Indigenous Chef Elena Terry: 'We Are Still Here And Our Cuisine Is Delicious'

Learn how this skilled seed-to-table cook supports her community and fights to keep her culture alive.
Wild Bearies/Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

In November 2018, Wisconsin Dells-based chef Elena Terry, a member of Ho-Chunk Nation, founded Wild Bearies, an organization that helps heal and educate Indigenous communities through ancestral food. She’s a seed-to-table chef, which means she grows her own food. “I can’t go to the grocery store and buy everything I need,” Terry told HuffPost. “It’s the definition, and then some, of slow food.” Before becoming a chef, Terry studied political science and philosophy and worked as a tribal legislator. But one day she decided, “This is not me.” She started working in restaurants, and then created her own business.

In the past year, she’s helped chef friends like Sean Sherman (The Sioux Chef) and Crystal Wahpepah open their Indigenous restaurants in Minneapolis and Oakland, respectively. With Thanksgiving coming up, she said she doesn’t acknowledge the holiday anymore but she celebrates the day after, known as Ho-Chunk Day, a time for reclamation of Indigenous history, heritage and space. For HuffPost’s Voices In Food series, Terry talked to Garin Pirnia about Indigenous restaurants, how badly environmental decisions affect agriculture and being blessed to help others.

Food as medicine is something that is trendy, but for me, it isn’t like that at all. The medicine is in the process of creating, of acquiring and building relationships with my own community. We have suffered a lot of loss because of addiction and substance-abuse issues, and Wild Bearies is a mentorship program for people overcoming substance abuse issues or emotional trauma, and with that umbrella in the community, it’s something that’s relatable to anybody, on some level. We’re just here to cook together and to share meals with our community and support each other.

[Indigenous people] have a limited amount of ingredients available. And those have to be grown or foraged or produced by a select number of people who even have the knowledge to do it authentically. That’s one of the reasons we do as much work as we do, to support the growers and the ranchers and foragers and [show that] we can’t do our work without them. I love knowing where my corn comes from or who harvested my wild rice, and it’s building relationships with those individuals and saying, “I see the work you do. I’m willing to compensate you because there’s nobody who does it the same.” When you cook with them, you can’t help but think of your friends who made that product and how much care they put into it, whether it was planting seeds or canoeing out in the waters and then processing it. It’s all contributing to the nourishment that meal gives you, and for me that healing and nourishment comes in the preparation and processing. I’m blessed to be able to be the last person to come in contact with those ingredients, and hopefully in that bite you can appreciate all of the intention and mindfulness that went into not only acquiring or producing each ingredient, but in representing it as a collective bite from everyone contributing.

[At the Indigenous restaurant] Owamni, I was lucky enough to come on board as one of the lead prep cooks and help with supporting the staff that Sean [Sherman] had in place, and to do recipe development and throw some knowledge their way. I was there for him to do whatever he needed help with. His vision and his ideology, when it comes to food, are different from mine, as they should be ― we should have different views on the way we approach food. But being able to take a completely decolonized look at food is always an incredible learning experience. Being able just to see how he approaches the same ingredients in different ways is always amazing to be a part of. We do want to get the word out there [through restaurants] that we are still here and our cuisine is delicious. First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City has an Indigenous café there. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque has an Indigenous café. I know we are trying to get exposed a little bit more and be a little bit more accessible, but also with respect to being able to provide for our communities that we live in and make sure those foods are accessible to them ― because it’s really about sustainability and continuity in our food sources.

We had a terrible wild rice year. Part of that was because some of those lakes were drained for pipeline, lakes that were significant resources for hundreds of years for those people to provide for themselves. We have to battle people who don’t have good intentions just to preserve that ― not even to say, “What you are doing is wrong and you can’t do it.” But to say “leave us our lakes” is hard. On one hand, we’re making small progress in very visible small areas, but in other areas we’re not making any progress at all, and people are still deeply affected by the environmental issues and will be significantly [affected] for years to come. But the small steps do add up to larger motions. Hopefully people will see the need to change the way we live and respect the land more.

I’m incredibly blessed to be doing this. Who can say they get to travel around the country and cook incredible meals with friends that they care deeply about? It’s a space for healing and it makes my heart feel good to be doing this work and supporting others doing it in the same way. If you can appreciate your traditional food systems ― whether it’s Italian or Greek ― a little bit more because of the work I do and the connections I have, then we are all working to be healthier and stronger.

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