Healing Ourselves and our World by Leveraging Indigenous Wisdom
The Path to Healing Ancestral Trauma
By Dana Thompson
In October of 2014, while I was working on three separate freelance projects in Minneapolis, a colleague invited me to an outdoor dinner event which was being prepared by a local chef. Even though it was 38 degrees, I agreed to go. The meal was hosted under trees next to an old stone pizza oven on a small permaculture farm in the middle of the woods. It was an all-day event where people were invited to walk hiking paths around and about the farm, explore abandoned barns, spend time in the woods and pet the animals. Guests ate dinner surrounded by the green, gold and red foliage, sitting on folding chairs as the chair legs sank into the cold ground. Everyone was wearing winter coats, but I do not remember a single person complaining about being cold.
The chef that night was the enrolled Oglala Lakota Sean Sherman, and he had launched his company, The Sioux Chef, four weeks earlier. He prepared a beautiful dinner of bison meatball soup with fresh herbs and a gorgeous, locally foraged salad which was sprinkled with flower petals. As he spoke, I was instantly struck by the gravity of this food and his message. Later on, he told me how he got there. He had spent the last fifteen years learning various food cultures as part of his culinary development — Italian, French, Japanese, Spanish... and then one day, as he was burned out from typical chef overwork, he decided to take a six-month break.
During this time, on the Nayarit coast of Mexico, he began to observe the local Indigenous tribes. Unlike in the United States, these tribes were still living on their ancestral homeland since this part of the world had not been crushed by colonialism in the same way as it had been in the US. Indigenous people still had their traditional clothing, craft works, humor, music, language, and their foods. Suddenly, it struck Sean that he had no idea what his own ancestors had eaten before white contact. He realized then that he needed to do some important research. When I heard his story, I knew immediately why this was so critically important. I knew very little about my own Dakota ancestors, much less what they had to nourish themselves and each other. My Native blood line comes through my mother, and through oral traditions, she shared with my siblings and me the little that she knew about her ancestral foods. I learned about pemmican, how to garden, why wild plants are delicious, healthy and have many uses, and other things like how and when to find wild onions (ramps).
I asked Sean if he had a team in place to execute this important vision, and if so, I would be happy to simply be his biggest cheerleader. If not, I thought I could help. My background was in the music industry, but when I had my daughter, I needed to obtain health insurance coverage, so I went into marketing and merchandising. My skills were in strategy, event production, branding, retail development, and copywriting. He brought me on immediately, and within a few months, he asked me to come in as his partner.
Over the course of this last six years, Sean and I have worked to fulfill the two missions of our organization: creating culturally appropriate food access for Indigenous peoples and developing Indigenous education. These two values have been systematically eliminated by the US government as a form of genocide, forced assimilation, and cultural removal. We began by creating a catering business to employ Native chefs interested in learning more about a decolonized kitchen, with the intent of them bringing this knowledge back to their own communities to define their own food systems. To jumpstart the journey for the people we work with, we begin by removing three key colonial ingredients: wheat flour, dairy products and refined sugar. We also eliminated beef, pork and chicken. Immediately, this way of eating lowered the glycemic index significantly, while moving food systems away from the largely factory-farmed proteins.
During countless dinners we executed in tribal communities, one thing stuck with me. No matter where we were, when we served the ancestral foods of each region, especially to elders, we saw a striking phenomenon: the outpouring of ancestral memory. Sean writes menus that are specific to each area of the country. Revitalizing Native foodways takes deep research, and we partner with local providers — farmers, foragers, hunters, fisher-man and other producers — for local foods.
Our team creates a meal for a community usually using a community room or a school with a commercial kitchen. Each time we serve, we can see elders light up with the first bite of food. They begin talking to us and their neighbors about what their own families had served them, and they can somehow remember what their own grandparents ate. This brings on an intense flow of emotion, joy, tears, laughter, grief... it’s cathartic, and I see what we believe is a step towards healing generations of trauma. My focus has shifted after witnessing this incredible phenomenon. I am committed to learning more about why and how this happens.
When I started researching this and talking to peers in our work, I began to learn more about epigenetics. This term is used to describe anything other than DNA sequencing that influences how we develop as an organism. It means that our ancestors’ experiences, both positive and negative, in the form of epigenetic tags, can be passed down to future generations. Those emotions and traumatic experiences are then held in the body awaiting an opportunity for healing. In the fall of 2019, after a year of research, I gave my first presentation about “inherited trauma” to a full room at a conference in Minnesota where we live. Once I was finished, a research scientist approached me and said, “I want you to know that medical communities are going to push back on your theories, but I have evidence to back you up.”
He explained to me that when genes are forming, they choose one of three options: they will be either a reader, a writer, or an eraser. One way that researchers have been able to access the eraser gene is through maternal nutrition. What I have learned is that we are born with genetic coding that forms us, using the experiences that are hardwired in our parents and grandparents. Everyone has some type of trauma, some more than others. Indigenous communities across the US lost their land, their languages, and the ability to govern themselves.
Boarding schools tried to extinguish their spirituality. Access to nature was diminished by being forced onto reservations, and Indigenous food systems were systematically removed. I think about the damage it would do to entirely strip one’s culture away. That is what happened to my grandfather and his family, and so many others. The damage is very deep.
Even now, many people brought up on reservations have little access to their own histories, and their own ancestral foods.
In 2017, Sean and I began developing our own nonprofit entity called NATIFS (North American Tradition Indigenous Food Systems). To accomplish our work, we realized that opening a restaurant wasn’t going to make a sufficient impact. Restaurants usually have only about 3% profit margin, so it didn’t make sense for us to put our energies there. We wanted to be able to bring everyone in from tribal regions that was interested in learning about their ancestral foods. This goal would require transportation resources, as well as onsite support such as housing, as well as building out a training facility. In January of 2018, after about two years of arguing with the IRS, we were granted 501(c)3 status for our organization.
We immediately launched a capital campaign to support North America’s first Indigenous Food Lab training restaurant which will sit under the umbrella of NATIFS. Our opening date was tentatively planned for June 2020.
At the time of this writing, our for-profit entity called The Sioux Chef employed 23 people. Our plan was for our employees to transition leadership roles within the non-profit organization, the Indigenous Food Lab. Then came COVID-19. I am now writing this in the heart of a shutdown world, with all food businesses having been shuttered in the State of Minnesota as of last week. After losing every upcoming event we had on the calendar, and consequently the company’s entire revenue source, we were forced to lay off all our employees in hopes that they would get some state support. We have no idea when food operations will be permitted to function again.
Our plan is to transition employees into the nonprofit organization as soon as the Indigenous Food Lab is ready to open. All of the chefs on staff would build culinary skills and have access to the resources necessary to develop their own recipes. They will learn how to locally source foods, permaculture design, and Native agriculture. Depending on the region or local, we might teach how to develop local foraging operations and food preservation methods such as sun drying and seed saving. Every brick and mortar operation will learn how to achieve ServSafe certification, how to write a business plan, and how to institute ‘front of the house’ protocols to be able to function as a food operation.
We want Indigenous leaders to have enough expertise to take back to their own communities and successfully open whatever type of business they desire. Depending on their vision, this could be a one-person catering operation, an agricultural business, or a full-scale restaurant.
Our goal is to eliminate any barriers to success. Like every human, any individual may come to us carrying the trauma of their relatives, both living and past. My passion has evolved into dedication for developing a program to help acknowledge individual trauma and choose to commence the healing path, giving participants the best shot at success. Any person that strives to heal their own trauma is healing their own family’s trauma. That healing reverberates within the people around them, both living and not yet living. The work is individual, but it expands into the collective community. As I began developing my approach, it struck me very clearly: We can’t use a colonial healing method to undo 300 years of colonial oppression. We need to leverage Indigenous wisdom to identify a therapeutic modality that is relevant to our First Peoples. Today, Sean and I are “social distancing” ourselves in our home as we face the virus that has already changed all of our worlds drastically. Our kids’ schools closed this week indefinitely.
Our friends and colleagues are reaching out, feeling isolated, scared and steeped in the anxiety of the unknown. But we, as humans, can’t close down nature. Our natural world is all around us, and it’s got every bit of medicine we need to thrive.
The COVID-19 crisis lays bare the dark side of late-stage capitalism. We are witnessing the real downside of our reliance on big companies to transport food back and forth across the globe. And the reality is, as humans, we do better when we relate to our neighbors. Historically, we are healthier when we know where our food comes from. We have a stronger investment in our own bodies when we have an awareness of our immediate environment. Knowing the origins of our food builds so many things — the local economy, our trust in one another, our bodies and minds, our collective health, and so much more.
Over the last few years, I have been learning more about how humans respond to threat. Threat response is as relevant now as it’s ever been. Over the last twenty thousand years, our brains have developed an awareness to threat, with an immediate, sometimes unaware, reaction. It’s innate. We trigger into the flight, fight, freeze, and most recently, the appease response. One function our bodies have to process this quickly is the vagal response system.
The vagus nerve begins in our brains and extends into the body like the root system of a tree. These networks are very similar to how trees communicate with each other for miles around using an under-ground network. When we see or feel something that is threatening to us, we immediately feel that throughout our organs and into the very fascia that runs throughout our bodies.
The vagus nerve is the longest, most complex of the cranial nerves; it extends from our brains, through our throats, winds down through our spine, and roots itself right in the gut. This nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which scientists sometimes call the ‘rest and digest’ system. When you are in a state of rest, or not triggered into a state of threat, this network of nerves releases calming hormones like oxytocin and serotonin. These are the same hormones that are released when you hug someone you care for, or when a mother nurses her baby, or you dig your hands into healthy soil, connecting with the microbiome of the earth. This is the same microbiota that is found in all multicellular organisms throughout our planet. In fact, we are all connected.
For the last two hundred years, we Americans have been told that we are on this land to conquer it, as though we are foreign objects here for a visit. But when we access Indigenous wisdom, it becomes clear that we are not “ON” this earth, we are “OF” this earth.
By some miracle, this planet created us. And our overly developed brains have gone haywire, overwriting these deep biological connections.
This new virus is revealing many truths about humanity, and one is that we are all connected. We are one human species, and our actions impact each other in a deep and meaningful way. Let’s humble ourselves to the fact that we can be loving to each other, value life, and not just human life. All the ways we can calm that vagal response are also ways that show each other respect and care: Feeding each other, singing and communicating, and by engaging with the plants, clean air, water, soils, trees and animals around us. And eventually we will be able to hug each other again. All of these are antidotes that Indigenous peoples recognized innately as medicine for all of humanity, then and now.