Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart

Name: Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart 
Location: Rapid City, SD 
Education/background: Cornell University- entrepreneurship, Native American studies and economics 
Business name: Et-i-quette Catering Company 
Tribe: Oglala Lakota Sioux 

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 
I have been cooking for my family since I was about 8 years old. Every summer we would come home to Pine Ridge to be with my mother. She always taught me how to pick medicines and pick teas, and make soup and bread. She taught me about how even preparing and foraging for food was part of a ceremony and cooking was part of a prayer. You are literally creating medicine when you feed people. That instilled in me the idea that the energy we have as chefs, is crucial when preparing food. You should have good and positive energy. That’s a big part of why I got into cooking indigenous foods.  

My family owns Tanka Bar and we were a part of the development and research of that recipe. I grew up learning how to make traditional wasná, which is a pemmican dry meat and berry bar. Every year we would pick the chokecherries and then I would grind them for my mom to make the wasná. Going through that process of recognizing the ancestral foods and using them to create the Tanka Bar, really sparked an excitement for me. I began to think, “What else can we be doing for indigenous people and communities?” I think it’s funny that we’re Native people, the founders of this country, and you can’t find very many indigenous restaurants anywhere. 

So, we need to think of how we can make food more adaptable and attainable for the average person. That’s one of the reasons we created Et-i-quette Catering; we want people to be able to see that we’re more than fry bread and Indian tacos. We’re a diverse, amazing and beautiful group of people. Indigenous foods are medicine for our spirits and our bodies. 

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 
I think that because of boarding schools and other things that happened to Natives in the past, there was a notion that our traditional ways were bad, including our traditional foods. This resurgence of reconnecting with our traditional teachings and our foods is incredibly important, because it’s also part of healing. I feel like I’m always learning something about indigenous foods every single day. Young people need to know that we are all learning together and that helps heal us. This is a part of who we are as a people, so we should all learn together. This helps heal the older generations that went through traumatic historical trauma of being ripped away from their cultural identity. We need to create new food memories that still have that connection to our history and our people.  

What is the importance of an indigenous diet for a healthy lifestyle? 
I think most indigenous people are gluten and dairy intolerant. I think that if we stick to a primal diet of buffalo, vegetables and fruits, I think it will make us all healthier. Because of our addiction to sugar, I know it’s not easy to cut those things out. People often don’t realize that diabetes is another form of extinction for us. We need to be more conscious of where we consume sugar and how we consume it. We have to reclaim our ancestral diets so that we continue to exist and thrive. 

What other ways (besides your business) are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 
We have quite a following on social media through our business, so I use that platform as a way to educate people about indigenous foods, and also other fellow indigenous chefs. I really believe that the food industry is created by a European, white structure of competitiveness and a cutthroat mentality, and that isn’t how I feel at all. I feel the more I can share and learn from my fellow indigenous chefs, the better and stronger I will be. 

I also try to do a lot of workshops for young people in our community and hold community dinners. We cook a lot for camp Mni Luzahan, the treaty camp created for the unhoused relatives here in the Black Hills. It’s also so important to show young people that they are able to cook indigenous foods. Teaching young people how to cook doesn’t have to be difficult. It could be as simple as teaching them how to make their own spaghetti sauce out of real tomatoes. It’s important to teach them that this food not only nourishes them, it also nurtures their spirit.  

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 
I think gardening and getting ancestral seeds that are part of your community and planting them in your own garden is incredibly crucial. Learning about how your people traditionally ate is also important. It comes down to simple things like cutting down on sugar and dairy products. It feels really hard for most people but it can be small steps, such as cutting down on non-traditional foods like pasta that aren’t a part of who we are. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
I know a lot of people are intimidated by the term “indigenous foods.” My advice to take that intimidation away is to focus on foods like bean, squash and corn, and add in buffalo, fish, or whatever protein your ancestral people ate. It’s not as difficult when it’s broken down into those simple groups. Just try, even if it’s one meal a week, to replace a meal with a more traditional version.  

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