Harris Rogers ‘21

Staff Writer

Panelists discuss Native food entrepreneurship.  Photo by Christopher Kaminski.

On Monday, February 3rd, a group of Davidson students, faculty, and community members gathered at the Hurt Hub to attend “Policies and Plates.” The discussion, which was part of the larger lecture series “Native Food-preneurs and the Food Sovereignty Movement,” was organized by the Mellon Visiting Professor Dr. Courtney Lewis and Dr. Rose Stremlau, a Davidson professor in the History and Gender and Sexuality Studies departments.

The discussion incorporated topics ranging from the divide between federal and Native jurisdiction over Native land, to the need for Native governmental representation and preferences among indigenous foods native to North Carolina. Discussions like these are part of the increasing emphasis being placed on Native Studies at Davidson by Dr. Lewis and Dr. Stremlau. However, among Davidson and its peer institutions, there are still noticeable shortcomings in the establishment of a Native American Studies degree program. Only Colgate College offers such a degree. Within North Carolina, UNC Wilmington, NC State, and UNC Chapel Hill have established Native American Studies minors.

The panel featured Blake Jackson, J.D., a lawyer and advocate involved in the Indigenous food sovereignty movement through his work with the University of Arkansas’s Indigenous Foods and Agricultural Initiative, as well as Zena Wolfe, Virginia Wolfe, and Autumn Sunshine Tahquette, the owners and operators of The Hungry Wolf Deli and Fresh Market in Cherokee, North Carolina. 

While Jackson focused heavily on the policy work behind ensuring that Native peoples have access to traditional food sources, the Wolfes and Tahquette discussed the everyday experience of operating a Native food business and the struggles of being separated via federal and state law from food sources, such as ramps (a type of wild onion), that are vital to Native culture culinary traditions. The panel focused on including Native perspectives and voices: Jackson is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, while the Wolfes and Tahquette are citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

An Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Lewis arrived last fall as the Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Professor of Justice, Equality, and Community in Anthropology. Her journey to the professorship began “at least a year before,” she explained, and involved her close collaboration with Dr. Stremlau at Davidson and Dr. Brooke Bauer, an Assistant Professor at USC Lancaster. 

The three set out with the goal to “collaborate and innovate new directions for Indigenous studies” and to “bring Native studies to the forefront of academic study,” Dr. Lewis explained. Through the Mellon grant, Dr. Stremlau and Dr. Lewis saw the opportunity to bring the issue of Native food sovereignty to Davidson and to strengthen the interaction between the student body and relevant Native issues, given both the proximity of the Catawba Nation to Davidson and the fact that Davidson College stands on stolen Catawba and Sugaree land.

This semester, Dr. Lewis is teaching a course entitled “American Indian Nations Today,” through which she “hopes to demonstrate to [her] students the importance of contemporary American Indian issues.” The class not only includes lectures from Dr. Lewis but also a number of field trips, as well as the “Food-preneurs” lecture series. 

Lewis also hopes to amplify voices that often go unheard. She explained, “In my class, it’s really important to me that I foreground the work of American Indian academics,” which she sees as a key component of “a well-rounded education.” The number of American Indian scholars is small but offers a uniquely valuable perspective. She hopes not only to draw attention to academic voices, but also to bring in the great variety of people leading on-the-ground movements.

Future lectures, to be held on March 16th and April 1st, will include Native chefs, farmers, and business owners. Dr. Lewis sees an understanding of Native history and contemporary Native issues as essential both to Davidson and to the United States as a whole. “You cannot understand the United States or North Carolina without understanding their relationship to Native Nations,” says Lewis, elaborating that “Native nations have been at the forefront” of the development of economy, government, and agriculture in the United States.

Students have found Lewis’s work impactful. Isabelle Bradberry ’21 is enrolled in American Indian Nations Today and described Dr. Lewis as “brilliant.” Bradberry explained, “it’s been really informative to learn about these large-scale settler colonial structures and their effects on federal policy with Native Nations.” Bradberry became involved in Native issues through the Native Women class taught by Dr. Stremlau. She elaborated, “for us to not acknowledge or learn about these histories is incredibly ignorant, and I think Dr. Lewis and her work on campus is helping to hopefully change that.”

Dr. Lewis hopes to see discussion around Native food sovereignty, and Native issues generally, continue after her role as the Mellon professor ends at the conclusion of the academic year. She sees a “tremendous opportunity” for a Native American studies program at Davidson, given the strong foundation set by Dr. Stremlau, and the “exceptionally good” support she has thus far received from the student body, faculty, and administration. Lewis stressed that, “Thanks to the generosity of the Mellon Foundation, Davidson has become an epicenter of the food sovereignty discussion.”