Indigenous Forager Linda Black Elk Says We Should Listen to Plants | Civil Eats

Listen to Plants, Says Indigenous Forager and Activist Linda Black Elk

The Indigenous ethnobotanist and food sovereignty activist talks about decolonizing our palates, foraging as an act of resistance, and developing closer relationships with dandelions.

Linda Black Elk (Photo courtesy of NATIFS)

Linda Black Elk (Photo courtesy of NATIFS)

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Linda Black Elk grew up listening to plants. The Indigenous ethnobotanist and food sovereignty activist foraged with her mom and grandmother in the Ohio River Valley as a child, then made the Standing Rock Reservation area in North Dakota her home alongside her husband, Luke, who is Cheyenne River Sioux. These days, honoring her Korean, Mongolian, and Native roots, she teaches others how to nurture their relationships with the natural world. Together, she and Luke have spent years teaching members of their community (and their three sons) about the importance of traditional foods and medicines through publications, seminars, and hands-on workshops.

After overseeing the food sovereignty program at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, Black Elk recently became the education director for Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman’s Minneapolis-based nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS). There, she’s using her vast ecological expertise to develop curriculum for the Indigenous Food Lab training center and lead community engagement programming.

“As NATIFS’ education director, I organize classes about Indigenous foods covering a wide range of specialties, from how to cook wild rice to how to make perfect corn tortillas,” she explains. “We’ll be inviting guest chefs like Crystal Wahpepah from Wahpepah’s Kitchen to come in and prepare some of her favorite dishes. We’re also in the process of building a huge video library that is completely open source, so everyone will have access to resources about food safety, knife skills, game animal processing, and more.”

“Unfortunately, our entire food system is determined by colonization, and our palates have also been colonized, largely by salt and sugar—so we believe that everything we eat needs to be salty or sweet.”

In addition to inspiring both Native American and non-Native students and her many social media followers, Black Elk has also earned the respect of fellow foragers such as author and natural historian Samuel Thayer. “Linda has such a broad knowledge base, and I have learned so much from her,” he says. “She is undoing the cultural shame that was instilled from boarding schools and the other ways that Indigenous people were pushed away from their food traditions. She mixes Indigenous traditional knowledge with modern science in a way that feels practical yet fun.”

Black Elk’s efforts go beyond education. In 2016, she was one of thousands of water protectors protesting the Dakota Access pipeline over concerns that an oil spill would contaminate the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply and other resources. (The pipeline was ultimately built in 2017 and has been operational since.)

Civil Eats recently spoke with Black Elk about decolonizing our palates, foraging as an act of resistance, and developing intimate relationships with dandelions.

What sparked your initial interest in ethnobotany?

My [paternal] grandma and I would go for walks, and she would point out all the plants I could eat and which ones I couldn’t. She was always picking wild onions and poke greens, which we would cook up with scrambled eggs for breakfast. She kept fresh strawberries around because they were my favorite snack.

My mom was an Indigenous woman from Korea, and she grew up foraging and growing her own food as a matter of survival. Because her family was extremely poor, she needed to know all the plants she could eat because they were free. When she came over to this country with my father, it was a natural thing for her to carry over. She was surprised to find a lot of plants here that were similar to the ones she grew up with—amaranth, dandelion, goldenrod, lamb’s quarter, Solomon’s seal, tickweed—and she incorporated them into our diet.

Linda and Luke Black Elk (Photo courtesy of Linda Black Elk)

Linda and Luke Black Elk (Photo courtesy of Linda Black Elk)

In my family on both sides, we always considered plants as food and medicine. For example, if I had a sore throat, my mom would make me ginger and lemon tea with honey. I’ve never had a single year when I haven’t had a garden, even if that was a container garden. I grew up with a lot of really amazing fresh food that was both grown and harvested, and all of that family history led me to study plants in school.

Why is traditional ecological knowledge so important as it relates to both food sovereignty and climate change?

Let’s back up a bit. Everyone talks about decolonizing, but what does that even mean? In terms of food sovereignty, we’re talking about getting back to the foods of our ancestors. Unfortunately, our entire food system is determined by colonization, and our palates have also been colonized, largely by salt and sugar—so we believe that everything we eat needs to be salty or sweet. Our palates have forgotten how wonderful and healthful flavors like pungent and bitter can be.

“The fact is that our current food system pours herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides on so much of our food.”

For example, my husband’s people are Lakota, and during the cold winter months when there aren’t any bitter greens to eat, they would traditionally get bitter compounds from various parts of the buffalo. So they would dip pieces of meat in the bitter bile of the buffalo’s gallbladder. Similarly, one of my Ojibwe friends told me that during the winter, they would dip pieces of fish in the fish bile then eat it.

It’s that kind of knowledge of the people who came before us—about not only what is good to eat but what keeps us going physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—that is going to lead us into the future of food sovereignty. Traditional ecological knowledge is different from Western ecological knowledge in that it includes and understands the importance of culture and spirituality.

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For instance, why is fry bread so popular as an Indigenous food? It’s not just that our palates now love gluten and sugary, salty foods. It’s also that people have watched their grandma make fry bread, so there’s this emotional and spiritual connection to that food. We need to rebuild those connections with our traditional foods, those really visceral memories of processing wild rice and cutting up bison meat to hang and dry. I have beautiful memories of making kimchi, a traditional Korean food, with my mom.

Linda Black Elk (third from left) and others butch a bison. (Photo courtesy of Linda Black Elk)

Linda Black Elk (third from left) and others butcher a bison. (Photo courtesy of Linda Black Elk)

The fact is that our current food system pours herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides on so much of our food. Our meat is laced with all kinds of hormones and antibiotics. Not to mention that industrial agriculture is hugely destructive to the environment. In order for us to move away from that, we have to get back to foods that love growing here, foods that we have a long-term relationship with.

We’re trying to grow crops that would love tons of precipitation that we just don’t have. We’ve also destroyed our topsoil, so we now have to put minerals and other nutrients back into the soil. It’s just hugely destructive and contributes to climate change. So if we get back to traditional foods through traditional ecological knowledge, we won’t have the full-scale destruction brought on by industrial agriculture.

Our consumption culture really contributes to climate change as well. When you build a relationship with the natural world, you start to realize that plants and animals are beings that have more value than just their monetary value. You start being more careful about how you move through the world and how you walk on the land. When you have a relationship with plants and animals, you’re a lot less likely to use and abuse these gifts. Instead, you’re going to make sure they’re well taken care of for future generations. 

“We’ve got to change our diets so we can break that vicious cycle of a poor diet leading to poor health, which then leads to higher risk factors.”

How can we improve our relationship with plants, animals, and the natural environment around us?

On an individual level, it is about getting out there, introducing yourself to the natural world, and being willing to speak and listen. Plants do communicate with us if we take our time and approach them in a respectful way. For example, one spring day I noticed chickweed had started randomly growing right outside my kitchen door, which seemed so strange because it had never grown there before. Then I found out I had a thyroid issue. Chickweed has historically been used for thyroid regulation, so I realized that plant was communicating with me, being like, “Here I am. You need me.”

I do think plants come to us when we need them. But if you don’t recognize that plant, you might not know that it’s trying to communicate with you. I always recommend starting with dandelions and learning about their place in the world, since everyone knows what a dandelion looks like. They are a gateway plant, because they’ve been so vilified by Western culture yet they are an amazing food and medicine. Building these relationships opens us up to listening to the world around us instead of just constantly thinking about consumption.

Can you explain how you see foraging as an act of resistance?

In this society, food and medicine are expensive and inaccessible for a massive portion of the population. We are purposefully kept ignorant about and in fear of plant foods and medicines; we are indoctrinated into this idea that they are somehow dangerous or inferior.

But why? Why is a round crunchy ball of water in the form of iceberg lettuce somehow better than dandelion leaves? It certainly is not more healthful, but we have this perception that it is somehow better. We have to resist by questioning these assumptions about so-called “wild” foods. Even the word “wild” has certain connotations and can bring up images of danger in people’s minds. So it is an act of resistance to stand against that indoctrination and decolonize our palates.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the pandemic. What did we find out were some of the major risk factors for COVID complications? Diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. We were seeing all these elders and knowledge keepers dying from COVID and complications that were exacerbated by these health issues that are very much associated with diet and air quality. How are we going to prevent this from happening again in the future? We’ve got to change our diets so we can break that vicious cycle of a poor diet leading to poor health, which then leads to higher risk factors.

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In March 2020, our family came up with a grassroots project to feed people. We were seeing these food kits being sent out with bags of flour, sugar, potatoes, white rice, and powdered milk—basically commodities that were exactly what was exacerbating the problem. So, we decided to make food and medicine kits with traditional Indigenous ingredients and organic, shelf-stable items.

They contained items like hand-harvested wild rice from Dynamite Hill Farms, corn grown by Oneida farmer Dan Cornelius, tepary beans from Ramona Farms, Tanka Bars, real maple syrup, freeze-dried vegetable mixes, bone broth, and amazing medicines like fire cider and elderberry elixir. We put out a call on social media, and people rallied, sending supplies and donating money so we could support these incredible Indigenous producers.

Our coverage area included North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and even Missouri. My husband and I would drive all over in our minivan delivering these kits and also picking up supplies to cut down on shipping costs. So far, we have sent out more than 3,000 kits, and we’re still doing it today. It is really just about showing our kids that individuals can make a difference.

From your perspective, what will it take for our food systems to be resilient once again?

We have to build community. We do that by building each other up instead of tearing each other down. When we build community, we know who has the seeds. We know how to plant those seeds, because we have learned from our community members and they’ve learned from us.

Under our current food system, if a blight comes and affects [the main] variety of corn, we would have no corn and there would be millions of starving people. But when we build a community of growers who are growing 500 different varieties of corn, if a blight comes and takes out one variety, we still have 499 varieties to rely on. That’s what resiliency is—it’s about working together to make sure that no one thing can tear us down.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's the former editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, chef Sean Sherman, and "Reservation Dogs" creator Sterlin Harjo and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, the BBC, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, and more. Read more >

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