Food is powerful – Vanessa Casillas, Ben Shendo and Brian Yazzie agree. The three of them have different paths to the Indigenous foods space – but, they have a commonality of service at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, where they enjoy the camaraderie of preparing healthy meals for their elders at “The Gatherings Café.”
All three have had some experience with the Intertribal Food Summit that is taking place “virtually” online this year due to the COVID pandemic. However, while some social aspects of everyone’s lives has changed, they are holding true to their mission of food and the role it plays in the center of wellbeing.
“The pandemic has shown how we can be cut off from so much, so fast,” said Ben Shendo – who serves as the Gatherings Café manager. “We have to get people to learn to live off the land again. We have to fight for what we believe in.”
Shendo is from Jemez and Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, “My fiancé got an internship in Minneapolis two years ago and she was coming up here to finish her schooling. During this time, I spent time at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. I would see the head chef at the time every day and one day I asked if he needed help. He took me in September of 2018.”
Preparing meals such as 300 bison wraps and other Indigenous foods using Native ingredients proved extremely rewarding, he said, “I had another good friend – Linus – come up and help out in the kitchen too. He came and never left. That shows the positive feeling and the environment we have here. Food is medicine and it is fun to be part of that. It’s also important to educate the youth. We work with both the kids and the elders here and in the meantime, we are learning who we are.”
Ben is heading back to New Mexico; however, he plans to take his Indigenous food passion with him and to help teach his people.
“I am Ho-Chunk and Chicana from Chicago and just moved back to Minneapolis in February,” Casillas began. “I came back in February and the pandemic hit shortly after that. I am a bricklayer by trade, but I did not want to go back to construction because sanitation on the job is non-existent and we work in very close proximity to one another. I knew going back to work would be very risky.”
Casillas let some of her chef friends know she was interested in getting into the Food Sovereignty scene, “I am a self-taught baker and handy in the kitchen. I wanted to become a master at making brick ovens for Tribal communities that needed them. That was my idea at first and then when the pandemic hit, my ideas shifted.”
“I was used to working in fast-paced situations, so serving the elders was a fit for me,” she said. “We started by serving 100 elders and then it kept growing and now has really, really grown to more than 200. Now our kitchen crew is between four to six people with support from our drivers who aren’t always in the kitchen with us. I am the baker or ‘dessert’ person. Doing that kind of volume of work in a short time frame is challenging, but I like the challenge because everyone in the kitchen is very positive.”
“The café is a very nurturing environment with much gratitude and appreciation. Ben is the executive chef at the café’ and Brian Yazzie is very good about amplifying the story of Indigenous foods so that everyone can hear about the work we are doing and that the elders are being cared for. The dominant culture dictates elders being put on the back burner – we do not.”
Casillas is looking forward to being part of the Virtual Food Summit this year and recognizes its value from experiences she had at the in-person summit, “I was first introduced to the IAC Food Summit in 2019 when it was in Michigan. That is where I first met Brian Yazzie. After that, I stayed in touch with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. I brought back seeds from the first Food Summit and took some of those seeds and gifted them to the Chi-Nations Youth Council in Chicago. The seeds were used on land they acquired for the First Nations Garden. Since then, I have been really impacted by the path the summit set me on.”
As Casillas said, Yazzie is, “amplifying” the story of Food Sovereignty through his work at the Gatherings Café and as the well-known, “Yazzie the Chef” on social media platforms and YouTube.
Yazzie is Dine’ (Navajo) and is originally from Dennehotso, Ariz. Currently based out of St. Paul, Minn., he earned his Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree in Culinary Arts from St. Paul College in 2016. He is a summer resident chef at Dream of Wild Health Farm, a delegate of Slow Food Turtle Island Association, and a team member at I-Collective: a collective of cooks, chefs, seed keepers, farmers, foragers, and scholars focused on growing awareness of the cultural appropriations of Indigenous Foods of the Americas.
“My mission is specifically working with, and for, the betterment of Tribal communities, wellness and health through Indigenous Foods,” he said. “I started cooking at the age of seven with my mother. Ever since, I learned to have a passion for cooking, especially for families and large crowds.”
Yazzie takes this passion and applies it hands-on as a caterer, preparing private dinners, pop-up dinners, conducting chef demos and cooking classes as well as giving presentations on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, “I am one of the many culinary mentors looking forward to the IAC Virtual Food Summit. It’s unfortunate we can’t gather in person, but we are finding ways to keep our work going and people should attend and share with their fellow food enthusiasts.”
He is not only excited about the summit, but also about the resurgence he is seeing in the growth of Indigenous foods across the landscape, “I see trends of garden projects and it’s great to see people wanting to understand where our food comes from and having a connection to the landscape in ways of wild and cultivated perspectives.”
Yazzie’s personal food dreams are clear as he outlines his powerful vision, “I dream one day to own and operate a café somewhere in the Southwest with a seasonal, intertribal menu. A café focused on community empowerment with youth and adult internship programs that supports local hunters and foragers, farmers and markets.”
Learn more about the Gatherings Café and the Minneapolis American Indian Center here: https://www.maicnet.org/gatherings-cafe/
Follow Yazzie at:
Read more about Yazzie here: https://www.minnesotamonthly.com/lifestyle/people/brian-yazzie-stands-up-for-native-american-recipes/
REGISTER FOR THE IAC Virtual Food Summit here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/virtual-intertribal-food-summit-tickets-106007669794