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Native Americans across Midwest embrace traditional foods rejected by centuries of colonization

Jojo Blackwood stands among several of her seedlings and saplings, native plants she’s nurturing at the Kansas City Indian Center. “It's connecting people to the environment they have around them because it's opening their eyes to this area that they live in,” she said.
Carlos Moreno, KCUR (Ag and Water Desk)
Carlos Moreno, KCUR
Jojo Blackwood stands among several of her seedlings and saplings, native plants she’s nurturing at the Kansas City Indian Center. “It's connecting people to the environment they have around them because it's opening their eyes to this area that they live in,” she said.

While on a foraging trip through a wooded area of Kansas City, Jojo Blackwood discovered a plant that would change the way she views her food.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘This is the weirdest looking soccer ball I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Blackwood recalled.

When she pointed it out to the foraging leader from the Kansas City Indian Center, he gasped.

It was a giant white puffball mushroom, a rare find.

The experience sparked her love of foraging for edible plants, as well as growing indigenous foods at the Kansas City Indian Center’s two community gardens.

“It really helps me connect to my culture better,” said Blackwood. “It helps me connect to my people better. I like to think that my ancestors are proud of me for doing this.”

The idea of food sovereignty — or people having the right to control where and how they get food — is growing throughout the U.S. It especially resonates with Native Americans, many of whom have been separated from their cultural food by centuries of colonization, leading to systemic food insecurity and health disparities.

“I think we have to be cognizant of the historical role that the federal government and the American people have played in displacing the indigenous plants and animals to begin with,” said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Thompson, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, knows about the systemic factors at play. She said the U.S. government tried to eliminate bison while settling America, leaving Native American tribes without a food source and without their sovereignty.

The impact of those efforts by early settlers on Native Americans hasn’t faded into the past. According to a study in the Food Security journal, researchers found Native Americans make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, but they suffer from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related diseases and other socio-economic challenges.

Growing against the grain

Indigenous organizations across the Midwest are building new formal food sovereignty programs from the ground up.

At the First Nations Development Institute in Colorado, they’re combating systemic food insecurity by helping Indigenous communities find grants and other resources to connect with their own food.

“When we’re talking about Indigenous communities, especially on this continent, we’ve always been here, we’ve always been trying to feed our people, we've always been working to steward lands and water and seeds,” said A-dae Briones, director of programs at the institute. “But it’s only recently that you see more formal organizations such as non-profits led by Indigenous people explicitly stating that’s part of their work.”

Briones, who is Cochiti Puebloan and Kiowa Indian, said it wasn’t until less than a century ago that the U.S. government allowed Indigenous peoples to participate in the American economy. She said it's no surprise it's taken a few generations for Indigenous peoples to gain the skills and access to build formal food sovereignty programs.

”I think what we see now in food sovereignty is this attempt to pierce some of the colonial structures, whether that be government regulations or economic disparities that prevent Indigenous people from really building models of a food system or participating in traditional models of food growing,” said Briones.

Since these systemic problems remain, more Indigenous organizations across the Midwest are taking matters into their own hands.

The Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has been at the forefront of building food sovereignty programs. Michelle Bowden is the agriculture and environment specialist for the nation, as well as a member. In 2019, she and her team created the Quapaw Farmers Market after finding that people were having trouble accessing fresh food in the region.

“We're just trying to increase the health of the community, our economic resilience and bring back cultural heritage,” Bowden said.

The market offers products from local vendors to traditional foods like Quapaw red corn and bison. Quapaw citizens and non-natives travel all the way from Kansas and Missouri to enjoy the foods that come from the market’s garden.

“I think that people really understand the importance of food sovereignty and the fact we need to be pretty much self-sustainable and be able to take care of the communities that we live in,” she said.

Health benefits of traditional foods

Native foods, such as squash, blueberry, guava and wild rice could help restore physical, cultural and overall health and well-being among Native American communities. Melissa Lewis, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, uses this idea in her research.

While Lewis’ work mainly focuses on cardiovascular disease and her own Cherokee community, she has seen how reintroducing culture and indigenous foods can help reduce health problems.

”I think it's something that Indigenous people have always known, that our lifeways are protective,” said Lewis. “They've been developed over thousands and thousands of years and tailored and localized to each of the areas that we're from. And so the interruption of colonization relates to the health disparities we have today.”

However, for people like Blackwood, native plants can be used for more than nutritional purposes. At the community garden, Blackwood's favorite food is raspberry leaves, since they provide health benefits like antioxidants, helping with metabolism and period cramps.

“I think the biggest thing is that [indigneous food is] medicine, but it's also medicine in the sense that it's connecting people to their culture,” Blackwood said. “It's connecting people to the environment they have around them because it's opening their eyes to this area that they live in.”

However, she knows that the relationship between plants and humans isn’t one-sided.

“That's another big part of indigenous farming is that you understand that all these are living things,” Blackwood said. “They're not just like a thing you own. They're your relative. You help them, they help you.”

Since that fateful foraging trip, Blackwood has devoured every piece of information she could find on indigenous farming and foraging. It has fueled her love of gardening and brought her closer to her Indigenous roots.

Not only has Blackwood found a new purpose, she’s gained respect from her community and from herself.

“Before, I had this internal issue where I was like, ‘Oh, I'm too white to do this. I'm too white for that,’” Blackwood said. “It was like a huge self-esteem issue. But now ... it makes me feel more capable, like I can help more people.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.