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Learn About Native American Foods At Summit In Hopkins

Ryan Sprague (left) and Kevin Finney (right) remove a pot used for boiling maple syrup. The syrup will be featured at the Intertribal Food Summit.
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

The 2nd annual Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit will take place at the Jijak Camp in Hopkins April 19-23. The summit is a chance to learn to grow and prepare Native American food - and get a few tastes too.

Ryan Sprague of the Gun Lake band of Potawatomi helped make about 17 gallons of maple syrup for the summit. He says it's his first time making it.

“I kind of want to get back to my roots and learn more about this stuff - which is why I’m out here now kind of - and just to learn traditional ways cause I wasn’t brought up that way,” says Sprague.

The summit will bring in Native American chefs and instructors from all over North America. Kevin Finney is a consultant for the Gun Lake Tribe.

“It’s not like you can get on the internet and look up how to do these things or find them in a book someplace. That library of knowledge is carried by people and so we have to bring those people together,” says Finney.

Finney says when Europeans colonized the United States, they forced Native American tribes to assimilate to their culture. That often meant eating European food and growing it in a European way. As a result, Finney says most of us have no idea what “Native American food” even means.

“What if you were in Germany and lived there your whole life and you’d never had German food or you’d never heard the German language spoken?” he says. 

Finney says that culture shift has also affected the health of many Native Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control, they’re twice as likely to get diabetes as Caucasians.

“And the food really is the medicine, so being able to return to that is important in so so many ways,” says Finney.

So what are Native foods? Finney says that all depends on the region and tribe, but here are some that would have been eaten by the Potawatomi back in the day: Sunflower seeds, corn, beans, squashes, Jerusalem artichoke, wild rice, fish, venison, muskrat, and beaver.

There are also some things you’ve probably never heard of - like American groundnut, which tastes kind of like a potato, and maple vinegar - similar to apple cider vinegar.

“It’s used to prepare meat for like soaking a roast in it or it’s used on salads, it’s used in lots of different ways,” says Finney.

At the event, Finney says you’ll also see traditional methods of cooking those foods. For example, Daisy Kostus from Mt. Pleasant will be preparing Canada goose and beaver.

“She’ll take those animals and she’ll gut them and then she’ll sew the body cavity up, stuff it usually with berries and other things - usually sweet stuff and fruit - and sew them up. And then she’ll hang them over a fire and put skewers in them and have them spin all day to be able to cook them,” says Finney.

Though not many people know Native American food practices, Finney says there’s a growing interest among young people to learn them. He says younger generations are becoming more environmentally conscious - and food is no exception.

Finney says many of the chefs who were feeding people at the Standing Rock protests will be at the summit.

“We’ll be having kind of a roundtable discussion at the event talking about really activism and how indigenous foods play a role with activism and sustainability,” he says.

The 2nd annual Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit will take place at the Jijak Camp in Hopkins Wednesday through Sunday of next week. The public can attend the festival at the summit on April 22nd. Tickets are $25 for adults. Children 16 and under can attend for free. 

Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.
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