Heritage on Every Plate: The Power of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Which facets of life make cultures across our world unique from one another? While music, art, and language all make the list, one of the most distinctive facets is food. 
Indigenous peoples across Wyoming restore their traditions of regularly preparing unique cultural foods after such foods were lost from daily life during the westward expansion of the United States in prior generations.

“At the Hughes Charitable Foundation, we’re thrilled to witness a strong emergence of groups and individuals who are working to restore food sovereignty to Indigenous communities,” says Molly Hughes, Executive Director of the Hughes Charitable Foundation. “This is a fundamental element of celebrating, remembering, and honoring Native American heritage and influence in Wyoming history. It is also a beautiful and empowering way to reconnect current and future generations to traditions and heritage that otherwise may have been permanently lost.


This year’s Farm to Fork Festival, hosted by Slow Food in the Tetons, “highlighted the revitalization of indigenous food systems” with a presentation from Keynote Speaker, Sean Sherman, through Slow Food in the Tetons’, partnership with the Wind River Food Sovereignty Project. Sherman’s presentation focused on “revitalizing Native American Cuisine, re-identifying North American Cuisine, and reclaiming an important long buried culinary culture.”

Also known as The Sioux Chef, Sherman’s restaurant Owamni is a recent recipient of a prestigious James Beard Award.  The James Beard Awards recognizes exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.

"We look at showcasing the amazing diversity and flavor profiles of all the different tribes across North America, all the different regions, and really celebrating that and cutting away colonial ingredients," Sherman says. "We don't have things on our menu that have dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, ... beef, pork, or chicken."

"We might have something with, say, wild rice or rabbit or rose hips or blueberries. These are all ingredients you can see just standing in the forest and glancing around," he continues. "We're not cooking like it's 1491. We're not a museum piece or something like that. We're trying to evolve the food into the future, using as much of the knowledge from our ancestors that we can understand and just applying it to the modern world."

Sherman is also at the helm of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS): an organization dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways. 

Kelly Pingree, an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe and a lifelong resident of the Wind River Indian Reservation also presented a workshop entitled, “Pemmican Making the Traditional Way” at this year’s Farm to Fork Festival. Kelly is the Co-Director of the Wind River Food Sovereignty Project.

The Wind River Food Sovereignty Project, based in Fort Washakie, in the heart of Wyoming, promotes the production, distribution, and marketing of healthy, fresh, and affordable food on the Wind River Reservation. The vision of the Wind River Food Sovereignty Project is “a vibrant food system on the Wind River Reservation designed by its community members.” The group hopes “to increase the number of local farmers, ranchers, and specialty food producers on the Wind River Reservation; to create successful new market channels for local producers; and to establish food-based learning programs and career opportunities for Native youth on the Wind River Reservation.”

Projects under the organization’s umbrella include a Farmer’s Market twice a week featuring local growers and producers, a producers’ cooperative, and resources for producers including training and grant opportunities.

Similarly, Restoring Shoshone Ancestral Food is a young organization working to reconnect regional Indigenous people to the resources and benefits of the food available on the Wyoming landscape. Their efforts include Gathering & Processing events — showcasing the acquisition of edible plants, medicines, and other wild foods — in addition to a Traditional Plants Database and an ongoing study exploring the impact of a traditional diet on individuals’ overall health. 

Acknowledging that food insecurity is a significant challenge for many families on the Wind River Reservation, the Wyoming Food Bank has developed and launched a program to ensure that their support of the Indigenous communities in the state are in alignment with cultural food needs. “Aimed at connecting people with food choices that are in line with their culture, the Culturally Responsive Food Initiative sent outreach consultants to the areas we serve to collect feedback about food preferences from clients,” explains the hunger-relief organization. “Once the data was collected, Food Bank of Wyoming worked to source and deliver the selected food items to the corresponding tribes and communities that requested them. A critical first step toward doing this on the Wind River Indian Reservation involved establishing monthly, drive-through pantries dedicated to the separate tribes. Through these pantries, more than 2,000 people are served every month.”

This collaborative effort has helped to provide Indigenous families with foods that are not only healthy and fresh, but are also in alignment with spiritual and cultural preferences around what’s on the table. 

It’s efforts like these, both locally and nationally based, that help to both reinvigorate and celebrate Indigenous cultures. Further, such efforts can help alleviate health issues and food insecurity — projects that, from our perspective, will have a wonderful constellation of positive impacts.