Native chefs revitalize Wisconsin’s ancestral foods and spotlight Indigenous food sovereignty
Modern-day Native culinarians across the state are returning to the land and consulting age-old traditions to reclaim their ancestral foodways through meals.
If you’ve ever sat in a window seat on a flight out of Madison, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of the 35 million acres of land in Wisconsin. As you hover above the state, lush, verdant woodlands dominate with pools of water peeking through — hairline traces of the Mississippi River run along the western coast and clear blue splatters mark where Lake Michigan flows from the east. Centuries ago, the Indigenous tribes that occupied this land navigated this terrain to uncover the plants, wildlife and aquatic animals that nourish our bodies to this day.
Wisconsin’s Native American tribes, such as the Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Ojibwe and Potawatomi — along with seven other federally recognized tribes in the state — grew foods on the land. They cultivated corn, beans and squash, a trio known in Indigenous cultures as “the three sisters.” They also harvested wild rice and berries for sweet treats. As their cultures evolved over time, Natives developed techniques such as nixtamalization, a process that is used to transform corn into ancestral staples like tortillas and breads. Innovations are a testament to the skill and resilience of Indigenous communities, which date back centuries.
Today, more than 200 years since Wisconsin’s Indigenous communities were forcefully removed from these woodlands in the 1800s, modern-day Native culinarians across the state are getting back to their roots. Both literally and figuratively, they’re returning to the land and consulting age-old traditions to reclaim their ancestral foodways through meals.
Nationally, Native chefs are gaining attention. Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef better known as The Sioux Chef, has been recognized by The New York Times and Esquire. He’s also a two-time James Beard Award winner. Over the summer in Minneapolis, along the same Mississippi waters just outside of western Wisconsin, Sherman opened Owamni by The Sioux Chef, a riverside, full-service restaurant with an Indigenous menu.
In July, Food and Wine published its inaugural “Game Changers” list, featuring I-Collective, a nationwide network of Indigenous chefs, seed-keepers, farmers and others working to preserve and celebrate ancestral traditions. Wisconsin-based chef Kristina Stanley serves as the program manager of I-Collective. A member of the Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, Stanley is also the founder and head chef of Abaaso, a plant-based wholesale and catering company turned consulting service. For years, Stanley leveraged her culinary skills to create vegan dishes, largely pastries, infused with plant-based ingredients native to the area. She spun currants into glassy scoops of tangy sorbet and revitalized chocolate chip cookies with sunflower seeds for a nutrient-dense crunch. And her Sunprint cookies, a take on the classic thumbprint, were recreated into flaky biscuit cookies made with sunflower meal and topped with a winter squash and chokecherry jam.
Today, Stanley’s focus is on encouraging food sovereignty among Indigenous people, a mission that aligns with many local Madison Indigenous chefs and growers. Yusuf Bin-Rella is the chef and one of the founders of TradeRoots Farms, which works to promote food sovereignty in the Madison area. This summer, Bin-Rella and TradeRoots debuted the first Afro-Indigenous BIPOC garden on the Capitol Square end of King Street. “This is the first time that Indigenous corn has been grown at our state Capitol for food,” he says.
Elena Terry, founder of Wild Bearies, an educational and community outreach nonprofit that brings Indigenous food to people across the state, sees TradeRoots’ historic garden at the Capitol as a meaningful statement. “It’s a beautiful thing because in some tribes, corn is given tribal membership. It’s recognized as a living being and protected in that way,” says the Wisconsin Dells-based chef. “So it’s incredible to have our people on the Capitol representing and kind of protecting that space, especially when we talk about the healing power of our foods.”
At a lakeside lunch on a balmy summer day in June, Terry and Bin-Rella curated an Indigenous meal together. The lunch was served against the backdrop of Eau Claire, the small town with a bustling agri-culinary community that’s a short road trip from Madison. Tender slices of sage-roasted turkey were served alongside a sweet potato salad tossed with cranberries and a drizzle of maple vinaigrette. The dish, Terry explained, offered a holistic representation of Indigenous culture. “When you say ‘Indigenous,’ you really have to think of the Americas, because we didn’t see those borders,” she said. Terry explained that the creamy sweet potatoes that added a punch of color to the plate were a nod to her friends in Peru, offering a sweet touch in flavor and sentiment. “The cranberries, of course, are indigenous to Wisconsin. They’re one of the few fruits that were here from the beginning,” she said.
Wild rice sourced from a local rice gatherer — Terry says Indigenous ingredients aren’t always easily found in the grocery store — served as a bed for a handful of fresh berries. Blackberries, golden berries, raspberries and strawberries stained the plate with their vibrant juices.
But the true star was the muffins made with sacred ingredient corn. Ute blue corn was baked into a dense, moist cross between the best parts of a cake, bread and muffin.
Terry says that a pillar of Indigenous cooking is sourcing ingredients according to the appropriate season, a principle that has spanned generations. “The woods are very plentiful when it comes to our food sources and what we used to utilize and what we still utilize to this day,” she says. “It just really depends on the season as to what would be plentiful. And being aware of that is significant for when you harvest.” An example of that abundance is the milkweed harvested from the new Indigenous garden at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, coordinated by Rita Peters, a budding horticulturist and traditional Ho-Chunk. This summer, Peters used that milkweed to create savory milkweed soups.
This season, there’s one ingredient that’s a step above the rest for Terry. “Squash is my love,” she says. Terry admits to having growers across the state and beyond cultivating a wide range of squash varieties for her to incorporate into her meals, and she plans to utilize them in various ways. “I dehydrate it, I can it — I can do so much with squash because it’s so versatile and there are so many different characteristics,” Terry says. “At harvest time, I’m in my glory.”
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