by Keetje Kuipers | Senior Editor
This morning, I grab the dog’s leash and head for the Grand Forest, the closest spot to hike near my home. The forest isn’t actually all that grand: It’s cedar, pine, maple, and some fir, but it feels homogenous, the kind of green that moves in a few generations after a clear-cut, which is what happened here sometime near the end of the 19th century. The island where I live was originally part of the land where the Suquamish—a Coast Salish, Lushootseed-speaking people—kept villages, gathered food, and fished the “place of the clear salt water.” This was not so long ago. In the West, the story of the passing of so much land out of Native hands is only a couple of generations old, and, in fact, the Suquamish still make their home not far away on the site of Old-Man-House Village on the Kitsap Peninsula. However, after years of logging and development, it might be easy to say there’s little left to mark this island as part of their ancestral territory.
But this walk I am on is about keeping my eyes open to the possibility of seeing in a different way. While the maple leaves fall in fat spirals, I am looking for chanterelles plumping up their heads through the damp soil, for the last of the huckleberries that still hang dark as night on the bushes bordering the trail. And when I find those foods that have fed the Suquamish for generations—still persistently abundant in this place where the hum of SUV’s through the trees’ scrim is inescapable—then I have the opportunity to honor in one small way the authority of the people on whose land I am an uninvited guest. And this is what Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, author of The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, wants me to do: to not forget the complicated and traumatic history of this place, while also acknowledging that its people have survived that history with generations of bioregional expertise that are being restored and revitalized today. That’s why I am out here looking for the plants that make up the original diet of the Coast Salish people, who still exercise their authoritative knowledge by smoking salmon and diving for geoducks just miles from this forest.
Last week I heard Sean Sherman take this notion one step further at the Fort Collins Book Festival, where we’d gathered to discuss food, language, and the books that bring these two vitally important cultural cornerstones together. Sherman told the audience that one of the best ways anyone can celebrate and sustain Native American lives and traditions is by learning about the plants and animals of North America as a source of deep knowledge and nourishment. And Sherman’s book is just the place to start. More than a collection of recipes, it is an education in Indigenous foods and traditional cooking techniques from tribes across the United States. These recipes are easy to prepare, but they demonstrate a wealth of knowledge that is vastly layered. In a talk given at the Culinary Institute of America, Sherman discusses the inspiration for the book and for his commitment to First Nations Cuisine. He begins with a micro-history of colonialism in the U.S., focusing in particular on its destruction of traditional Native diets. He notes that government institutions like the Carlisle boarding school not only took Native children from their families, but also robbed the next generation of the opportunity to learn their traditional languages and ways of eating. Sherman shows us that the map of regional food systems in the U.S. aligns with the map of Indigenous languages—two integral components of identity, story, and cultural sustenance.
So, as I gather cedar boughs and mushrooms this morning, I am listening, too, to the All My Relations podcast, which brings voices from across Indian Country together to explore Indigenous identity. While one of their first episodes delved into food sovereignty, it’s their discussion of Indigenous languages that I’m tuning into today. This podcast is ninety minutes long, but it flies by as I listen to hosts Matika Wilbur, a visual storyteller from the Swinomish and Tulalip peoples of coastal Washington, and Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, interview elders and language teachers from across the First Nations. As I listen, I stop again and again on the trail to hit the back button in order to listen more closely to each powerful story. But perhaps none gives me more reason to halt in my tracks than their discussion of the Wampanoag language, which as Keene explains, had been “sleeping for 150 years” and has now been restored through the efforts of an immersion school for Mashpee Wampanoag children.
The emotions Wilbur locates in this vision of young people speaking their own Indigenous language reminds me of the conviction of voice I find in the work of Diné poet Sherwin Bistui. I met Bitsui when we were both invited to speak at the Beargrass Writing Retreat outside of Missoula, Montana, in the summer of 2018. While there, I had the opportunity to hear him read from Dissolve, which was not yet published at the time (it came out from Copper Canyon Press in the fall of last year). The untitled poems from this book possess many of the same lyrical, image-driven qualities as those in his previous two collections. However, their haunting is driven by different preoccupations. In this most recent book, the landscape is a place where the collision of past and present is a violent enactment of a crisis both cultural and environmental:
I replace what I saw
with what I heard,
pull out a letter
sent from ourself to my selves
—and for a second
the flattened field is chandeliered
by desert animal constellations.
The music in these poems is undeniable, but so is the specter of enduring trauma—to the self, the land, and the language. Not long after Beargrass, Bitsui recorded a conversation for Montana Public Radio’s The Write Question in which he explained, “My grandparents didn’t speak English. I am fortunate enough to know my language, and know that I speak a language that is of this hemisphere and of this land, and that root system is deep, that root system—the connections I make with that language to my time and my place—sometimes goes up against English in a very profound way. I feel the two languages orient oneself to different modes or different relationships with place, family, community. And somewhere within that translation or transmission, somewhere between there there’s some energy that happens and I feel like my poems are trying to contain all those elements and harmonize them and make them beautiful.” This statement immediately brings to mind these lines from an early section of Dissolve:
grunting at the bank
of one language
while the other
tethers moonlight to firelight—
Exemplified above is a commitment to embodiment that I find particularly compelling in Bitsui’s poems. And that embodiment is, as he says, deeply rooted in language and place. His poems are not afraid to draw blood with their words, the same way a desert canyon is not afraid to flood. I read these four lines as an evocation of the magic enacted by language and place, a magic that can transform our connection to our very selves. And if a kind of transcendent embodiment is what’s happening in Bitsui’s poems, then it is the action behind that embodiment that creates the energy that drives his lines forward.
As I drop a golden chanterelle into my basket, I listen to Wilbur and Keene discuss the way that Native languages often make use of verbing rather than nouning. And I recall that Bitsui delves into this aspect of grammar as well, explaining the way in which this unique linguistic structure informs his verse even though he composes his poems in English: “The strategies for creating a poem or the ways that I use the verbs is that the whole world has some force and energy to it, that even language can move you towards something, and you just have to flip the switch on and allow those things to be energized with whatever force moves them through.” The poems in Dissolve do possess an intrinsic force, something akin to the way these cedar trees send down a tap root into their home dirt, pulling the water from the ground and ascending toward the sky. The images, questions, and repetitions in Bitsui’s poems make me want to read more carefully, to move more purposefully through our shattered landscape, and to cook food, too, with a mindfulness that attends to the where and the who of how I make my meals.
The soup recipe below, utilizing wild mushrooms and beans cooked with cedar boughs, comes together quickly. With a little bit of chopping, you can have it on the table in less than hour, which makes it perfect for listening to the brief but thoughtful MTPR interview with Bitsui. However, while Sherman says it’s fine to use canned beans in this recipe, I found that his homemade Cedar-Braised Beans added an integral set of flavors to this simple dish. If you decide to prepare the beans yourself or cook up the Wild Rice Cakes he suggests serving alongside the soup, then you’ll need a longer podcast, which is where the food sovereignty episode from All My Relations comes in handy. But feel free to start slow: a language can’t be learned overnight, and neither can the food cultures of an entire continent. If nothing else, if you live near cedar trees, make the beans, which are easy and versatile and can be used as the base for a variety of dishes.
If you’re looking for something to read while the beans are boiling, be sure to begin with these two poems from Dissolve. They are a fantastic illustration of the way that Bitsui negotiates the liminal nature of being between languages and between Native landscapes past, present, and future. Additionally, this conversation between Bitsui and Joy Harjo over at Bomb Magazine makes for excellent reading and thinking.
If you need a longer reading list and you’ve already got Dissolve, then the next placed I’d turn to is beloved Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson’s first novel, Monkey Beach. I was introduced to Robinson’s books when I gave a reading at Massy Books, an Indigenous owned and operated bookstore in Vancouver, B.C.. In this book full of the well-known particularities of a place loved and dwelled in for thousands of years, we quickly learn that food—especially food that’s been gathered, gifted, and preserved, like cockles canned in jars or oolichan fish cooked down for their flavorful grease—is tradition, love, family, culture, and the highest of prizes and gifts.
Finally, if the last four minutes of the All My Relations language episode makes your heart explode like mine did, and especially if you’ve got young kids at home who enjoy picture books, I highly recommend Jingle Dancer by Muscogee Creek author Cynthia Leitich Smith, which joyfully tells the story of a young girl spending time with the many strong women in her community as she prepares for the big day of her first jingle dance. If you’re going to gather and prepare food with kiddos, I also recommend A Day with Yayah by Interior Salish and Metis author Nicola I. Campbell, which tells the story of two children spending a day gathering mushrooms and wild plants with their grandmother. These children’s books are great additions to a diverse library.
But for now, let’s cook:
Hearty Mushroom, Sweet Potato, and Bean Soup
adapted from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman
2 T sunflower oil
1 C chopped wild onions or ramps (or white part of store-bought leek)
8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced (I used chanterelles)
2 t chopped fresh sage
2 C cubed sweet potatoes, cut into ½” pieces
6-8 C stock (Sherman suggests his homemade corn or duck stock, but I used store-bought turkey bone broth)
1 C Cedar-Braised Beans (or canned beans, drained)
Salt to taste
Pinch sumac to taste
In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onions and mushrooms until the mushrooms have released their liquid and browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sage and sweet potatoes and stock. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the beans. Season with salt and sumac to taste and continue cooking until heated through.