Watch Indigenous Chefs Share Culture, History and Delicious Cuisine Through ‘Resilience Recipes’ Series

Prof. Courtney Lewis kneeling with chanterelles

Prof. Courtney Lewis locates chanterelles (the orange blossoms at her feet), which are among the most popular wild edible mushrooms.

Long before farm-to-table became a popular restaurant movement, Indigenous people made meals from the earth around them.

Last year, Davidson College invited some top North American Indigenous chefs to recreate the cuisine of their ancestors.

In honor of Native American Heritage month, see how these culinary artists put a modern spin on ancient food traditions.

Watch videos of the chefs in action:

Originally Published July 21, 2020

You can go to nearly any major American city and find a pizza, Chinese food, or burger restaurant. Other offerings may likely include French, Greek and Thai food. 

What you won’t often see is a restaurant featuring Indigenous food. That would be the fruits and greens, wild rice, turkey, bison and seafood that the country’s earliest inhabitants gathered, hunted and cultivated.

There’s a growing movement to change that, as Indigenous chefs from around North America—seeking fresh, local and healthy foods—channel their ancestors’ innovation for survival. Davidson College recently invited some of the country’s top Native chefs to talk about their food and culture, and to cook some of their favorite dishes.

The seven-part “Resilience Recipes” series features chefs ranging from two-time James Beard winner Sean Sherman, who is Oglala Lakota Sioux, to former PBS cooking show host Loretta Barrett Oden, who belongs to the Citizen Potawatomie Nation. Each presents a dish from their regions, which include the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Food allergy sufferers take heart: You won’t find gluten or dairy in most dishes. Wild mushrooms, berries and spring onions abound, as do corn, squash and beans, the “three sisters” of Native cooking. The meals include mussels from San Francisco; organic turkey meatballs from Minnesota and an elegant corn and berry dessert from Oklahoma.

 “One of the things we’re trying to fight is the historicizing and marginalizing of American Indians,” says Courtney Lewis, a Cherokee Nation citizen and Davidson College’s Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor of Justice, Equality and Community in Anthropology this past spring. “So many people see us as situated in the past. But there’s such vitality in Indigenous people and Indigenous food. There’s excitement today about what’s going on, and how innovative and delicious Indigenous cuisine is. This is very much a living practice.”

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Native Americans, Black and Latinx communities especially hard, the chefs have provided their communities with healthy, immune-boosting foods. There’s a strong service component, from feeding homeless and newly unemployed people to taking care of elders—a tenet of Native values.

Resiliency is such an important theme in Indigenous studies. . .They’ve had to rebound from ongoing traumas, widespread poverty and chronic disease. Food becomes a way to promote resilience, through gathering, preparing and feeding their elders and children.

Prof. Rose Stremlau

The chefs use ingredients gathered from back yard gardens, open fields and dense woods. Coastal chefs rely heavily on the sea. They buy their food from local stores, farmers markets and family farms. Sustainability—only taking what you need and replenishing—remains a core principle.

It’s real food, ethically sourced, meant for real people to cook.

“This is a conversation Native people have had for a long time,” Lewis said. “The weaknesses in the U.S. food supply chain that COVID-19 exposed are something Native people have long been aware of. By using local ingredients—including reclaiming some of the plants commonly called “weeds” in non-Indigenous society—we’re avoiding the breakdowns in the food supply, supporting ourselves and remaining resilient health wise.”

Reclamation and Resilience

Early in the spring semester, Davidson hosted in-person panelists for Lewis’s class, “American Indian Nations: Pressing Topics in Indian Country Today.” (Two subsequent panels occurred virtually.)

In February, she and Rose Stremlau, an associate professor in the history and gender studies departments, accompanied students on a trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Their group visited “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire” exhibit. They also toured the Renwick gallery exhibition, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.”

They ate at the Smithsonian’s Mitsitam Native Food Café and other restaurants as part of their studies on native food sovereignty, a movement to reclaim and restore Indigenous food systems.

“I really loved the class, it was so interesting,” said Bianca Nolde-Lopez ’22, an anthropology major on a pre-med track, and sprinter on the women’s track and field team. “It was so eye-opening that all this Indigenous knowledge has been carried through oppression, and pandemics and so much else that was forced upon them.

“And yet they’re still here, creating this amazing artwork and food, so intricately weaving their history and culture into modern life.”

The pandemic forced Lewis to cancel plans to bring students to the May conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in Toronto. She and Stremlau collaborated on an alternate plan. Lewis proposed hosting “Food-preneurs”—the chefs putting a modern spin on Indigenous food. The Mellon Foundation provided funding.

“Resiliency is such an important theme in Indigenous studies,” said Stremlau, who specializes in Native history. “They’ve had to rebound from ongoing traumas, widespread poverty and chronic disease. Food becomes a way to promote resilience, through gathering, preparing and feeding their elders and children.”

Next semester, Lewis will return to The University of South Carolina, where she’s an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology & Institute for Southern Studies. She specializes as an economic anthropologist studying Native issues.

And fighting for Native food sovereignty is at the forefront of their health and survival, Lewis said: “Reclamation is resistance. Resiliency is activism.”

Stremlau said the interest in Indigenous histories and cultures continues to grow at Davidson. Lewis’s residency and the Indigenous chef series have inspired students and the college community to learn more—and cook more.

“It’s so important to make space for Native voices, cultures and traditions at Davidson College,” Stremlau said. “The diversity of this series reflects the diversity of the different nations and regions. Native people are here, they’re modern and they’re relevant.”