Linda Black Elk remembers with deep fondness the walks she would take with her mother and grandmother, who taught her all about plants and the land. She learned to name the edible and medicinal plants around her — yarrow, pawpaw, pokeweed — and the various ways they would interact with local animals and the greater ecosystem. Over time, Black Elk worked to develop closer relationships with her “plant relatives.” To this day, she works hard to be a good relative and maintain these important relationships.
With her diverse mix of Korean, Mongolian, and Catawba ancestry, Black Elk grew up in the Ohio Valley before settling in Oceti Sakowin territory, where her husband and children are members of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Lakota Nations.
This varied background has afforded Black Elk the privilege of learning from elders and other knowledge holders on Standing Rock and beyond, and it is these experiences that she brings to her work as Food Sovereignty Coordinator at United Tribes Technical College. Here, she teaches students about the ways that Indigenous people use plants for food, medicine, and materials. Indigenous wisdom comes from an intergenerational line of community members, who hold a long and storied relationship with the natural world. Indigenous ways of knowing are still a valid and timely science that is vital for the survival of all peoples, especially with the rise of pandemic illnesses and extreme weather events brought about by industrial food production and exacerbated by rampant climate change.
Elders in Indigenous communities are three and a half times more likely to become infected with COVID-19, which is often attributed to poverty and lack of access to quality healthcare. Yet, perhaps, a bigger issue is a long term lack of food sovereignty, which has led to a greatly increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, which also happen to be some of the greatest risk factors for complications from COVID-19.
While most diets both on and off Native American reservations are high in sodium, refined sugar, and refined flour, traditional diets focus on lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. The food sovereignty movement is about the ability to make good choices for families and communities, seeking high quality traditional foods that are both healthy and even medicinal. “Food is Medicine” is a common saying within Indigenous food sovereignty circles. This is quite different from “food security,” which simply focuses on adequate caloric intake.
With food sovereignty and family in mind, Black Elk and her husband, Luke, have been teaching and practicing the idea that traditional foods have the power to keep us healthy and to heal us on physical, mental emotional, and even spiritual levels. The body recognizes Indigenous foods on a cellular level, providing healing nutrients as well as a connection to land and people. Healthy diets are crucial to ensuring we can weather future pandemics, and Black Elk has been working with tribes and Indigenous led organizations to highlight the importance of Food Sovereignty in keeping communities as healthy as possible.
Black Elk’s work at United Tribes is part of a USDA Land Grant program. The original goal of the program was to conduct research on crops that grow well in the extreme climate of the northern Great Plains. However, once the pandemic hit, UTTC’s Alan’s a grant program shifted its focus from research to providing food for their community. Black Elk’s colleagues and students are still providing fresh foods to community members each Thursday, while Linda and her family provide organic, traditional, and shelf stable food kits to elders and others in need.
Black Elk wants to show that Indigenous Foods aren’t just beneficial for Native people, but they also encourage non-Native people to decolonize their diets and support food sovereignty for everyone. Non-Indigenous people can make great changes by growing their own gardens and also by supporting Indigenous food producers. (For a list of Indigenous producers, see https://www.indianag.org/post/iac-american-indian-food-producer-directory)
Along with her work as an ethnobotanist and food sovereignty activist, Black Elk is a strong advocate for environmental justice in Indigenous communities, supporting organizations like Makoce Ikicupi Dakota Land Recovery and the Indigenous Environmental Network. She is also a founding board member of the Mni Wiconi Health Circle, an Indigenous led wellness organization specializing in decolonized medicine.
Through all of this work, Linda and her family hope to give back to their communities for all of the knowledge and love that has been given to them.