Laticia McNaughton and Nancy Johnson of Riverside Salem UCC Church on Gra nd Island and prepare some Native American dishes which traditional ingredients, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. They are also a part of the Indigenous Women’s Initiative. Johnson makes a vegetarian chili with garlic, onion, potato, sweet potato, white corn, tomatollos, Mexican oregano, cumin seeds, salt and pepper. This is the finished chili. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Laticia McNaughton grew up on the Tuscarora Indian Nation eating a typical American diet.

Born to a single mom of modest means, daily nutrition involved inexpensive processed foods that sustained her – with a price. As years passed, pounds piled up. As she pushed into her 20s, she struggled with obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disease.

“The standard Western diet has a lot of inflammatory foods that a lot of Native bodies have not adopted to: the white flour, dairy, artificial sweeteners, sugars and starches. That’s wreaked havoc on a lot of our bodies,” McNaughton said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be another way than just medications and pills to improve our health.’”

A desire to embrace a diet akin to her Six Nations Mohawk ancestors began to turn the tide three years ago.

Today at 32, McNaughton, of the Town of Tonawanda, is considered one of the top indigenous food experts in the region.

She helps lead traditional cooking, canning and cultural classes on and off several upstate Native territories.

She is closing in on her doctorate in Native American studies at the University at Buffalo and will soon defend her dissertation on contemporary practices of traditional food revitalization.

She has lost 75 pounds.

McNaughton has become part of an indigenous cooking movement that spans the continent and looks to address alarming rates of diabetes and other nutrition-based health conditions. Its leaders follow the mantra that “food is medicine.” Many of its recipes involve a trio of native foods considered the “Three Sisters”: white corn, squash and beans. A renewed interest in Native language and tradition also figure into the mix.

Native Americans have begun to plant the Three Sisters in growing abundance outside cultural and community centers – including on the Seneca Nation, encourage others to grow plant foods at home, and look to raise awareness about the true meaning of better food choices.

“We’ve lost our connection to the planting, the growing, the production,” McNaughton said. “With that loss, we’ve lost some of our relationship to food. When I do talks about food, I talk about gratitude, trying to show our thanks and respect to all the parts of creation that allowed us to have this food that sustains us. I’m trying to get people more involved in restoring that relationship,” including non-indigenous people.

Nancy Johnson is among McNaughton’s helpers. Johnson, 65, an Onondaga who lives in South Buffalo, holds a UB law degree and heads the Seed Institute, a project of the Indigenous Women’s Initiatives, at Riverside Salem United Church of Christ on Grand Island. Johnson spent part of this year planting and growing blue corn, squash, five kinds of tomatoes, peppers, greens and herbs in a garden bed out front of the West River Road church property, a camplike setting that includes a pottery barn and teepee.

She and McNaughton cooked up three dishes earlier this week at Riverside Salem.

Take a look.

VEGETARIAN CHILI

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

8 ounce Yukon gold potato peeled and chopped into ∑-inch cubes

8 ounce yam peeled and cut into ∑-inch cubes

4 large cloves garlic

4 large tomatillos husked, rinsed and chopped

2 tablespoons Mexican oregano

2 teaspoons cumin seed

1 tablespoon flour

Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup of vegetable broth

Heat oil in heavy pot. Add onions and cook until softened. Add garlic, cook until softened and fragrant.

Add potato, yam, tomatillo, cumin, oregano. Stir in flour and mix well. Add broth.

Cook until vegetables are done and broth is thickened. Salt and pepper to taste.

For a spicier version, take out tomatillos when softened, put into blender with a can of chilies and a poblano pepper, cut into four strips. Blend until creamy then add to stew.

MANOOMIN AND MUSHROOMS

½ cup Manoomin Wild Rice*

8 ounce of white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced, divided in half

1 small onion, chopped

1 shallot, diced

3 scallions, chopped; separate the whites and greens

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon freshly squeeze lemon juice

Homemade Chicken Stock: ½ cup and ∏ cup (substitute vegetable stock for veggie style)

1 cup filtered water

1 tablespoon rendered Duck Fat (substitute coconut oil for veggie)

1 teaspoon coconut oil

Fresh rosemary and thyme

1 tablespoon organic, grassfed butter (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

* A note about Manoomin: Other healthy rice can be substituted. The Native Harvest brand of real manoomin rice can be ordered from Winona LaDuke’s White Earth Land Recovery Project (nativeharvest.com). It is quality rice, sustainably harvested, and supports a Native nonprofit doing amazing work for indigenous agriculture. You’ll probably want to rinse the manoomin with hot water a few times and make sure there are no pieces of dirt, unhulled rice grains or other bits of debris. I let it soak for a few minutes so the grains are nice and clean. If ½ cup doesn’t seem like much rice, be

aware this stuff multiplies in volume! Other healthy rice can be substituted.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat water and ½ cup of chicken stock in a medium saucepan over high heat. When the water starts to boil, add the manoomin rice and some salt, and cover with lid. Cook for 20 minutes without removing the cover. This would be a good time to work on your main course dish or work on prepping the above ingredients.

While you’re waiting for the rice to cook, heat the duck fat and coconut oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat. Saute your chopped onions, the white portions of your scallions, and half of your mushrooms for about 7 minutes until the onions start to turn translucent. Add the shallots and garlic and stir, sauteing for an additional 3 minutes or so. Add seasonings – ½ teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves and ½ teaspoon of chopped fresh rosemary, and however much salt and pepper you would like. Add the remainder of the mushrooms. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over mixture. Stir and saute for another minute.

Add ∏ cup chicken stock and green onions, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add cooked manoomin to a casserole dish. Pour mushroom and onion mixture over the manoomin and mix well with a fork. Dot with butter if desired. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Let dish rest to absorb any remaining juices before serving.

CRANBERRY WHITE CORN PUDDING

1 cup white corn flour, coarsely ground

2½ cups water

½ teaspoon of diced fresh ginger root

½ cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup fresh cranberries

¼ cup of pumpkin seeds, pecans, or your choice of nuts/seeds.

Using two separate sauce pans, you’re going to cook the corn and cranberries separately. In the first sauce pan, mix 1 cup of water, cranberries, maple syrup, vanilla and ginger, heat at medium heat and cover. When you start to hear cranberries pop, lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. In the second sauce pan, add 1½ cups of water and white corn flour. Stir well and heat at medium heat until it begins to bubble. Cover, lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often and carefully to prevent sticking.

When cranberry mixture has finished simmering, most berries have popped, and it has thickened slightly, add the mixture to the pan with the corn flour. Mix together well and simmer covered for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it thickens. Remove from heat, pour into serving dish, and allow to cool slightly before serving. Garnish with toasted nuts and seeds or fresh cranberries. It will thicken as it cools. This dish, a variation of traditional “corn mush,” can be served as a side dish, a dessert with cream of some sort, or as a breakfast porridge.

Other corn flour can be used but white corn is higher in protein and vitamin B and has a lower glycemic content, taking longer to digest. Regionally grown white corn can be found at the Iroquois White Corn Project website, iroquoiswhitecorn.org/shop. It also be ordered from Tsyunhehkwa, an Oneida white corn initiative in Wisconsin focused on self-sustainability and food security, canning and bison farms. Its website is oneidanation.org/tsyunhehkwa. Six Nations Herbal Remedies and Teas, at 1234 Hertel Ave., also carries the white corn sold by the quart for $8. You can make the corn flour by running it through a coffee grinder or food processor until smooth.

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