Native American Ethnobotanist Reclaims Cultural Identity through Food

By Oshiro, Joleen | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, January 16, 2018 | Go to article overview

Native American Ethnobotanist Reclaims Cultural Identity through Food


Oshiro, Joleen, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


MARIE HOBRO / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER Chef Ed Kenney serves a maple-roasted squash tart with wild-rice crust.

MARIE HOBRO / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER Three Sisters Fritters - made of corn, beans and squash and topped with squash puree ­- were part of the menu in a “Wild Foods” Native American collaboration dinner at Kaimuki Superette.

Take care of the land and it will take care of you. It’s a belief system Tashia Hart was raised on, one that guides her in her work as an ethnobotanist and Native American indigenous food-system advocate, researching wild foods that are part of traditional diets of tribes in Minnesota.

The job takes her to a variety of environments, from forests to prairies, where she forages to locate and identify food items, and into the kitchen to experiment with preparations.

She dehydrates cooked and raw items — sometimes drying them in the sun on rocks, or smoking them. Some are pulverized into powder. Items are also frozen and some are fermented. Hart looks for shelf stability, how flavors hold up and which preparations offer the best textures and consistencies.

“Along the way, I’m learning the names of the plants I’m gathering and preparing — all in the native language — and about time-keeping of the seasons,” based on the food she finds growing.

The point goes beyond cultural discovery, Hart said. “The reason this work is so important is that Native American identities and narratives have been wiped clean, so it’s important to make connections between our people and our food. When our people faced genocide, food was a really big part of it. We were made to feel that the food we ate was not good enough for dogs. This was done on purpose, to take our culture and identities away from us.

“So when I think of reclaiming our food system, it’s like reclaiming our identity, our communities and where we come from.”

At an October dinner at Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki, chef-owner Ed Kenney joined Hart in the kitchen to present a Native American dinner. The two met when she was profiled on the PBS series “Family Ingredients,” a locally produced food and travel show Kenney hosts.

The dinner featured such items as a Three Sisters Fritter made of corn, beans and squash; a wild-rice cracker; hominy and cattle bean soup; and a maple-roasted squash tart made with seeded wild-rice crust. A number of ingredients were foraged by Hart herself before getting on the plane.

Hart is part of the Anishinaabe tribe, which settled along the Great Lakes. She said that though there is commonality among Native American foods, there is no singular style.

“The food is local and wild, so there was a lot of trading with other tribes. Our food is hyperlocal — what we can forage, farm or hunt,” she said.

A special food of the Anishinaabe is wild rice, cooked in a wide variety of ways. Berries added to cooked wild rice make for a delicious salad, Hart said, while popped rice, heated in a hot pan until it cracks, offers texture as a topping. …

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