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Movement for food sovereignty grows as bison make a comeback to Indigenous communities



Bozeman, Montana – On the Montana State University campus, ancient life is reviving behind the American Indian Hall.

Black-and-yellow sunflowers and huge green zucchini are dwarfed by six-foot-tall maize plants. Sweetgrass stalks grow around the edge.

Some of these plants’ seeds flourished for millennia in the upper Missouri River gardens of Native Americans. It is one of several approximately acre-long Native American ancestral gardens that are currently flourishing in the Bozeman area. Despite its modest size, the garden is part of a wider, more comprehensive nationwide initiative to support “food sovereignty” for Native Americans living on reservations and in tribes outside of them, as well as to recover elements of their food and cultural traditions that were prevalent in North America thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

The concept includes bringing bison back to reservations, creating communal food gardens using ancestor seeds, recognizing and gathering wild fruits and vegetables, and learning how to prepare delicious meals using traditional foods.

“We are learning to care for plant knowledge, growing Indigenous gardens, cultivating ancestral seeds — really old seeds from our relatives the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara: corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers,” said Jill Falcon Ramaker, an assistant professor of community nutrition and sustainable food systems at Montana State. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Anishinaabe.

“A lot of what we are doing here at the university is cultural knowledge regeneration,” she said.

However, it also serves a very useful purpose: it may be used to supply healthier, more affordable, and more dependable food supplies for reservations, which are frequently located far from supermarkets and where processed foods have contributed to the rise in diabetes and heart disease.

A lot of reserves are food deserts, with expensive costs and a greater prevalence of processed food than fresh food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the Montana Food Distribution Study in 2020, which discovered that the median cost in the state of a set of items usually bought at a grocery store is 23% higher when made on a reservation than when made without one.

“With food sovereignty we are looking at the ability to put that healthy food and ancestral foods which we used to survive for thousands of years, putting those foods back on the table,” Ramaker said. What that means exactly can vary by region, depending on the traditional food sources, from wild rice in the Midwest to salmon on the Pacific coast.

Central to the effort, especially in Montana, are bison, also referred to as buffalo. In 2014, 13 Native nations from eight reservations in the U.S. and Canada came together to sign the Buffalo Treaty, an agreement to return bison to 6.3 million acres that sought “to welcome BUFFALO to once again live among us as CREATOR intended by doing everything within our means so WE and BUFFALO will once again live together to nurture each other culturally and spiritually.”

Almost ten years later, all seven of Montana’s reservations are among the dozens of tribes with buffalo herds.

Ramaker, who oversees the Buffalo Nations Food Systems Initiative, a regional program in partnership with Montana State’s Native American Studies Department and College of Education, Health, and Human Development, and the Montana Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative, a state-specific endeavor, claims that the buffalo-centered food system was successful for thousands of years.

It wasn’t a hand-to-mouth existence, she wrote in an article for Montana State, but a “knowledge of a vast landscape, including an intimate understanding of animals, plants, season, and climate, passed down for millennia and retained as a matter of life and death.”

The BNFSI is aiming to bring other foods from the northern Plains Native American diet in line with modern palates, to put bison meat at the heart of the project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the BNFSI a $5 million grant to carry out such work in collaboration with Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota.

According to Ramaker, a large number of Native Americans consume processed foods because they lived on reservations. For a considerable amount of time, boxes containing packaged meals have been sent to reservations as part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a federal food aid program.

“We were forced onto the reservations, where there was replacement food sent by the government — white flour, white sugar, canned meat, salt, and baking powder,” she said.

According to experts, eating processed foods raises the risk of chronic inflammation, which in turn increases the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Native Americans are three times more likely than white people to develop diabetes.

Studies reveal that a diet high in processed foods worsens people’s physical and mental health. “In the last decade there’s a growing amount of research on the impact of good nutrition on suicide ideation, attempts, and completion,” said KayAnn Miller, co-executive director of the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Bozeman, who is also involved with the BNFSI.

Community gardens are now a feature of every Native American reservation in Montana; the Flathead Reservation, which is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is located north of Missoula and has at least eight gardens. The tribe is teaching its members how to grow vegetables, some of which are then prepared into soup and given to the elders of the community. Members grew five tons of food this year, which will be distributed.

Among the efforts are ancestor seeds. The BNFSI provides 200 packets of seeds for ancestral crops to Montana’s Indigenous people annually.

Producing cuisine that appeals to modern palates is essential to the endeavor. The “Sioux Chef,” Sean Sherman, is collaborating with the BNFSI to create enticing recipes using beef, maize, and other Native ingredients.

Through his nonprofit organization, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, Sherman established the acclaimed Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis and inaugurated the Indigenous Food Lab in 2020. The lab, located in downtown Minneapolis, doubles as a restaurant and a hub for teaching and training. Its menu has only items indigenous to the nation—no dairy, cane sugar, wheat flour, beef, poultry, or other products from the people he refers to as the colonists.

“We’re not cooking like it’s 1491,” Sherman said last year on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” referring to the period before European colonization. “We’re not a museum piece or something like that. We’re trying to evolve the food into the future, using as much of the knowledge from our ancestors that we can understand and just applying it to the modern world.” Among his signature dishes are bison pot roast with hominy and roast turkey with a berry-mint sauce and black walnuts.

According to Ramaker, Montana State University is constructing the nation’s second Indigenous food lab in cooperation with Sherman. It will be situated in a brand-new $29 million facility with an advanced kitchen. Next year, it will reopen and carry out more of the current tasks of developing recipes, hosting cooking classes, providing food for the more than 800 Native students at MSU, and filming cooking demonstrations.

Angelina Toineeta, who is Crow, is studying the BNFSI at Montana State as part of her major in agriculture. “Growing these gardens really stuck out to me,” she said. “Native American agriculture is something we’ve lost over the years, and I want to help bring that back.”


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