There are a lot of challenges. But everyone we spoke to is dreaming big.

ECHO HAWK: So how do we create, you know, a local tribal economy wherever we might be talking about, that is really about where people are accessing food produced in their own food system.

WILSON: So what we’d like to do is is to really be growing out a lot more of these seeds and providing them both as seeds for people’s gardens but also as food, so that you could buy a Dakota flour, for example, for baking with or you could get the hominy. You could get these foods. The beans—beans are fantastic. That’s our goal is to be able to provide more of these foods back to the Native community in the Twin Cities.

SHERMAN: We’re hoping that this will be a flagship restaurant that we’re hoping to be able to build more of to help other areas, you know, have access to this cool, indigenous food in their regions. So we’re just hoping to help continue to push and help this movement of revitalizing Native American foods into the modern world.

BECKMAN: Well, if all that came to fruition, you’d have more people around the table, because you would have kids and parents and grandparents and other community members and extended family all working together to actually get the food and get it ready and be involved in the whole process, and then they would sort of take ownership of it and take an interest in it. And they would see the value of the food and sort of the sacredness of it too, because they’d understand, oh the plants, you know, they’re beautiful, and they develop a relationship with them and kind of feel that when they sit down you know and offer thanks and enjoy it.


GRABER: If you, like me, are American and will soon be eating Thanksgiving dinner with your family, think about the turkey and the cornbread and the cranberries and the wild rice. Those are all traditional Native foods, just the foods that are part of this rebirth of Native American cuisine. And that’s something we should all be giving thanks for.


TWILLEY: This episode is also supported in part by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for our coverage of biomedical research. And our travel was supported in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism.

GRABER: Thanks so much Rebecca Yoshino and Diane Wilson who showed us around their farms. You can learn more about their farms and the projects going on there at our website, gastropod.com.

TWILLEY: Thanks also to the Sioux Chef team: Sean Sherman, Dana Thompson, Brian, and  Tashia. Thanks to Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting, we have a link to her report, Feeding Ourselves, on our website.

GRABER: And thanks to Tiffany Beckman, the first Native American adult endocrinologist. She hopes there will be many more!

TWILLEY: We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode all about the science and history of Winnie the Pooh’s favorite food.

GRABER: Till next time.