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.” During the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, I think we can learn from their unique voices and their passion for the food that reflects their culture and its values.

“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, N.M., “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, “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.”

“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 dominant culture dictates elders being put on the back burner – we do not.”

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.

Yazzie is seeing 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:

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