Interview with an Indigenous Chef: Nico Albert

Name: Nico Albert 

Location: Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Lands (Tulsa, OK) 

Education/background: Self-taught chef & caterer 

Business name: Burning Cedar Indigenous Foods 

Tribe: Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma 

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 

As a chef, I connect and communicate through the language of food. I grew up in California and Arizona, far removed from my Cherokee community. When I was able to return to the Cherokee community here in Oklahoma, I reconnected with my people, and my Cherokee identity, first and foremost through our traditional foods. Over the course of this journey of homecoming, I met and ate with and talked with different folks, I began learning about traditional foods from tribes all over Turtle Island. I realized that our foods are not only key to understanding our own history and identity as Native people, they are essential to restoring the health and well-being of our people.  

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

Traditional foods tie us to the land and our ancestors. We are in an ongoing health crisis in Indian Country – diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mental health issues like depression and suicide claim the lives of so many of our people. Traditional foods, as opposed to processed foods, have a higher nutritional content and give us a feeling of pride and connection to our culture. 

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

Indigenous foods are naturally low in fat, cholesterol, and harmful chemical preservatives, and FULL of all the nutrients we need for a healthy, balanced diet. Beyond just the types of foods we choose to eat, an Indigenous diet is also about being intentional with the sources of our foods and restoring our relationship with the plants and animals that sustain us. They give of themselves for us to live, and it is our responsibility to return that gift by caring for them and the land we all share. When we choose to eat whole foods like fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, wild fish and game, that are sustainably and ethically grown and harvested, we nourish our bodies in a way that also nourishes the land and our non-human relatives.   

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

I try to work with youth in our Native communities as much as I can, to show them how our traditional foods can be healthy and have meaning for us culturally, but are also delicious and fun to prepare! If we can raise our young ones to crave healthy foods, to care about the land and plants and animals as relatives, and to see food as a gift from the earth that should be reciprocated, we can heal the land and our future generations. 

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

Be intentional when you stock your pantry, and buy Indigenous products whenever you can! Support businesses run by Native individuals and tribal food enterprises by buying their products for your own use, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Find out if there are any Native farmers at your local farmers market, or if your tribe or neighboring tribes have markets you can shop from, and support those businesses. Indigenous food products make great gifts for the cooks and food-lovers in your family too! Make sure they know where you got the foods you give so that they can keep supporting those food systems themselves, and so they can pass the knowledge on. Our strength as Native people comes from our connection to one another in community, and by choosing to support efforts to grow healthy ancestral foods, those businesses can expand and become more and more accessible. 

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