Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Elena Terry

Name: Elena Terry 

Location: Wisconsin Dells, WI 

Education/background: Exec Chef/ Founder Wild Bearies  

Business name: Wild Bearies 

Tribe: Hocak (Ho-Chunk, Wisconsin) 

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 

Our foods have always been a large part of my life. I think the connection and passion is something that has just always been there for me. Some of my earliest memories are of being with my grandmothers while they were cooking outside on the fire, or of us coming together to process corn. They planted seeds of passion for Indigenous flavors and food systems when I was young. The connection I have with our foods begins with those amazing ladies. We’re taught that when knowledge is shared with you, it is your responsibility to continue those teachings. The passion really is a blood memory, woven deep into my DNA from generations of beautiful Hocak women. 

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 

Our traditional foods are a great connector, to the past and to the future. I think it’s more than important, it’s crucial. Our foods simply nourish differently and in a time when our bodies and spirits need it the most, our foods are showing up in incredible ways.  

What is the importance of an indigenous diet for a healthy lifestyle? 

I like to think of our foods as a necessary component for Indigenous people to have a healthy lifestyle. There is so much more that goes into “healthy lifestyle.” It’s the mindfulness and intertwining of traditional teachings that add an extra layer of nourishment. It’s spending time foraging or hunting or cultivating, cooking or consuming our traditional foods that’s healing. In order to be healthy you need a healthy body and mind, and the spiritual connection you get when you’re around our traditional foods is unparalleled. It just feels good. 

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods?  

I am also the Food and Culinary Program Coordinator for the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA). I work in partnerships with tribal farms (such as Dream of Wild Health and Ziibimijwang), and I also have partnerships with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the American Indian Foods Program, the University of Wisconsin Horticulture Program and the Seed to Kitchen Collective. I advocate for responsible, sustainable agriculture while increasing capacity to produce for our families, tribes and beyond. 

I feel the agricultural education component is important not only for production, but for the responsible stewardship of the land. I’m also a butcher and wild game specialist and am blessed with being able to travel quite a bit to learn and share with others that appreciate the flavors of the forest. I have helped coordinate the kitchen at the Intertribal Food Summits, and developed the culinary mentorship program at NAFSA.  

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 

I think change starts at home. It doesn’t mean that you have to eat decolonized every day; it means that you choose to incorporate more indigenous ingredients into your diet. Maybe try substituting some blue corn meal for flour in a recipe, or use wild rice instead of white rice. I’ve found that the more you’re exposed to the flavors, the more you want to have them. Once you make a change in how you want to eat, the rest naturally starts happening. You start being more mindful of where your food comes from, how much you consume, and how you can make small changes that end up being lifestyle changes that last.