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Lakota Food Sovereignty Summit

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Lula Red Cloud shares her knowledge of wild and edible plants.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting

Lula Red Cloud graciously shared her knowledge of indigenous plants and their uses at the first annual Lakota Food Sovereignty Summit held in Rapid City February 18-20, 2020. Organizers frame the event as “All about food sovereignty, tradition, culture and community education.” 140 attendees pre-registered, sixty students also were present and a number of walk-ins joined the conversation. Representatives included members of the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux, Oglala Sioux, and Rosebud Sioux, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska as well as interested agricultural producers and food consumers.

Sharing knowledge, passing it among neighbors, families and friends, bridging generations is a beneficial process and is one way to help ensure that regional and institutional knowledge is preserved. Organizers say the premiere summit exceeded expectations and look forward to continuing their work.

Sean Sherman shares his research on indigenous food.

Sean Sherman was the key presenter for the summit Tuesday evening. Sherman, also a member of the Oglala Lakota, has made it his life’s work to research indigenous food. Sherman is founder of The Sioux Chef, “We are committed to revitalizing Native American Cuisine and in the process we are re-identifying North American Cuisine and reclaiming an important culinary culture long buried and often inaccessible.”

What did his ancestors subsist on before Europeans colonized the plains destroying bison herds and native plants?

Sherman reflected on his own upbringing,You know, we get a lot of media attention and people are always like, ‘You're from a tribe, you're from a reservation. Like, what kind of foods did you grow up eating?’ Because they want to hear the story, how you hunt down and out. Can you, with your bare hands, feed a family and stuff like that? What I think is most damaging, why did I grow up in the 80s not knowing that much about indigenous foods and why do we still not have it?”

Sherman presents stereotypes associated with native peoples.

Colonization of North America was a process. Native children, like Lula Red Cloud, attended boarding schools. They were taught to turn away from their customs, to chase store bought jelly instead of harvesting from the land. Eventually food came by way of commodity trucks and traditional food preparation was nearly lost.

Sherman continued, “It's really important to think about how do we rebuild that? Because that generation of young kids should have been learning about everything that our ancestors intended us to know about, you know, how, how do we identify plants? How do we harvest things from the wild? How do we make foods and medicines and shelter and all of these pieces. But instead, we're going through this assimilation effort.”

Fortunately not all had been lost. There are elders today that remember the Lakota words for the plants and animals that they’ve depended on for generations. People like Sean Sherman are working to preserve that knowledge. Youth are taking an interest in the old ways. People celebrate their heritage and are comparing notes with others in events like the Lakota Food Sovereignty Summit, working to educate themselves.

Event Organizer Dianne Amiotte-Seidel and Sean Sherman.

Similar conferences occur in unique regions around the United States. Dianne Amiotte-Seidel is the Food Sovereignty Director at Thunder Valley on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A coalition exists that includes organizations working to improve food sovereignty on Pine Ridge. Amiotte-Seidel asked her fellow members, “Have we ever had a Lakota food summit? And, they said that they've talked about it for the last three years. And I said, well, let's just do it. Everybody was on board. So, we just took the bull by the horns and thought it's time to have our own summit.”

Multi-faceted education is important for success. Session topics included: traditional plants, gardening for success, climate change, farm to school, food hubs, beekeeping and so many more. Indigenous chefs shared decolonized dishes Tuesday night, which means that anything that was brought to this country by settlers is avoided. Ingredients to cut out include: dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, and beef, pork and chicken.

Presenter Linda Black Elk
One of many decolonized dishes shared at the summit.

Linda Black Elk teaches at United Tribes Technical College in Bismark, North Dakota and shared bison skewers, “I marinated them in a lot of traditional ingredients. Onions, garlic and chilies of course are native to South America.”

Black Elk is an ethnobotanist and has made herself familiar with the plants that are a part of her environment, “A lot of people come to me and know me as someone who makes medicine from plants. I teach about how to use plants for food medicine, ceremony, building materials, everything.”

Educating oneself about where food originates is critical for everyone. Black Elk continued, “Food summits are really important for everybody, not just indigenous communities. Food sovereignty of course is an issue for all communities. All members of community. We need to have choices about what we eat, what we put into our bodies.”

Anyone can step out their front door and make use of food that may be growing all around them. Sean Sherman mused, “Moving forward for us, the easiest way to understand, to start this journey, was through plants. Our friends and our ancestors knew the purpose of every single plant out there. So we always tell people, you have to stop using the word ‘weed’ because that just means you don't know what that plant is, right? Every single plant has a purpose out there. It's food, it's medicine, you can craft with it.”

Starting from a culture that identifies any plant that doesn’t have an immediate or desired purpose as a “weed”, reconciling will take time. This is where education is critical. People are understandably skeptical and are nervous about harvesting an imposter that could conceivably make them, or their dinner guests ill.

That’s where shadowing someone skilled in identifying plants is key. Linda Black Elk said, “It's really difficult to learn those from books or even videos. You actually have to get out there, see the plants yourself, harvest them with someone, sample them with someone who knows. That's really the best way to do it. There are a lot of people in the Dakotas who do wild food walks. I'm one of them. It's really fun, then you're also getting the physical exercise of being out there on the land as well.”

Learning from a book is challenging, but isn’t a bad way to start if needed. Lula Red Cloud shared slides of plants used by her ancestors as well as anecdotes of foraging for her favorites. Asparagus is a commonly identified plant around South Dakota, an item hunted by enthusiasts of varying heritages, “Hust’ola is the Lakota word for grows wild, like in ditches where there is water. You see asparagus, you just cut that off and harvest it. Don’t take the plant root out, you just cut it from the bottom. It’s very good, a good vegetable.”

Cattails, or čhelí , are an item touted by Sean Sherman, who uses the shoot that first comes up. Lula Red Cloud shared, “Some people say it tastes like cucumber. The plant itself, the leaves, if you slice it open, there's a gel in there and it's a very good gel that you could put on your skin if you have rashes.”

Multi-generational education is a true joy. Dianne Amiotte-Seidel shared that she has learned so much from Red Cloud through presentations at Thunder Valley. Educating youth is also a key component, presentations for students were held in tandem with the mainstream sessions. After their conclusion a panel of students discussed the ideas that they had been working through.

L-R Taccanunpa Ota Win Lawrence -Cheyenne-Eagle Butte High School, Devyn Antone - New Underwood High School, Shantel Brewer and Trigg LaPlante from Dupree High School, Tamiera Garter - Mobridge-Pollock High School

Shantel Brewer of Dupree shared her interpretation of food sovereignty, “I think that food sovereignty is our local farmers and ranchers being able to support the community with natural and wholesome foods while protecting the environment.”

Like Lula Red Cloud, these students are fortunate to be able to forage for wild edibles and medicinal herbs with their relatives. Taccanunpa Ota Win Lawrence, or TC among friends, told of her fondness for yarrow when asked if there is a plant that connects her to her culture.

Fellow panelists shared memories of hunting for timpsila, hanging out with family and teaching the younger children to braid the prairie turnips for preservation. Another favored memory offered was picking chokecherries or wild plums to make goods to share at pow wows.

All five young presenters are setting a good example for their peers, actively engaging in their culture and learning their heritage. The process of getting in touch with old ways, bringing them into modern times is not an easy process. Each student shared examples of opportunities that are developing and also lamenting that there aren’t more resources available.

Shantel Brewer appreciates the FFA program that just began in her school, including an ag teacher that specializes in agricultural classes, “I’m taking a food sciences class. We’re learning about food sovereignty. We’re just opening doors in our school right now.”

TC shared that her community of Eagle Butte has a garden and makes fresh produce available for patrons. There is also a garden right outside of a homeless shelter. On the flip side, she also doesn’t feel that students in her school are as aware about what is taking place as she’d prefer, “A lot of my teachers were excited for me to be doing this because there isn’t a lot of people in my community, like youth doing this other than growing crops and stuff. I wish that our educational people would help spread the word.”

Shantel, TC, as well their peers, attended this summit as part of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, an organization that sets up similar conferences for youth and adults nationwide and sponsor programs to help move efforts forward.

Equipping youth with knowledge is a great way forward. It is very serious work, though Sean Sherman offers a joke to frame how far removed from nature people have become, “I always tease that our kids can name more Kardashians and they can tree species, right? So like we need to be teaching them things that are important, you know? So when you're looking at plants, like you just start to see a lot of amazing stuff out there and you start to learn their names, what are their Lakota names?”

Change is difficult. Anything worth doing is hard. People set in their ways are tough sells, complete transformation doesn’t happen all at once. It is a common goal shared by the tribes of South Dakota and indigenous communities around the world.

Prior to colonization the Sioux Nation lived on the plains of what is now the Dakotas. When they were sent to the reservations, they were divided into the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota. Today they present a united front Amiotte-Seidel shared, “Today I presented it with Ron, he's from Standing Rock. There's so many Dakota from the Sisseton-Whapeton Oyate here to learn. So we're still all working together, trying to learn from one another. I believe we're all one.”

Amiotte-Seidel may have organized the event and appeared as a presenter herself, she also said that she enjoyed the opportunity to learn, siting the work of Elsie Meeks a Lakota entrepreneur and leader in agriculture who spoke on Local Food, “I'm just not just as the organizer. I'm here to learn. And that's what I brought all these presenters. That's what the summit is about, it's for all of us to learn and then help each other and in many different ways.”

Lula Red Cloud has shared her copious knowledge with her relatives and friends on Pine Ridge. That’s how Dianne Amiotte-Seidel came to know her. Red Cloud presented with Beverely Warne, another knowledgeable elder. Amiotte-Seidel gives a resounding endorsement, “These two ladies are elderly ladies, they're both in their eighties. They came down to Thunder Valley and talked about healthy cooking practices. And I never realized every single plant is edible. Our ancestors used them many years ago. So I'm excited about hearing everyone else's presentation because this is very educational.”

It takes a life time to learn about all that is available and possible on this earth. Wisdom is knowing that humans aren’t the only creatures looking for delicious food. In fact, it seems as though one could follow the four legged’s lead in choosing what to forage.

It’s a lesson that Red Cloud observed on many occasions, “We were digging for timpsila, my mom, and I, and dad. We were sitting there, looking at the yucca plant. They’ve got that beautiful flower, those seeds on there that you could eat. And so, we sat there. I was looking at it, and here comes this cow just walking along. I thought, 'She’s going to get stuck by those Yucca stickers, those pointed ends!' She just walked over and she stretches her neck out as far as she could, and bit off the flowers. I thought, 'Oh my God, she’s eaten those good flowers!' Then she gets done and goes after the seeds! I thought, 'Oh my God, she ate up all the good food! We can't even get it!' And off she walked away! And so then I learned, I thought some of them (yucca plants) didn't have flowers, and here the deer and the cows love it just as much as people! They know what's good. So after that, I try to beat them to it.”