Foraging for the Future: An Indigenous Perspective
Photography: Julius Schlosburg
Articles praising cocktail programs utilizing localized or foraged ingredients are published on what feels like a near-daily basis these days. It seems the world is becoming wise to the fact that it is as necessary as it is fashionable to create sustainable and low-impact drinks. Within the bar industry that thrives in modern-day North America, sustainability conversations have historically omitted the crucial perspectives of Indigenous people – until recently. In the last two years, restaurants have featured America’s truest but unknown cuisine: Indigenous foods. The Indigenous movement towards food sovereignty has also gained recognition in the non-native conscience. In the bar world, this awakening to the Indigenous perspective gained footing with the first Indigenous-led Tales of the Cocktail panel in 2021. I spoke with some of my favorite bar industry professionals to discuss what lies ahead in foraging, food sovereignty, localized food systems, and ancestral sustainability.
When it comes to Indigenous restaurants, Lucas Herrera understands the work that goes into a truly unique program. Herrera uses ingredients purchased from local Indigenous businesses and ingredients he foraged with locals or that were gifted to him by friends. Herrera draws on his Mexican Huichol roots for inspiration to contribute to an Indigenous-focused mocktails menu. His menu at Owamni showcases the possibilities of incorporating what’s already around you – in your local community – into food and beverage programs.
When utilizing Indigenous ingredients for your programs, Lucas Herrera has some incredible insights on looking for menu components and the importance of connecting with the locals.
“Where I'm from here in Minneapolis, it's Midwest America, and there's a lot of grasses and trees and small plants and herbs. Honestly, I didn't even know how much could be eaten. Growing up, you think of these plants as weeds,” Herrera says. “Going into Owamni made me realize the abundance we have around here and the beautiful ecosystems that have grown and developed around us.”
Talking about his family and how his roots connect him to the local Ojibwe and Lakota populations, Herrera says, “I am, in fact, of Indigenous descent because my folks are from Mexico. We feel like we're similar in the way that we approach food and plants and ingredients; we consider it a medicine. That resonates with me because growing up, my grandma was constantly growing yerba buena in the backyard and making all these teas and remedies, and it started to make sense. It felt as if colonialism almost scrubbed these things from her mind, but innately, she still knew all these recipes. This then put me on the same page with everybody and really made me believe in this concept.”
What is Indigenous Food Sovereignty?
Indigenous Food Sovereignty is the right and ability of tribal nations and peoples to develop their own food systems and policies to ensure their people can thrive. This includes the ability to cultivate, access, and provide nutritious, culturally appropriate food through ecologically sound and sustainable means (Tribal Food Sovereignty Advancement Initiative).
Roxanne Tiburolobo explains, “When we talk about food sovereignty, we're talking about restoring our connection to our traditional foods. So much of the way that we connect to food has to do with our stories and our relationship to the land. It's a relationality with things. The balance is important so that we can continue to have access to those things. It's viewing food outside of just the capitalistic idea of a product for consumption. Indigenous people are reconnecting with our food traditions for our health and better communication with the world around us”.
Working with the local Indigenous peoples is key to any localized program’s success. A collaborative outlook and seeking consent are absolute musts. Even natives from other regions make this point when in other territories.
Roxanne Tiburolobo, of Chiricahua Apache Nde and Rarámuri descent, is an Indigenous industry inclusion advocate and fermentation science specialist. The idea of connecting with local Indigenous people can seem like a tall order, but Tiburolobo puts it best: “Get to know your local Indigenous community. There are intertribal powwows that are open to everybody. You can get to know people in your community that are Indigenous. Have native friends but don't put all the emotional labor on them like asking questions that you can research. Find out whose land you live on. You must give back if you've taken from the land or somebody. Find out what their needs are, what land resources they have, but also, more importantly, what knowledge they can offer you with regards to utilizing the land that you live on; what plants are okay to take, and how to treat them the right way, and what isn't acceptable to use."
Even within our own communities, we defer to the right people when it comes to plants and herbs. Danielle Goldtooth is a Dinè mother, mixologist, farmer, rancher, forager, and owner of Dii IINA (This Life) Food from Start to Finish — a business that educates her community about self-sufficiency using Dinè philosophies of living. During her time as a bartender, she gained recognition for using ingredients foraged using traditional Dinè teachings.
“When I was growing up, we had a lot of medicine women who would go and forage for all the plants. They can be found at the local farmer and flea markets,” Goldtooth shares. “They're the people who I actually talk to when I do need advice when I have a new idea for a cocktail. I ask if I can use certain ingredients. With them being the authority on it, they will let me know the stories behind it, the context behind it, and make sure that I'm not inappropriately using it.”
When it comes to non-natives seeking knowledge, Goldtooth adds, “If somebody wants to try to go out and find somebody in the community, I would try the local farmers' markets. I would try talking to your Indigenous friends who are in the area. They might have an auntie who would be willing to speak to you. But the other thing I would say is a lot of the knowledge that you're getting from Indigenous people is for yourself. It's really for your benefit. It's not to be spread everywhere. The knowledge and the teachers are there for your sufficiency.”
A theme of secrecy runs through the food sovereignty movement in Indigenous cultures. When looking at the complex histories of Native Nations, secrecy was necessary to preserve knowledge and tradition. Unfortunately, between forced relocation and urbanization, some knowledge has been lost forever. I cannot reiterate enough that learning to accept “no” as an answer is just as important as seeking the right resources.
Goldtooth offers this insight: “What we're allowed to share versus what we want to share are two very different things. There's a type of protection that we have to use to protect our sacred sisters in the ground when they come up in the spring and where they are.” She adds, ”We're not going to let others come into the area to find and destroy them. That's been tough. I think that's part of the reason why we get overlooked. When an Indigenous person says it, people will look at it, but they know not to touch it. But when a non-native person says it, it's almost as if they feel they have permission to go out there as well and start taking.”
White Sage: A Lesson in Overharvesting
When it comes to understanding the impact of harvesting or foraging ingredients without proper knowledge, look no further than the epidemic white sage poaching has caused. The rush for white sage gained momentum in a growing cultural movement towards new-age spirituality in the US. However, it should also be noted that it was illegal to participate in traditional native spiritual beliefs like burning sage until 1978.
Fast-forward to today: Non-natives buying sage have increased the demand for this ingredient causing a shortage on the west coast. Areas that California tribes have used for generations to forage white sage for food and ceremony uses are being destroyed by poachers using improper harvesting techniques. The stolen sage impacts the efforts to return to native foodways. For this reason, Indigenous recipes featuring white sage are being omitted from cookbooks for fear of outsiders deciding to cook with it and pushing the shortage to the point of no return.
When it comes to utilizing native approaches toward contemporary issues, our history is rich with solutions.
“It's imperative to look at Indigenous people in America as people who have already gone through our own apocalypses. Our entire life was disrupted; our way of eating, our way of interacting with the land, and we're still here,” Tiburolobo explains. “We managed through all of that to keep so much alive. We've lost a ton of knowledge, but we learned to grow and expand that knowledge, and we're constantly evolving and moving with it. That's something that anybody can learn from — seeing that resilience and understanding … how that can be applied.”
For many non-natives, the concept of living in balance with the land is foreign, being the exact opposite of colonizer ideologies. In addition to that, so much has been appropriated that some of the most important knowledge needs to be uncovered again. When thinking about sustainability and conservation, Indigenous land protection often gets overlooked.
In an article for The Intercept, Nick Estes wrote, “Rarely is Indigenous caretaking defined as work. Yet, like unwaged caregiving work, land defense and water protection are undervalued but necessary for the continuation of life on a planet teetering on collapse."
If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that being able to adjust to unpredictability and being able to learn and find solutions rapidly is a necessity. In many ways, it’s completely sensible that some of these solutions can be found by looking at how Indigenous people have survived and fought to keep their foodways intact. While local, foraged, and sustainable cocktail programs are gaining momentum, collaborating with local Indigenous people is the route forward. It’s important that these contributions are seen, credited, and respected. Your drinks program is only as good as its positive impact.