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USDA Program Recognizes Indigenous Food Ways

In the Mountain Plains Region, bison meatballs are coupled with dandelion tomato sauce and pasta. For the Southwest Region, there’s chicken veggie stir fry with manzanita.

The meals are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, which promotes traditional food ways, Indian Country food and agriculture markets, and Indigenous health through foods tailored to American Indian/Alaska Native dietary needs.

“It came about by direct requests from the Tribal Nations through a series of Tribal consultations that we had on issues that were important to Tribal governments,” said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of the Office of Tribal Relations at USDA and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. 

“And the theme was raised consistently at every single consultation almost, that the United States and USDA didn’t, from their perspective, incorporate Indigenous values and perspectives into our work, and particularly their focus on Indigenous food sovereignty,” 

The program is applicable to all of the more than 570 federally recognized Tribal Nations, Thompson told the Daily Yonder. The recipes are broken down by region, with the Mountain Plains and Southwest first and then they will focus on the Northeast and Southeast. And then after that, Alaska and Hawaii.

The USDA is a large entity with many different components, Thompson said. One of them: forests. 

“Many of our forests are former Tribal homelands, many of them are still treaty lands, many of them have sacred sites,” she said. “And many Tribes have agreements in their treaties about being able to have foraging access, hunting and fishing access. And so we’re really trying to be thoughtful about that in our foraging policies, really looking at those. So that’s one example.”

Rural Development is another component of USDA.

“One might not automatically think, ’oh, what does this have to do with food and Indigenous food sovereignty?’ But they fund infrastructure, including meat processing plants,” she said. “One of the things that we heard was that a lot of Tribes value mobile meat processing, so that they can go out to where the animals are, and honor them in the field, rather than putting them on trailers, and trucking them to stationary meat processing plants. So we’re trying to incorporate that into our rules.”

Officials are also trying to think about how to incorporate Indigenous food systems into the commodity program on reservations, Thompson said.

Dawn Drouillard, culinary director for NĀTIFS and The Indigenous Foods Lab, helped to oversee the kitchen staff and to coordinate the foraged ingredients. The Initiative incorporates videos to help people learn about the process of food preparation. 

“Our aim for the videos was to walk people of all experience levels through the steps needed to cook the recipes, and the video format is accessible,” Drouillard, a direct descendant of the Grand Portage Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe, told the Daily Yonder. 

“We also wanted to add in a little bit of plant knowledge about the foragable plants that are featured in the recipes so people who might be trying cooking with these ingredients for the first time have a little more knowledge about where they can find these plants, how they can be harvested and used, and their health benefits,” she said. “Our Indigenous Food Lab takes a collaborative approach to recipe development so we wanted to feature as many members of our team in the videos as possible.”

The recipe development combines seasonally foraged, regional Indigenous ingredients with not-so-healthy commodity foods by “breathing life into them by making them accessible, healthy, and useful to the community.” she said.  

“We used only foods from the [Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations] list that we would consider ‘pre-colonial’, i.e. any foods that would have been available on the continent of The Americas prior to any colonial contact. We did utilize a few ingredients that would not be considered Indigenous, but we tried very hard to keep to our mission of primarily utilizing pre-colonial ingredients, whenever possible. We didn’t use any eggs, wheat flour, sugar, pork, beef, or chicken.”

Six recipes were ultimately selected and fine-tuned over time, she said. 

“We submitted these recipes for approval from the USDA, who also ranked them using a very strict criteria involving nutritionists who had us tweak them based on targeted health and nutritional standards,” she added. “The final recipes were then reworked to fit into the USDA criteria and were approved to be featured as a part of this program.” 

Thompson said the program highlights the current administration’s role in working with Tribal Nations and Tribal entities. 

“The United States hasn’t always been the best partner in strengthening Indigenous food ways,” she said. “And so we’re just really honored to see that direction change and work together with Tribal Nations on this.”

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