Elena Terry, member of the Hoca¸k (Ho-Chunk) Nation, is a chef and founder of Wild Bearies, a nonprofit catering company that places a high priority on education and community outreach using indigenous ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and responsible gardening strategies.
She grew up working with her grandmothers and siblings to make food for her family. They all had roles they enjoyed: her brother was a hunter; her uncle a trapper; and Elena often found herself in the kitchen processing food, from drying squash to preparing muskrats, with her grandmother.
“I am 100 percent a processor,” says Elena. “I love transforming and preserving and being able to draw out flavors and textures with different techniques. I am a corn dryer, a butcher, and a forager, and I always have an end vision of how to keep an ingredient and utilize it.”
Elena worked as an advocate for Indigenous youth for 12 years before returning to Wisconsin. She was an elected tribal legislator, but this work wasn’t for her. She ended up in a restaurant kitchen, where she felt a sense of family and acceptance. But she also felt like she was living two lives—working in an aggressive kitchen by day then driving back to her people in the evening for ceremonies. “I didn’t want to live two lives anymore. These foods can nourish all parts of me, and I made the transition to dedicate my time to Wild Bearies community outreach catering, a place where we use food to bring you back to community and restore your spirit.”
The Wild Bearies’ website explains their mission with clarity. “An educational, community outreach nonprofit that strives to bring ancestral foods to communities in a nurturing and nourishing way. With goals of building stronger tribal communities through food, we are also a mentorship program. We work with our ingredients from seed to table while promoting traditional food systems and farming techniques.”
Elena gives a sigh when asked about the role of food as medicine. “That’s a catchphrase right now, and I believe we should put an end to that. All food is medicine. All food is meant to nourish you. It’s supposed to fuel your physical body, but it’s more than that. … The medicine part for me is in building relationships, especially from those I get ingredients from.”
The pandemic was a time of reflection for Elena. “I personally took 2020 as an opportunity to get grounded. We, as Indigenous people, can’t strive for food sovereignty if we’re facing food insecurity. Collectively, as a human race, we need to reexamine our food systems, and 2020 offered us time to do that.” As people’s interest in gardening piqued in 2020, Elena thinks more people now appreciate the energy it takes to have quality ingredients, and those who didn’t grow their own food invested in local growers more than ever before. This economic support is key to ensuring these local food sources continue to thrive. “I hope everyone continues to support them.”
Gardening and, more specifically, growing native varieties of vegetables from carefully protected seeds are important parts of Elena’s work. Many seed varieties have been passed down through generations, some sown into clothes during the U.S. government’s forced removal of tribes from their lands in the 1800s.
Wild Bearies has a garden where they grow native varieties of squash, corn, beans, and more, but there’s also a secret garden that’s protected from contamination and meant solely for propagation of native seeds. While most gardeners simply order seeds from a catalog, it’s not that simple if you’re working with indigenous varieties.
Elena is also the Food and Culinary Program coordinator for the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA), which has a food sovereignty program called Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. Preserving seeds is its own role, separate from the farmer. Elena’s daughter is doing a seed internship to learn to care for native seeds. Some tribes count seeds among their members, as they’re precious and integral in preserving a way of life and food for future generations.
“I like to think of the seeds as being asleep, and we wake them up by planting them in Mother Earth so they can fulfill their destiny,” says Elena. She tells the story of the Painted like a Horse Bean. She received only 20 seeds. She gave 10 to another tribal-run garden in Rosebud, South Dakota. Over the winter, she planted 3 seeds in order to propagate 12 more.
Sharing the seeds is critical for diversification and protection. Elena’s Pueblo Hubbard squash crop was impacted by vine borers last season, but the squash planted in Iowa by the Meskwaki Nation had a productive season, ensuring this native food will continue to nourish people in the future. Squash is Elena’s favorite ingredient. “I am the Bubba Gump of squash.” She laughs. “I pickle it, dry it, and use it all the time.” Pumpkins aren’t just for carving, and that hard, vibrantly colored corn isn’t just for decoration.
Elena describes numerous ways everyone can be courteously involved with native foods. There are recipes focused on indigenous foods online, especially with chefs like Sean Sherman growing in popularity. The website for American Indian Foods (indianagfoods.org) has a directory of native food producers by state, and Elena encourages home cooks to approach their usual recipes differently and honor flavors that come from foods that were here long before them (and happen to be gluten and lactose free).
She describes a stew she calls Three Sisters and an Undercover Brother, which has smoked turkey, hominy, dried and fresh squash, and beans. It’s versatile and can be modified for what you have on hand. “It’s not about eating decolonized. It’s about honoring these native foods and flavors and bringing them into your home.”
She also encourages people to support those trying to farm responsibly. “There’s no denying things need to change. Regenerative farming needs to happen, and this is what we can do to make things better for the next generation.” She loves cross-cultural efforts to educate others on different practices, the flow of information and goods from rural to urban areas, and connecting communities that may not have had relationships without her organization. Thanks to Elena and those like her, anyone interested in native foods has the opportunity to learn, taste, and cook in a way respectful to the land and cultures past.
Anna Thomas Bates moved to Wisconsin 21 years ago, and after shopping at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and wandering through the Driftless Area, she hasn’t looked back. Co-owner of Landmark Creamery in Paoli, if she isn’t tasting/selling cheese, you’ll find her writing about food, reading a good book, swimming, or hiking with her two boys.