Written by: Genesis Tuyuc
Edited by: Kim Baca
Photography: Kalen Goodluck
Behind the swinging doors at Dimes, a women-owned restaurant in Manhattan, laughter echoed throughout the kitchen. Inside jokes were strewn across an aluminum counter as a group of indigenous seed keepers, chefs, activists, foragers and artists from all over North America prepared pre-Contact dishes from ingredients like braised rabbit, blue corn and bear root to revise history and restore a relationship with indigenous food.
Unlike western kitchens in New York City where holiday menus are structured around profit and dishes reinforce a false narrative to Thanksgiving, the chefs and activists that make up the I-Collective are trying to illuminate history through the creation of dishes that reflect their rich tribal traditions and that reclaim indigenous ingredients.
M. Karlos Baca (Tewa, Navajo and Nuche) prepares rabbit at the I-Collective solidarity dinner at Dimes on Canal St. in Manhattan on Thursday, November 23, 2017.
“We’re here to debunk the myth of Thanksgiving and bring forth the reality of it – and not just highlight the historical trauma,” said Brian Yazzie (Navajo), who is the Chef de Cuisine of The Sioux Chef, a culinary institute in Minnesota committed to Native American food traditions and culture. “We’re flipping the script in a way that brings forth the positivity of it.”
“I really applaud you for being here and sitting comfortably in the discomfort of this conversation,” said Neftali Durán (Mixtec), an I-Collective co-founder and member of the Massachusetts-based Nuestras Raices, a grassroots urban agriculture organization with a mission to create healthy environments. “This collective strongly believes that we must have these conversations to reach racial justice and a more equitable society.”
It is fitting that on Thanksgiving the chefs congregated on Lenni-Lenape land. The Lenni-Lenape is a tribe that once occupied Manhattan and Staten Island, as well as the now-states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. They were violently and forcibly relocated from their lands or murdered by colonists, marking the beginning of the genocide of North American Native peoples. Though they still exist today, descendants are scattered and some don’t have full tribal rights as recognized by the federal government.
The indigenous chefs who came together for a four-day run of pop-up meals and events during Thanksgiving week not only want to correct history but decolonize indigenous diets and create a resurgence of the foodways under which their people flourished for thousands of years.
So what does a seven-course offering of decolonized foods paired with indigenous teas look like—rather, what does it smell or taste like? For these masters, it is pre-Contact cuisine prepared without the beef, dairy, pork, processed sugar or wheat flour introduced by Europeans.
From cushaw squash bolstered by parched corn and smoked southwestern chile to venison resting on a bed of smoked chokecherry garnished with wild onions, the dishes conceived by the I-Collective, according to their movement, are “guided by indigenous values” and a “collective promotion of a healthy food system that values people, traditional knowledge and the planet over profit.”
Venison, wild onions, pinon nut, Navajo Pumpkin, and smoked chokecherry at the I-Collective solidarity dinner on Thursday at Dimes in Manhattan, NY, November 23, 2017.
For Brit Reed (Choctaw), the founder of Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty, these pop-ups are not just culinary events but political ones. Before serving a meal comprised of ingredients native to the Tohono O’odham people of Arizona, she invoked their traditional food-gathering ways. These practices are becoming exceedingly difficult for the Tohono O’odham as their ancestral land straddles both Arizona and Mexico.
“As you all eat, keep this in mind, [these falsely-drawn borders] affect a lot of our indigenous people,” said Reed, as fellow chefs plate her dish of cacti cholla buds, brown and white bawĭ(tepary beans) and toasted amaranth, punctuated by a bouquet of fuchsia micro-amaranth greens, barrel cactus seeds and an electric-green epazote oil minty in taste. “It’s a blessing to have these [foods] in front of us.”
Reed was one of six women from the collective who traveled to New York. Joining her were seed and knowledge-keepers Twila Cassadore (San Carlos Apache) and Erica Scott (Lenape); Chefs Hillel Echo-Hawk (Pawnee/Athabaskan) an Iaonhawinon (Kaienkehaka/Mohawk); and artist Jessica Sargent (Mohawk).
“One of the things we’re talking about today [in society] is more female representation,” Durán said. “The reality is that I wouldn’t have been doing this had I not learned from the women in my life.”
Female representation was not only in the kitchen but on the plate. Drawing upon her roots, Echo-Hawk created a dish paying homage to the three “sisters:” corn, beans and squash. She added sunflower seeds, which is referred to as a fourth sister in Echo-Hawk’s Pawnee culture and used as an agricultural divider in fields.
Though the chefs’ laughter slowed as the last bites were served to an eager public last Saturday, the creators say their work is not done. “We hope to have pop-ups like this across the nation,” said I-Collective co-founder M. Karlos Baca (Diné/Tewa/Nuche)a forager and Native culinary practitioner. “This conversation for justice and recognition needs to continue.”