Enough With European Heirlooms—Check Out These Native American Crops Instead

A resurgence in indigenous farming and food could contribute to a healthier, more delicious future for tribal nations.

Rose hip fruit. (Photo: MyLoupe/Getty Images)

Oct 20, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Mahnomen, Minn., was still draped in freezing fog and mist when expectant growers gathered at the White Earth Land Recovery Project’s 11th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference last March. Over the course of three days, attendants swapped heirloom seeds, discussed techniques for banking and preserving indigenous crops, and learned how to make cough syrup from native plants. The same week and a whole weather system away, New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced the 2014 Native American Seed Protection Act to the Senate. In that second week of March, tribes 1,200 miles apart were working in tandem to preserve native seeds.

While they predate the notion of “heirloom”—of white settlement too, for that matter—by thousands of years, the increased interest in all things heirloom has been good for the crops grown by the indigenous tribes of the United States. If Heinrich’s bill manages to make its way into law, it would direct federal grant money to “research and education and training programs to protect and preserve Native American seeds,” which could help the 566 tribes that still exist in the United States move toward something resembling food independence—but they need the right seeds to make it happen.

“If you’re relying on someone else to provide your seeds, what happens if that source isn’t there for you anymore?” asked Elizabeth Hoover, assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University. “What if those trucks don’t come from California anymore? Are we going to be able to eat? It’s seen as ensuring that you have control of your own destiny in that way. It’s your only way of guaranteeing your food source.”

The issue of food sovereignty is about more than avoiding the muscle of big agribusiness and supporting local food sheds, Hoover explained; there’s a very old, deep cultural connection intrinsic in farming native crops. “People felt that it was a connection to the ancestors, growing the seeds they developed, as opposed to going to Walmart and buying Burpee seeds. It wasn’t just about getting your veggies closer to home but reclaiming some of that cultural heritage.”

Protecting native seeds is one aspect of preserving indigenous food traditions. Eating the plants they grow into is another. Sean Sherman, a Twin Cities–based chef, remembers gathering chokecherries on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to make wojapi, a traditional Lakota berry soup. But when he would attend powwows, the soup was a bit different. “They’d use canned blueberries,” he recalled. “It tasted good, but it just wasn’t like what my grandma made from scratch.”

When he began his research to write a Lakota cookbook, he kept finding frybread and recipes that relied on commodity foods. “It didn’t pertain to anything traditional for me,” he said. “It was obvious that, over time, a lot of these traditional foods started to disappear.”

Both Hoover and Sherman say the reintroduction of native food traditions could have more than cultural benefits—they could improve health. Sixteen percent of American Indians and Alaska natives have type 2 diabetes—the highest of any U.S. racial and ethnic group, according to the American Diabetes Association.

But a recent study in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis found that many of the plants in the native diets Sherman’s ancestors ate on the northern plains—cattail broadleaf shoots, chokecherries, beaked hazelnuts, lambsquarters, plains pricklypear, prairie turnips, stinging nettles, wild plums, raspberries, and rose hips—are highly nutritious. Superfoods, even.

Sherman started the Sioux Chef, a Sioux- and Ojibwa-centric catering business, to bring native plants back to the plate, and he hopes to open a restaurant in the Twin Cities this winter. He works closely with nearby farms, such as Dream of Wild Health and Wozupi, as well as the seed bank buried deep inside the Science Museum of Minnesota to maintain his supply of native beans, squash, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. Just this past weekend he attended a food event in Ohio, his pockets lined with heirloom Oneida white corn, black turtle beans, and Cherokee Trail of Tears red beans.

“It’s reacquainting people with foods that have been growing around them all this time,” he said. “These are the staples that were around them for so long, the stuff the grandmothers were eating.”

Sherman sees food as medicine as an appealing prescription—and it sounds like one when the menu includes wild rice flatbread, cedar-braised bison, and seared walleye fish with wild sumac and maple sugar.

“On my reservation, I don’t think there was a restaurant until the ’90s,” Sherman said. “And then a Taco John’s opened up.” In the Southwest, the problems associated with an unhealthy diet that’s nearly unavoidable in the rural, impoverished Navajo reservation, much of which is a food desert, led the nation to pass a junk-food tax.

“These foods are so healthy,” Sherman said. “I’m excited to get the restaurant going so I can show people how simple and wonderful these flavors are.”