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Arlee students cook indigenous foods, 'taste the past'

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ARLEE – In the Arlee Family and Consumer Science classroom, high schooler McKaryss Fisher carefully chopped morel mushrooms and fried them in a pan. It was similar to the work she does in her everyday cooking classes, except for one thing: the food in the recipe was native to the Flathead Reservation.

The cooking event was part of a school-wide event on Oct. 14 known to many as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Salish caterer Trina Felsman taught Arlee students from kindergarten through high school about how she hunts and gathers food near her home on the reservation and then makes dishes full of indigenous ingredients. 

Felsman’s company is called Qene’s Catering. Qene is the Salish word for paternal grandmother, which is what her grandchildren call her. She said she started her company by serving modern food, but, sometimes, she would incorporate traditional Salish foods into the meals. Her customers were impressed by the dishes and encouraged her to serve more traditional dishes made with indigenous foods. 

Felsman grew up hunting, fishing and gathering berries and bitterroot with her parents. They taught her how to gather properly and how to turn indigenous foods into dishes. She wanted to share her knowledge of indigenous foods with students because the knowledge about traditional foods is disappearing. 

“Nowadays, we learn to go to work, get money, go to the grocery store and bring food home and put it in the fridge. Before that, there was gathering,” Felsman told the group. 

She gathers huckleberries and other indigenous foods with her family each year, but cooking with indigenous foods was new for her. 

“It’s like getting a taste of the past,” Fisher said. 

Teacher Anna Baldwin wrote a grant that made the event possible. Funding came from the Headwaters Foundation. The event was one in a year-long series of special educational activities focused on preserving the culture of Native students in the district. The project is called “The Syal Project.” Syal means circle in Salish and refers to the cyclic nature of seasons, the school year and cultural traditions. Baldwin said she chose to hold classes on indigenous foods because Felsman is a local expert on the topic. It also helps the school district to reach another educational goal. 

“We want to promote fitness, and we want to promote nutrition, but we also want to connect back to students’ home cultures,” Baldwin said. 

About fifteen students filled the classroom, ready to learn about the foods of people native to the area. Felsman told the students where she got each ingredient, none had come from the store. The food had grown on the land without being cultivated, around the reservation. 

Felsman brought serviceberries and bitterroot she had gathered herself. She also brought ground bison, morel mushrooms and huckleberries. She did buy wild rice from the Anishinaabe Tribes in Michigan. The food she served was gathered ethically, without destroying the plants and leaving some for the animals. 

The recipe for the day was a rice bowl, which is a combination of ingredients cooked and mixed together. The group also made a traditional tea from bitterroot and serviceberries. Students went to work browning meat, boiling water and chopping ingredients. 

Felsman said when it comes to reviving culture, food is a good entry point for people who might not be familiar with their tribe’s language or cultural practices. 

“Food is a universal communicator,” Felsman said. “Food is an easy segue into helping other people and students understand more of who we are.”

Felsman sees food as a way indigenous people can connect to the land, their ancestors and their identity as modern Native people. “We’re still here and we have these relationships with the environment that are relevant to this day,” Felsman said. “We have intent in using the resources that the environment gives, and we can share that with other people.”

Baldwin said the event was a success. “They have been interested and engaged all day, even the kindergarteners. I think this is just a new thing for the kids to hear about.”  

When the meal was finished cooking, everyone ate as a group. Everyone tried it. There wasn’t a single complaint about the food. 

The next component in the Syal Project will be a full week of events focused on Native culture in November. Students said making food was a good way to kick off the project.

“It feels so special to learn about my culture,” said Imperial BigSam. “Plus, I want to learn how to cook, and I want to learn about my family’s history.”

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