Food & Storytelling: Meskwaki Food Sovereignty

This summer at Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development, I have been tasked with “telling the story” of food along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway. Of course, there are multiple, intersecting, and even contradictory stories about food in this area, and it has become my job to shape and position these stories into an overarching narrative that makes sense. Together with my supervisor, we decided that the best way to frame these stories is geographically, to start at the eastern anchor of the Byway, the Amana Colonies, and to wind our way to the western anchor, the Meskwaki Settlement. There exists the idea that stories about food should be easy to digest and palatable, that we should avoid the bitter aspects of our entangled food histories of violence, scarcity, and exploitation. To subscribe to this notion would play into what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as “the danger of a single story,” to what occurs when “one story becomes the only story.” The stories that we tell ourselves about the food we eat have consequences, and we have a responsibility to not ignore the ones that make us uncomfortable.

            An especially insidious “single story” about food is the Thanksgiving myth, the idea that the Pilgrims came to America and shared a dinner with a gracious Indian tribe, who then promptly vanished. This food story obviates the truth of westward expansion and the colonial genocide of Indigenous peoples and, through the force of repetition, assuages us every year into a collective forgetting, or sugar coating, of the truth of American history. The Thanksgiving myth is so pervasive that it made its way to the Amana Colonies as well. In 1984, The New York Times sent a food editor out to Amana to write an article titled “The Bounty of an Iowa Thanksgiving,” despite the fact that, according to Amana native Peter Hoehnle, PhD, “we didn’t do anything special here, we just had chicken and rice soup.” In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, Amana Colonies founder Christian Metz decided that the Amananites would use that day to conduct their covenant renewal, where believers would reaffirm their religious faith with a symbolic handshake. It was only later, after Amana’s “Great Change” away from communal living, that the community began to take on the American resonances of the holiday. Conveniently absent from the NYT story about the Amana Thanksgiving is any mention of their Meskwaki neighbors to the west.

            The relationship between the Meskwaki and the Amananites has been largely positive. The two groups often traded with one another, and Amana blankets were used as a part of Meskwaki burial ceremonies. However, this aura of positivity has accrued its own degree of mythologization. According to Hoehnle, “There are some oral traditions that are perhaps too positive about the Meskwaki relationship with Amana. I found myself thinking that it could not have been that harmonious. And, of course, it was not.” The official logo of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway is the American lotus. Symbolically, this logo unites both ends of the Byway. The lotus used to be a cultivated food source for the Meskwaki into the 1930s. Likewise, Amana would plant the lilies and advertise the blooms in the paper to attract visitors. Today, Amana remains a prolific tourist destination, while eating the lotus tubers has become a faded tradition for the Meskwaki. According to Johnathan Buffalo, Historic Preservation Director for the Meskwaki nation, “Our environment has changed, so we don’t eat certain foods anymore.” In the 1850s, members of the Meskwaki Settlement would camp on the surrounding lands. “We knew the farmers around us. We hunted off the animals that were damming up their streams. In a way, we were doing a service to them. By 1900, those farmers started dying off and those lands changed hands and we were denied access to those areas. We could not move around as much. We could not go to plant. The woods are gone because they cut them down to make more farm land. The marshes are gone so there were no more water lilies,” Buffalo explained. Transformations to Iowa’s environment, including tiling, water pollution, and the creation of more farm land, have necessitated transformations in Meskwaki foodways and culinary traditions.

            In the 18th century, French colonists traded with the Meskwaki for coffee, dried pork, and flour in sacks. Eventually, Meskwaki women learned to use the flour to make fried bread. “Meskwaki fried bread is not like any other tribe’s fried bread, ours is better. I guess every tribe says that. I’m not bragging or exaggerating, it is just a fact,” Buffalo laughed. Every community along the Byway seems to agree with him. What the kolaches are for the Czech, fried bread is for the Meskwaki. Here, food becomes a point of cross-cultural connection, of sharing with one another. But even this heartwarming moment of mutual enjoyment obscures the reality that, at one point, the U.S. government attempted to eradicate the tradition of Meskwaki fried bread altogether in the name of a racist, so-called “civilizing” mission. Buffalo explained, “In the 1900s the government tried to tell us to quit making fried bread because they said frying bread was a savage and primitive way of cooking bread. They gave us stoves with ovens so that we would be civilized. It was open fire cooking that they were against.” The U.S. government’s equation of fried bread with savagery justified their attempts at political and social control over the Meskwaki. So yes, food can be a source of mutual joy and sustenance. But food can also be used as a tool to delegitimize others and to uphold white supremacy.

            In relating these stories of food, racism, and the destruction of natural foodways, I do not want to accidentally propagate another “single story” – in this case, the trope of the vanishing Indian. The Meskwaki Settlement is, importantly, not a reservation. The Iowa State Legislature passed a law allowing Native people to purchase land, which they did on July 13, 1857. Since then, the Meskwaki Settlement has grown to become a sovereign nation with over 1,400 tribal members, holding a large Powwow every year. A huge aspect of their sovereignty derives from their relationship with food. According to their website, The Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative “emphasizes the impact of local foods, indigenous foods, and medicines in supporting the health and well-being of our community, while strengthening the economy, healing relationships with the land, and celebrating cultural identity.” The story of Native American survivance is still unfolding, with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that much of the eastern part of Oklahoma belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. We must continue to grapple with the history we have inherited, and to resist false narratives that propagate the erasure of Indigenous peoples. And as I speak to more folks along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway, I find that this imperative is especially true when it comes to the stories we tell about food.

Featured Image: “American Lotus at Amana Lily Pond (Iowa)” by Debbie Brooks