Rediscovering Indigenous foods – and a way of life

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In Flagstaff, Arizona, a Hopi vegetable garden grows at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, which are sacred to the Hopi people.

Food has a way of preserving cultural identities even as cultures collide and reshape each other. Those traditions carry meaning from one generation to the next. For many Native American communities, that thread has been disrupted and many agricultural practices and recipes have nearly disappeared. But as new generations reconnect with heritage foods, they are also connecting with the wisdom of their ancestors, as this week’s cover story illustrates.

Consider the genius simplicity of the Indigenous agricultural practice called the “Three Sisters,” the ultimate example of environmental collaboration among corn, beans, and squash. The cornstalk supports the climbing beans, and the squash spreads out at the base to ward off competing weeds, requiring little tending until harvest.

In the pot, the corn, beans, and squash work together as efficiently as they do in the earth. Beans add nutritional value to the carbohydrates and natural sugars of the corn, combining to create a wholesome protein; squashes are packed with vitamins. Add game, fish, and wild berries and the result is an easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook fortifying meal. 

Many Americans might know this dish as succotash, which is an Anglicized spelling of the Narragansett Indian word msickquatash. It is also one of the first recipes Native Americans shared with the starving English settlers in the 17th century who were struggling to grow wheat for bread. To the settlers, succotash was a dish composed of unfamiliar things not grown in England, such as pumpkins. And it was adaptable to the changing seasons. Served fresh in late summer, it was delicious. But dried corn, beans, and squash also could be revived in a steaming pot over the fire in the cold of winter. 

Succotash became such a hit it soon traveled to new regions as European settlers expanded deeper into Native territories. Today, some regions claim their own versions of the dish as uniquely their own, forgetting – or not knowing – its long history.

It was at her grandmother’s table where Linda Coombs, a Wampanoag educator, learned the unspoken traditions of her family. She certainly wasn’t taught anything in school about her father’s Aquinnah Wampanoag family, which had lived for centuries on what is today called Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In an interview with the Monitor last year, Ms. Coombs shared memories of her dad and uncles who were all hunters, fishermen, and vegetable gardeners. She remembers being coaxed into liking the gamy flavor of venison. But mostly she thinks of her grandmother’s chowder.

“I remember her frying up eels in the pan on the stove,” recalled Ms. Coombs. “And I used to think that her chowder was the worst stuff in the world because she made it with a clear broth. Later, I learned that’s the traditional way it was made.”

Reviving Indigenous practices can strengthen this nation’s ties to the food of our land that has always been here, silently stirred by generations, sustaining and nourishing us all.

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