Oklahoma Tribes Retaking Control Of Their Food Sovereignty

Oklahoma tribes are following those deep rooted traditions to take back control of their fresh food supply, and their health.

Wednesday, November 22nd 2023, 10:37 pm

By: News 9


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November is Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the rich culture and invaluable contributions of the First Americans. Oklahoma tribes are following those deep rooted traditions to take back control of their fresh food supply, and their health.

Harleigh Moore Wilson is the Natural Resources and Food Sovereignty director for the Osage nation.

“Can you truly be a sovereign nation without being able to feed your people?” Wilson said.

Long before 39 tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, the First Americans lived off the land.

“They were gardening. They were hunters, they were fishermen,” Loretta Barrett Oden said.

Relying on Mother Nature, sharpened skills, and methods passed down through the generations. Knowledge to keep everyone fed and healthy.

“We certainly were a healthier people in many ways before removal,” Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin Jr. said.

But all that changed after the tribes were forced to leave their home lands and marched to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

“When the United States was providing food to Native Americans generations ago, they were providing - and we should be honest about this - food that was cheap. Food that could be shipped. And that impacted our diets,” Hoskin said.

Now, nearly 200 years later, a new health threat kickstarted the push for this generation to find a solution to gaps in the tribal food supply.

“Covid really emphasized the need for fresh food and for fresh meat,” Wilson said.

News 9 went to the pastures in Osage County to see where that solution starts. With animals that are sacred to the Osage.

“Originally we were a plains Indian, and so we followed the bison herd,” Wilson said.

Now instead of hunting them, the Osage raise the animals ethically to help sustain the tribe and their traditions.

“We do have lots of babies and we have about 90 on the ground right now,” Wilson said. “They have so much energy. Let’s take that energy and give it back to our people.”

Anyone can buy fresh bison, beef, pork and venison here at Osage Nation's Butcher House Meats in Hominy. For surrounding communities, they deliver.

“The benefits are endless, let me tell you, you have the availability of knowing what goes into your animals,” Wilson said. “You know what is fed. You know what is vaccinated. You know the quality of meat. You know when that meat was cut. You know how long it’s been in the freezer.”

Costs are discounted for Osage citizens. Even at full price, you're paying less than most grocery stores. Plus, it's a healthier option.

“Bison definitely are a much leaner animal. So the health benefits are there because there’s not as much fat within those animals,” Wilson said.

The neighboring Cherokee nation also used federal covid funding to launch 1839 Cherokee Meat Co., which just celebrated its first anniversary.

“Cherokee people can truly say that the cattle is raised within the reservation, in many cases raised by Cherokee farmers or the Cherokee Nation itself. Processed through here in a facility that’s staffed by Cherokees, owned and operated by the Cherokee Nation and then distributed either in a retail setting or through our programs to the Cherokee people. That is full circle. That is food sovereignty,” Hoskin said.

In addition to fresh meat, the Cherokees are going back to their roots to provide fresh produce.

“It’s about reconnecting Cherokee citizens to traditional plants, and the plants that sustained our people,” Hoskin said.

More than 100 plants grow in the Cherokee Heirloom Garden in Tahlequah. There are native varieties of corn, beans, squash, gourds and tobacco.

“This year, I grew some heirloom corn and I only got a few ears. But it was fun to grow and reminded me and my daughter and my wife where our food comes from. Part of our history,” Hoskin said.

The garden holds five of the tribe's seven sacred plants.

Here, everything is grown for genetic preservation, ensuring the species don't go extinct.

Then, thousands of extra seeds are packed and sent around the world to Cherokee citizens who can request them online.

“We can have seeds in our hand that we know literally the ancestors of those seeds came with us on the Trail of Tears, and I think that’s very powerful,” Hoskin said.

That same garden-to-table mindset is the foundation for 39 Restaurant at the First Americans Museum here in Oklahoma City.

“Using a lot of indigenous ingredients, trying to source locally from native suppliers,” Wilson said.

Potawatomi citizen Loretta Barrett Oden is the chef at 39 Restaurant.

She's launched restaurants, plus an Emmy-winning television series, and consulted countless times as an indigenous culinary expert.

Now Loretta has brought all her knowledge and experience home to Oklahoma.

She calls this restaurant her culinary swan song.

“I want to see us have, you know, gardens here. I want to see us have a greenhouse here. I want to be able to grow a lot of the stuff that we use in the kitchen and then start teaching the young people, get them involved in that,” Oden said. “I think the food is key and critical to everything that I do here.”

One thing you won't find on the menu here at 39, Indian tacos.

“I said no, not going to do that. I’ll give you a blue corn fish taco,” Oden said. She says fry bread and Indian tacos are tied to the government commodities program. They weren't originally part of native diets.

“How do you overcome the palette that you’re dealing with of people wanting fried bread and fried everything?” Oden said. “That started with my travels, and I always target young, little kids. If I see them eating, I’ll do a burrito with quinoa beans. Maybe some buffalo meat in it. I watched them and they eat it and they like it. I’m going, okay, we can do this here coming back to Oklahoma.”

Oden is about tradition, whether it's providing meat, fruits and vegetables, or the knowledge on how to prepare them.

“We have the absolute right to our traditional foods we should have,” Oden said. “The right to know where they come from, to grow them ourselves.”

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