Does Timpsila ring a bell? No? Yet, it once was a staple across the Great Plains. NATIFS – North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems – is reviving the consumption of this and many other ingredients through its training center and kitchen called Indigenous Food Lab. That’s great news for Native communities, not least for biodiversity in food.
The average eater gets the bulk of their calories from just six sources. But this homogeneity is relatively recent. In the Americas, it dates back to the 1800s, when European colonization accelerated. Land grabs then went hand in hand with destroying local crop varieties and establishing monocultures. Which has dire consequences on biodiversity and people still today.
Reliance on few species indeed hangs food security on a thread, as the crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us. Indigenous Food Lab restores precolonial knowledge to increase food sovereignty and diversity among Native communities since 2020. Several COVID waves later, public-facing activities are finally picking up.
Education for enhanced Indigenous food literacy
If uncovering forgotten Indigenous flavors underpins the center’s work, enhancing its literacy is its raison d’être. After all, realizing their absence from the US culinary landscape is what led the Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman and partner Dana Thompson to embark on this journey. First with a precolonial foods cookbook featuring 200 recipes, then with lectures, keynotes, and even a TedTalk. The Sioux Chef, as he is known, and his newly hired team now share educational resources online and are creating curricula for more training sessions in and out of the Lab around three axes:
As effective stewards of our environment – 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is under their custody – Indigenous Peoples know nature is a pantry. The Lab organizes foraging excursions to teach participants how to harvest their rich terroir without emptying it. One of their goals is to strengthen communities’ capacity to protect the areas that gift them with delicacies such as wild mustard, wild rice, camas, and many more.
Practice Native farming systems
Indigenous Food Lab is reclaiming the Three Sisters Mound. A method where corn, bean, and squash are co-planted to improve soil quality and productivity. The waffle system where clay “walls” help retain moisture is also making a comeback as a clever way to adapt to drought. Other practices include Indigenous permaculture, raised beds, and seed saving. All are practiced at the Lab-managed Maskiikii community garden, where volunteers grow food and medicinal crops such as comfrey and ground cherries.
Cooking to decolonize tastebuds
Those who are into authentic Mexican cuisine have probably heard of metate, a ground stone used to make smooth masas for tortillas. But the nixtamalization – soaking corn in limewater – itself is ingenious as it improves the nutritional and gastronomic quality of the grain. Cooking techniques and tools like these are essential in the Lab’s kitchen/classroom.
Here, forget wheat, dairy, cane sugar, pork, or chicken. Instead, say hello to cedar leaves, wojabi sauce, balsam fir tea, maple syrup, bison, etc. Indigenous Food Lab’s culinary program breaks with centuries of processed food from US government food distribution programs. The same programs known to cause high obesity and diabetes rates due to their hyperglycemic content.
In addition, the non-profit has been helping Indigenous guest chefs decolonize their menus.
Economic empowerment for thriving Indigenous communities
Believe it or not, there are zero Native restaurants in US’ biggest cities. Not in New York. Not in LA. Not in Chicago. The Lab empowers trainees to start successful culinary businesses. Enterprises that lift Indigenous food traditions and improve access to rich diets that support a diverse biosphere. To that end, it’s opening an Indigenous market that’ll feature food and beverages, of course, but clothes, and art too.
Currently, Indigenous Food Lab organizes most of its activities in Minneapolis, where it’s based. But that’s just a start. It’s determined to spark the renaissance of Indigenous foods across North America and beyond. A North American network representing the over 1000 communities that call the US, Canada, and Mexico home is part of their mid-term plan.