3 Questions

3 Questions With Chef Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart

The Oglala Lakota kitchen mistress dishes on reclaiming traditional foods

As Santa Fe gears up for (arguably) its biggest weekend of the year via the 101st annual Santa Fe Indian Market by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, Indigenous visual art reclaims a much-deserved spotlight. But while the market itself highlights both pre- and post-colonial Native art practices, the associated food offerings have remained firmly on the post-contact side. And though we love a frybread mutton taco - as much as the next human with tastebuds, focusing exclusively on survival food does little to nourish traditional foodways. Oglala Lakota Chef Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart is serving up a tradition-steeped alternative—a four course meal based entirely on plants and animals that sustained stewards of this land long before Columbus’ ship lost its way -(6:30 pm Saturday, Aug. 19. $150. The Kitchen Table, 313 Camino Alire, (505) 226-1984)—and just talking to her about her kitchen practices left us hungry for more.

You describe this event as ‘blending pre-colonization Indigenous flavors with a contemporary twist.’ Can you share a bit about some of the pre-colonial flavors you’re featuring?

Sure! I mean, I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. [Pre-colonization], we were hunter-gatherers. Some tribes were cultivators and gardeners and that’s not what we were, and so I want to also honor the people of your land in Santa Fe. So I will do some corn-based nods, some tepary beans and things like that. Pre-colonial means no dairy, no gluten, things that were from this land pre-contact. And, you know, I’ve been studying Indigenous techniques and culinary history, not just for my nation, but throughout the country as I’ve developed as a chef, so I will definitely give some nods to different ingredients and techniques from the area. But I’m definitely going to include the primary game proteins that I cook on a daily basis such as rabbit, elk and bison.

What does this event’s timing mean to you, and what does the conjunction with SWAIA bring to the table?

I mean, Indian Market is one of the most premiere artisan gatherings for Indigenous people throughout the country. And people prepare for a long time to do it. This was kind of a career goal since I opened six years ago—and it never really came to light on its own. I’ve been working with Lauren [Stutzman] from [cheese and charcuterie board company] Picnic New Mexico, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t we just make it happen? Your talent needs to be shown to this audience.’ And I prayed about it and I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ It felt right. And it felt like I had a team of people there locally as well as nationally that wanted me to do it and support me in the process. And for me, it’s kind of showcasing my talent beyond the borders of South Dakota. Saying that I can travel, I can do all these things, share where I’m from and my people’s history through food. Invisibility is the last step in genocide, and so visibility is a way of reclaiming who we are as Indigenous people and reclaiming our power back. That’s my goal.

It seems like the culinary arts are an area where the non-Indigenous world is especially far behind in recognizing Indigenous contributions. Given that, could you tell me a bit about what it means to you from a cultural perspective to be raising awareness of Indigenous foodways?

You know, I believe that our foods are medicine. That they speak to our spirits. And when we gather them, when we prepare and consume them, it is a spiritual experience. And sometimes in non-Native society, it is not easy to actually understand that. That you’re not walking up to a stand and eating colonized frybread that was created based on survival. When you eat our food, this is the food that actually sustained us. If you meet a Lakota person, they are in existence today because of our relationship to Pte Oyate, Buffalo Nation. What I love about our Indigenous foods is that they are a way to connect people, because a lot of times we have these walls up. But when we are willing to try something new, you can recognize that these foods will also speak to your spirit. And there’s a power in reclaiming that, but also from a non-Native perspective, in honoring and highlighting and celebrating it. I mean, to be frank, there should be thousands of Indigenous restaurants throughout the country. And non-Native chefs and consumers need to give space for Indigenous chefs to tell our stories through our foods.

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