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Ojibwe Chef Reclaims “Food as Medicine” through Indigenized, Accessible Food

Chef Cam Stott is using traditional Native foods to remind people that food is medicine and that Native people are still here, through his new project Thirteen Moons Kitchen. He ran Jiibaakwaan Foods catering and personal chef services for two years, until last year, when he realized the community needs to be involved. 

Later this year, Thirteen Moons will start a food truck, which will serve Indigenized foods like wild rice, cedar braised lamb, mushroom and hibiscus quesadillas, and bison and hominy throughout Grand Rapids. Plus, they plan to start a medicine and herb garden to contribute to their dishes. Looking ahead, they are looking for secure land access so that next year they can start a farm, to increase food access, and cut down on costs. Their long term goal is to have a brick and mortar location where they can bring the community together and sell products from Indigenous artists and producers. Stott emphasizes that, “We are radically minded because we want to integrate that relationship with the land and food in a way that involves the community.” This is more sustainable for Stott’s family as well, because his wife Cassandra Narvaiz-Stott and their children are involved in the cooking and gardening, making it a learning and bonding experience.

Stott is Ojibwe, which is one of the three tribes part of the Anishinaabe nation (meaning “Original People”), consisting of Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe tribes who are still present in what is now called “Michigan.” The name, Thirteen Moons, was inspired by the calendar of the Anishinaabe people, which is based on the 13 moon cycles. The moon cycles tell when harvesting and growing are to occur – like the Wild Rice Moon around October, when the harvesting of manoomin (wild rice) occurs, a nutrient dense food that grows along shores and needs protection today. Their logo is based on a turtle’s back, which represents the creation story of Turtle Island. The 13 scales on the turtle’s back represent the 13 cycles of the moon and the changing season. Stott says, “We want to honor these cycles in the context of nourishing and tending to our bodies and the land.” 

Because Indigenous knowledge is difficult to access, Stott grew up without knowing much about his identity. Stott says this is because, “People talk about Natives in the past tense, and act like we’re essentially extinct.” Even at culinary school, he didn’t learn about Indigenous foods. Culinary institutions are often whitewashed with European techniques and clump together foods from different cultures without respecting them. Stott says that “Culinary schools should have grandmas in the kitchen if they want to radicalize.”

Stott learned about decolonized food when he joined a group of Indigenous chefs called I-Collective and attended the Intertribal Food Summit. The colonization of food comes from a history in which colonizers removed Native peoples from their land, thus disconnecting them from their traditional foods, and replacing it with government rationed processed foods. At this summit, Stott saw decolonization of food in action by butchering beavers, roasting elk legs over an open fire, and smoking fresh salmon the color of purple beets. After this, he realized he “needed to be the catalyst to bring this into [his] community.” 

Freshly smoked eel for an Indigenous Foodways workshop

The concept of food as medicine comes from Native peoples and is central to the mission at Thirteen Moons. However, as Stott describes, “food as medicine has been turned into a trend where people are becoming more mindful of what they eat through a settler colonialism perspective.” The concept of food as medicine has been whitewashed during the health craze, but without making it accessible or equitable. As Stott says, “There is way more behind it than overcharging people for healthy food.” Food as medicine has been taken from the lifestyle and knowledge of Native peoples for a profit, while ignoring the principles that are central to its efficacy: equity and accessibility. Thirteen Moons will embody these principles through equity in the workplace, by making food accessible, flexible pricing, and including an elder meal program. 

Stott emphasized the importance of equity in kitchens – while most restaurants treat their staff as replaceable, and follow traditional structures of bureaucratic hierarchy, Stott is integrating equity and sustainability into his business plan from the start. He says, “When you take on an employee, you are taking care of them, they should have equal jurisdiction over everything that’s going on, and be paid correctly.” Stott says he wants to share his “culinary gift and his Native wisdom with the community, no strings attached.”

Thirteen Moons needs community support to start their food truck and find access to land. Donate to their GoFundMe and follow them on Instagram.  Restoring land back to Native people is crucial to repairing the harm done to them for generations, and to healing the land – you can learn more about the importance of Land Back Movements and donate here.

Main photo credit: Chantal Pasag, pasagraphy.com

Payge Lindow is the former West Michigan Local Food Coordinator for Taste the Local Difference. Contact her at [email protected]

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