Interview with an Indigenous Food Activist: Anthony Johnson 

Name: Anthony Johnson 
Location: Seattle 
Education/background: University of Minnesota Twin Cities – Finance  
Business name: ʔálʔal Café 
Tribal affiliation: Red Lake Ojibwe 

Photo of Anthony Johnson in black sweatshirt with beaded necklace and Native art in the background
Anthony Johnson

What led to your passion for Indigenous foods? 
I didn’t grow up connected to my culture. I grew up in Minneapolis and, although it’s a very vibrant Native community, I was distanced from my culture due to historical trauma on my mother’s side. My mother tried to assimilate my sister and I as much as possible due to necessity and pure survival. Growing up in the city also made it harder to be connected to Indigenous foods. But later on in life, while coming into my own Native spirituality and Indigeneity, I started to learn more traditional foods and the importance of decolonizing our diet. 

I feel like I have the most fun and enjoyment in life when I’m out berry picking, hunting or fishing. These are all very enjoyable activities I didn’t take part in growing up and as I started getting more and more into these activities, I felt recharged and alive. It makes me feel like a kid again doing those things, because they’re just so fun. I was doing those activities in my personal time on the weekends and going to finance classes on the weekdays. 

When I moved to Seattle and found out about this opportunity to work for the Chief Seattle Club and help start an Indigenous café, it seemed like the perfect way to blend those areas of my life and really decompartmentalize my life. I was able to take my classroom skills in business and mix those with the excited energy of working with Indigenous foods. It feels like the perfect fit; I don’t have any “have-tos” in my life; I get to do things like trim up bison meat and make Wojape.  

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 
There’s actually been quite a few people in the cafe who have come in and thanked us for serving this type of food, because the last time they had it they were at their grandma’s house on the reservation 30 years ago. That’s just amazing.  

I think it’s important for people who grew up in the city and didn’t have the ability to go out and trap, fish or forage, to now have a place that’s highlighting and serving Native food. It gives them the opportunity to connect with the culture, stories, memories and the importance of these traditional foods right here in the city.  

What is the importance of an Indigenous diet for a healthy lifestyle? 
It’s not hard to see a direct connection between health and eating a traditional diet, because those traditional foods take work to get. You can’t just pop over to Safeway and grab a frozen TV dinner and sit down and eat it…you have to get out there and hike many miles looking for deer or elk. You’re putting in energy and effort to obtain that food and harvest that deer and bring it back home. These foods didn’t come to us via Instacart; we had to get out there every single day, to not only get calories for ourselves but for our family, and the children and elders who may not be able to get out there and get Indigenous foods. 

I think that when you view a diet based on plants and animals and berries, it ultimately leads to a healthy lifestyle when you’re actively going into the wilderness and woods, or even locally finding these foods. I find these activities fun and enjoyable, but it’s hard work. You’re on your hands and knees and maybe picking berries all day long. It’s a very active lifestyle to try to get Indigenous, traditional foods. I personally don’t think you can have a healthy lifestyle without actively going and harvesting food for yourself. The process is also healing, not only for your physical body, but you’re learning stories, practices and traditions related to your culture during the harvesting. So, yes it’s physical, but it’s an emotional experience as well, and I think that’s all connected. 

What ways are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 
I feel the most impactful work that I’m tangentially a part of is the Chief Seattle Club member’s kitchen. It’s for the members of the Chief Seattle Club, who are usually folks who are facing homelessness or housing insecurity. It provides a zero-cost meal of hot breakfast and lunch, served 364 days of the year — every day except Indigenous People’s Day. We have roughly 80 people come in every day for breakfast and another 80-100 for lunch. There is no greater service than making food and being able to hand that out to someone who has been on the streets all night long; that is such an important service that we offer here. I ran the kitchen for a little under three months when our head Chef left, before our café was open. 

I always thought it was so important to do that same work I do in the café, of showcasing Indigenous foods to the members. People may not know about wild rice, or the blue corn mush made with juniper ash, or that the maple syrup comes from the Passamaquoddy people. When folks would ask about the food, I would always light up and loved to share more about what we were serving and why we were serving it.  

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting Indigenous food systems? 
It’s been hard for me to get into Indigenous foods, because I didn’t grow up with them. I think the easiest path “in” is finding an elder and simply asking. For Anishinaabe people, that looks like offering asemaa (tobacco) to them and being open and thankful for any knowledge that they may share. Ask about a particular food you’re interested in. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, we met an elder who showed us her huckleberry spot. Me and my partner, along with a few others, were able to go huckleberry picking with the elder.

I don’t think there are many people who wouldn’t be interested in sharing their knowledge with someone. It feels good to teach, and being a teacher is something I think is inherent to Indigenous people. If you don’t have an elder nearby to ask for help, there are also resources available to figure things out on your own using books or the internet. It can be difficult to do things like forage in the city, but it can turn into a fun adventure, sort of like a scavenger hunt. Along the way, you will most likely meet other people who share that level of interest. 

Leave a Reply