This Nonprofit is Providing Native American Communities With Access to Nutrient-Dense, Culturally Affirming Foods—and It's Helping People Eat Healthier

The Cultural Conservancy supports Native Americans in eating well, indigenous style, by focusing on the protection and revitalization of Indigenous cultures and ancestral lands.

a photo of a woman holding a piece of corn
Photo: Copyright The Cultural Conservancy / Mateo Hinojosa

Eating well through Indigenous foodways means that Native people have regular access to our traditional foods, and that those sources of life are healthy and abundant. It also means we have access to the Knowledge Keepers and traditional elders who know how to plant, gather, cultivate, hunt, fish, prepare and then feast on those traditional foods. As the intergenerational impacts of Fast Food Nation and the Standard American Diet descend upon all of us, especially for those who have been economically oppressed and disadvantaged, we see alarming rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancers and other nutrition-related diseases.

Many young Native people today are saying no to this legacy of disease. They do not want to be another statistic for Indian Health Service reports. They want to be the generation who worked to decolonize diets and re-indigenize their food systems. Indigenous farmers, activists, seed keepers, chefs and others are all working together to make a difference.

a quote that reads "Many young Native people want to be the generation who worked to decolonize diets and re-indigenize their food systems."

I have been fortunate to be a part of this movement through my work with The Cultural Conservancy, a Native-led Indigenous rights organization based in San Francisco, on the unceded traditional territories of the Ramaytush Ohlone and the sovereign lands of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a community of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples. Since 1985, The Cultural Conservancy has supported the protection and revitalization of Indigenous cultures, empowering them in the direct application of Indigenous knowledge and practices on ancestral lands. As an intertribal organization, we recognize and honor the first peoples where we live and work, Native California Indians. We also work with the thriving urban intertribal community of the San Francisco Bay Area, Native American communities across Turtle Island (North America), throughout Abya Yala (Central and South America), and Moananuiākea (Oceania/Pacific Islands).

Since The Cultural Conservancy's mission is focused on the protection and revitalization of Indigenous cultures and ancestral lands, environmental protection is naturally part of the equation; food systems bring all those elements together in a synergistic and holistic way. As Native people, we cannot talk about food without talking about the health of the land and how it's connected to our larger culture. From our rooted plant relatives, for example, how can we talk about corn without talking about Corn Mother? Or the "three sisters" of Native agriculture (corn, beans and squash)? Or how to make the best masa for tortillas? From our finned relatives, we cannot talk about salmon without discussing the health of the rivers and oceans, the different fishing nets used and the best marinade and sauce to cook with. Food opens a window to examine the whole, where we can start with one single seed, such as an acorn, and end up with a thriving 400-year-old oak tree where Pomo gatherers sing acorn-gathering songs and practice cultural controlled burns to help the oak thrive.

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Salmon with Chokecherry-Citrus Sauce

a recipe photo of the Chokecherry Salmon
Nate Lemuel

Chokecherries are native to North America and grow on a shrub that belongs to the rose family. The astringent cherries are commonly made into jellies, preserves and syrups. Here, the syrup glazes wild salmon, is incorporated into the sauce and dots the final plate.

Regaining access to land for traditional food gathering is a big part of healing Native American communities. Over the decades, we have started two urban Native garden projects (one in San Francisco and one in Oakland) and launched two farms that focus on furthering Native sciences and Indigenous agriculture, while supporting our community's health through growing and sharing Indigenous crops and seeds from all around Turtle Island (North America).

Over the years we have grown, sourced and donated thousands of pounds of Native-grown foods and seeds to the Bay Area Native community. One highlight was Lois Ellen Frank and Walter Whitewater feeding thousands of people salmon, bison, tepary beans and Iroquois white corn in the Native American Food Pavilion in 2008 at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. We also continue to build on our food justice work through our thriving Native Foodways Program.

This flagship program was strengthened when organic farmer and Zen Buddhist lay teacher Wendy Johnson invited the The Cultural Conservancy to become a partner at the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden at the College of Marin in Novato, California. It serves as an outdoor classroom and living laboratory for the community college's organic farming program. With good land and clean soil to plant in, what would we plant? We knew that the local Coast Miwok harvested Native perennials, such as elderberry, manzanita, Oregon grape, yampah and other Native plants, so we consulted with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and other local Native land stewards and started a Native California ethnobotanical garden. But what about Native farming?

a quote that reads "Regaining access to land for traditional food gathering is a big part of healing Native American communities."

As an intertribal organization, we had community members from many different tribes and nations. Many of our tribal nations did not participate in "farming," yet we understood the profound relationship Native peoples have always had with plants. We wanted to grow crops that represented the full breadth of Native communities as gatherers, agroecologists, gardeners and farmers. Kaylena Bray and her family, from the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in New York, offered Oneo-gen, Iroquois White Corn, to our new farm.

The Brays are traditional Seneca farmers, cooks and knowledge holders, and they generously taught us the basics of mound growing, how to process white corn and their way of cooking. They also shared their Green Corn Harvest celebration, which marks the start of the harvest season with songs, dances and ceremonies, as well as dishes made with the unripe, or "green," corn. With the Brays' help, we established our Three Sisters Native American garden, planting their corn along with Bear Paw beans and Taos Blue Hubbard squash.

As we have grown, we have also had the honor of collaborating with many international Indigenous farmers, such as Maya and Sarayaku corn farmers, Māori potato growers, Quechua quinoa farmers and Hawaiian taro growers, to name a few. And in 2019, The Cultural Conservancy acquired more land and began the work of creating Heron Shadow in Sonoma County, California, a biocultural heritage oasis where we can continue to grow, protect and share the incredible gifts of traditional seeds that we have been honored to steward.

Through the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden and Heron Shadow, we are able to grow an abundance of Indigenous food crops. The Cultural Conservancy not only shares these nutrient-dense, culturally affirming foods for events with chefs and community feasts, we also distribute thousands of pounds of organic Native food to urban and rural Native American health and cultural centers throughout the region. We see this sharing as a form of food justice as well as a way to renew traditional trade and kinship bonds to elevate our community health. We are grateful for the opportunity to eat well through Indigenous foodways and to continue to learn, partner and strive for food justice and well-being for all, one seed and one bite at a time.

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