Great Lakes Food Summit continues effort at achieving food sovereignty in tribal communities while creating a delicious Native Cuisine

By Paul DeMain
- Meskwaki Settlement, Iowa (NFIC) -

The Meskwaki Red Gardens and the tribe’s Casino Convention Center at the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa played host to the 2018 Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit this year.

The Meskwaki Red Gardens as seen in the distance and the Meskwaki Bingo and Casino convention center to the right, played host to the 2018 Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, held May 9-13, at the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama, Iowa.

Photos by D.Kakkak and Paul DeMain

A couple hundred participants, almost three dozen Indigenous chefs, gardeners and farmers met here May 9-13 to work with traditional foods and medicines with harvesting of many products in forests and fields within a small radius of the conference. Many other products used for creating unique menus were brought to the conference as donations and provided for a well rounded traditional cuisine running from shredded bison barbecue to hominy corn soup and wild greens with cactus soup.

The annual food summit which has been held at several reservation including most recently the Gun Lake Pottawatomi’s Jijak Center in Michigan last year have provided a groundswell of information for the chefs who are using and creating dishes from both local and traditional menus. Some chefs are picking up from where a great-grandmother left off as confinement to the reservations in the United States and Canada took place. Government introduced commodities then dominated the diets of many American Indians for several decades.

Several afternoon workshops involved technical information presented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Indian Health Service (IHS) representatives who introduced both conservation planning techniques and IHS food safety training for handling and processing food safely so that schools and elderly feeding programs can utilize local and traditional foods. The also provided information on programs and funding that might be available for tribal communities to access.  
    Other hands-on workshops included one run by Akwesasne Mohawk potter Natasha Smoke (top right) where participants made and fired their own clay pots, Kevin Finney (lower left), helps people learn how to burn out a traditional corn/rice mortar (Botagen) for grinding by using a modern day air compressor to fire up coals in the yellow birch trunk (lower left) while Clayton Brascoupe  (lower right) shows participants the use of a traditional Haudenosaunee Planting Stick which several people had carved.

Over five days participants, presenters, vendors and incidental visitors took time learning about traditional foods, understanding plants, food issues with USDA to tribal codes, uses for medicine, mentoring with Indigenous chefs and consulting with gardeners and others involved in the greater Native food sovereignty movement.

Over 60 workshops for hands-on learning opportunities were held.

The Summit opened up on May 9th with sunny skies and over a dozen hands-on workshops involving traditional implements like making botagens (corn mortars), building a wikiup (traditional Meskwaki structures), constructing Haudenosaunee planting sticks, cooking paddles, pottery and birch bark canisters.  Stealing the day in a special way, was the putting down of a bison and its butchering — involving some of the chefs and many volunteers who watched and participated in identifying and separating numerous bison parts for food, ceremonial and craft supply needs.


Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, is assisted by a workshop volunteer as they help cut up bison ribs. The bison was donated and then processed by the Arlo and Lisa Iron Cloud family on the grounds of the Meskwaki Red Gardens.


While many of the workshops held were pre-registered and some with a small cost, no participants who wanted to watch or converse about any of the topics were turned away.  

These hands-on workshops, some which took place over several days, included a number of demonstrations leading to finished products and gave participants a connection to the implements that they might prefer to work with in and outside of the garden if they were to undertake various tasks such as grinding corn or wild rice in a traditional botagen (as seen below in lower left).  Also participants made clay pots and viewed the proper use of a Haudenosaunee planting stick after making one for themselves.

There were many new found relationships, intellectual discussions and excellent food provided and cooked by the chefs while at the settlement with both traditional and contemporary production practices utilized.

Some of workshops included making wood ash hominy, (Ojibwe, Oneida, Onondaga styles) along with a traditional Meskwaki traditional foods demonstration, making milkweed soup, processing and using acorn flour and many other activities that brought the community around a newly erected cooking pavilion for the community  use.

The cooking pavilion was used for both display of goods, baskets, clay pots, traditional cooking tools, and for experimental cooking — for example a batch of maple syrup was rendered down to sugar, in a clay pot, an event that some people in the maple industry have claimed  (outside of the Indigenous Community) could not be done, or was too inefficient.

As much as the butchering of the bison took up a lot of attention, the ethical use of animal and food products have always been stressed as necessary both to ensure an abundance of food product supplies in the future but also to maintain a good spiritual relationship of respect as well. For example some people enjoyed participating in both the butchering and the preparation of squirrel, ducks and beaver and followed the process through into the kitchen and on to the serving table.


Above: A couple of beaver are hanging next to the nearby fire being roasted for dinner time. During the week, there was fish, duck, wild rice, beaver, bison plates of numerous kinds and shapes, squirrel, greens brought in from the local woods, corn meal products, soups, squash, mushrooms, maple sweetener in everything and numerous opportunities to eat.  Left: the Cooking Pavilion became a place of many conversations about techniques.   Right : The food tent became a collective roar of hungry stomaches.



Others who had followed the butchering of the bison took on the responsibility to make sure that every part of the bison was utilized to the best of our ability, on the spot, while others spent hours helping tanning hides for future use.

Of course one of the greatest assets that the annual Great Lakes Intertribal Summit brings to the table is the large number of Indigenous chefs who organize themselves and the menu, a lot of times based on what is donated or shows up from around the country. Each year the chefs out do themselves, showcasing the idea that Indian Country once provided for all their own food needs, and from a local base of seasonal products at that.

The chefs worked with diverse foods, diets, spices and cooking facilities to over come obstacles that occur when you show up with almost nothing but culinary cooking skills and ice cooler donations of meats, plants, spices, nuts, flours and other supplies from all across Indian Country.

The conference was sponsored by the Meskwaki  Nation, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC).

Additional photos and video from both this year’s event and previous ones and additional events in the region can be found at the Great Lakes Regional Wordpress Blog at:

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