Written By: Lucas King | Marketing Intern

Staff from Common Threads and the Chicago History Museum were recently joined by Mariah Gladstone, founder of Indigikitchen, to host a virtual webinar highlighting indigenous cultures and cuisine in honor of National American Indian Heritage Month. Indigikitchen is an online platform which shares recipes and how-to videos with a goal of re-indigenizing our diets. 

Gladstone began her presentation by giving a history of how indigenous food systems have been attacked, forcing indigenous communities onto government subsidized food, or rations. The food provided through these rations ignored indigenous cultural traditions, as they were typically not foods that the Native American population recognized as food. Additionally, rations utilized pre-packaged, pre-proportioned foods, which did not always provide these communities with the nutritional value of fresh meat and produce. 

Today, government subsidized food programs are still present throughout indigenous communities. Gladstone highlights how programs like SNAP and WIC allow participants to select their own foods, but this is still not a perfect solution. 

“With that (government programs) you also need access to a grocery store that has fresh fruits and vegetables,” Gladstone shared. “You need access to the information around the food systems, and you need to know how to cook them. . . So we also have a gap in indigenous knowledge around these food systems. That’s something I set out to remedy.”

Part of Gladstone’s plan to re-indigenize our diets is to understand the foundations of an indigenous food system. This involves understanding how to properly prepare indigenous foods, such as corn. A process called nixtamalization is common in indigenous communities, and differs from European methods of processing corn. This process treats corn with an alkaline solution, which chemically removes the hull of the corn, and adds calcium to it. Doing this makes the corn more digestible, and provides us with greater nutritional value. 

“[Nixtamalization] is the reason that entire civilizations can be built on corn – it was because of this brilliant indigenous chemistry knowledge,” Gladstone shared.

It is also important to recognize the difference between authentic indigenous foods, and supermarket products which only market themselves to be indigenous. Many foods, such as wild rice, have been appropriated from indigenous cultures and sold in supermarkets, but are not processed or prepared in the same manner, causing them to lose their nutritional value.

Gladstone highlighted some of the amazing projects she has been a part of, such as the Growing Health Tea Project, which aims to distribute healthy beverages in the Blackfeet community. Herbal teas are common in Blackfeet cultures, and serve as a healthy beverage option. The Growing Health Tea Project worked to develop a system where native herbs could be grown for commercial use, and be harvested to make herbal teas. This provides indigenous communities with access to these healthy beverages, while also creating business opportunities for community members.

Gladstone also holds a Harvest of the Month program, which highlights different traditional indigenous foods throughout Montana. Harvest of the Month, held in collaboration with the Farm to School programs in Montana, showcases a different agricultural product each month in Montana schools. Gladstone recently collaborated with the Montana Farm to School program to create a curriculum which incorporates bison into the Harvest of the Month program in order to emphasize its cultural significance. 

Many trendy and popular healthy diet options utilize foods that people do not typically have in their household, and tend to come with a high price tag. Gladstone’s work through Indigikitchen emphasizes how to most effectively use the resources we already have access to, rather than these expensive products that may not be available in all communities. Gladstone has also done work on how we can take advantage of foods that are offered through programs like WIC, and re-indigenize these products for a healthier lifestyle. Gladstone shared a simple Peanut Butter Cookies recipe that contains pumpkin seeds as an example of this philosophy.

Gladstone mentions that in order to revitalize, rebuild and reinvigorate indigenous food systems, our efforts, “need to be very intentional, because the work to undo it has been very intentional.” 

Understanding history, and incorporating traditions and wisdom from indigenous communities is essential in re-indigenizing our diets for a healthy lifestyle.