ONTARIO — Growing up on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in southern Ontario, Tawnya Brant and her sisters lived off their mother’s lush garden and the fish and game their father caught and hunted. While the family did not have running water or electricity on the reserve, Brant’s parents instilled in her the culinary traditions of their people, the Kanien’kehá:ka (known in English as Mohawk).
Brant, now the chef owner of Yawékon Foods, is giving a virtual talk on reviving Indigenous food culture as part of the “Haudenosaunee and the Erie Canal Series,” presented by the Erie Canal Museum and Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center. The Haudenosaunee series is part of the museum’s Erie Eats Foodways Project.
Yawékon Foods — the name means “it tastes good” in Kanienʼkéha — offers a modern take on Indigenous American foods such as corn, beans, squash, wild rice, potatoes, berries, fish and game. Brant is using her 27 years of culinary experience to further the Indigenous food sovereignty movement and reintroduce Haudenosaunee people to their ancestral cuisine.
“Our food has a spirit. We believe that down to our DNA that food is linked,” Brant explained. “Our foods are already made to be healthy.”
In both the United States and Canada, Indigenous people were taken from their families and forced into residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking their languages, practicing their religion and eating their traditional foods. Today, many Indigenous people rely on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The program offers mostly canned or frozen items, which often are high in sodium and added sugars.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Minority Health, American Indians/Alaska Natives are more likely to be overweight or obese than non-Hispanic whites. Excess weight can be a risk factor for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
European colonizers introduced food to the Americas that were hard for Indigenous people’s bodies to digest.
“We don’t know dairy. We don’t know a lot of the foreign meats like chicken, beef and pork,” Brant said.
While cultural assimilation caused many Indigenous people to lose touch with their traditional foods, a stigma remains in some Indigenous communities.
“There’s a lot of communities where eating traditional foods are looked down upon like ‘Oh, you’re poor,’” Brant said.
Brant acknowledged that a true “pre-colonial” diet is not feasible for most people because quality fresh produce is expensive and often scarce in urban environments.
“That’s impossible for most people right now unless you’re growing your own food, unless you make it your entire life harvesting that food,” Brant said. “I spend just as much time sourcing as I do in the kitchen cooking. … My supply chains are extremely limited, but it’s working and it’s working because we work hard.”
Instead of directly replicating her ancestors’ recipes, Brant works with what the seasons offer her, so some dishes are never made the same way twice.
“We’ve probably come up with over 100 dishes in the nine months that we’ve been open,” Brant said of Yawékon.
Brant said she doesn’t believe in sticking to a recipe, and her favorite thing to cook is whatever she’s never cooked before.
“Recipes are stagnant. … I want to blow people away,” she said. “I really like cooking for teenagers. They have such spoiled palates. They know all the different cuisines, but they don’t know Indigenous food.”
By blending modern cuisine with Haudenosaunee food traditions, Brant is hoping to “get more Indigenous food into Indigenous bellies” and inspire people to make healthier choices.
“There’s 20,000 people in Six Nations and that’s 20,000 palates that aren’t used to our food,” she said of her community.
The virtual talk with Skä•noñh and the Erie Canal Museum is Brant’s first major presentation geared toward a Haudenosaunee audience. She said she tailors each talk to the audience and wants to foster a healthy discussion.
“I’m not an academic. I don’t have a recited presentation that I give people because I feel those conversations should happen organically,” she said.
Chef Tawnya Brant’s “Reviving Haudenosaunee Food Culture” virtual discussion takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24. To register, visit facebook.com/events/396910868511648/. The event is free and open to the public, but Skä•noñh and the Erie Canal Museum will accept donations to fund future events. For more information, visit skanonhcenter.org or eriecanalmuseum.org.