Spending recent summers in Babb on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Mariah Gladstone ran into the challenge of finding easily accessible fresh fruit and vegetables and other groceries.
“The Blackfeet Reservation is about the size of Delaware and there are two grocery stores, both in Browning,” she said.
“Why do we have to drive 40 minutes to go to a grocery store that only receives a shipment of fruits and vegetables once a week? That’s really disturbing.”
The eye-opening experience turned Gladstone onto food sovereignty, a growing movement centered on giving communities healthy, culturally appropriate food produced through ecological and sustainable methods and systems.
Gladstone, a 23-year-old from Kalispell who is an enrolled member in the Blackfeet and Cherokee tribes, has become an advocate for food sovereignty and is receiving national recognition for her efforts. The Center for Native American Youth, a policy program at the Aspen Institute, recently named Gladstone one of the 2017 Champions for Change.
Gladstone is one of five young Native Americans from across the U.S. to be selected and will be honored Feb. 14-15 in Washington, D.C.
The 2011 Glacier High School graduate, who attended Columbia University and earned a degree in environmental engineering, is championing the need for healthy, affordable food in communities that need it most, such as the Blackfeet reservation. She is also providing a practical solution for families by producing online cooking episodes showcasing pre-contact Native American food, or traditional food that indigenous people would have had access prior to the arrival of settlers.
“A lot of reservations have really started to embrace the concept. Now the issue is getting people excited about that,” she said.
The Beacon recently caught up with Gladstone to discuss her efforts:
Beacon: Why is food sovereignty an important issue for Native Americans?
Mariah Gladstone: Nearly every reservation is classified as a “food desert” while Natives are reporting sky-high levels of both malnutrition and obesity. Creating systems that support access to healthy, sustainable, and culturally appropriate food is essential to indigenous peoples’ wellness and economic security.
Beacon: What are the most significant barriers to achieving food sovereignty in Montana?
Gladstone: Montana is a big state with relatively few people. Forty-five of our 56 counties have fewer than six people per square mile and grocery stores are few and far between. In rural areas, grocery stores frequently lack fresh fruit and vegetables. That said, Montana produces enough agricultural products to feed our population and many more. However, we lack processing capacity; our products are shipped away for others to process and then shipped back to us as food.
Beacon: What are the benefits of pre-contact foods?
Gladstone: It’s no secret that healthy eating generally involves avoiding processed foods and preservatives. Pre-contact foods like wild game, berries, corn, squash, and wild rice are far easier for the digestive system to process than soy, dairy and sugar. In the case of Natives, there is the added benefit of cultural revitalization; pre-contact foods, especially those harvested locally, are a testament to the resilience of Native lifestyles and a delicious way of resisting colonization. I should note that there are plenty of foods that I frequently use in my cooking that can be classified as healthy, even though they have been adopted from other continents and are not indigenous to Native diets.
Beacon: What’s a favorite meal of yours that could be relatively simple to make with pre-contact foods in Northwest Montana?
Gladstone: Tacos! We’re lucky in Montana to have access to plenty of wild game, so I’d recommend using whatever type and cut of meat you have access to. You can use wheat-free corn tortillas from the store and cook the meat however you’d prefer. Personal opinion: shredded elk roast makes killer tacos. Dandelion leaves are an easy substitute for lettuce and are packed full of nutrients, but should be harvested in early spring before they get bitter.
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