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  • How Wild Bearies’ Food Traditions Lead the Ho-Chunk Nation Home

    A woman wearing a black tank top and apron holds up a jar of grain, with a photo backdrop of ears of red corn.

    Chef Elena Terry leads a food workshop on corn during the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The name of her nonprofit, Wild Bearies, pays tribute to both the wild foods and her children who are members of the Bear Clan, one of the twelve patrilineal clans in the Ho-Chunk Nation.

    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    As the crackling flames dance toward the pale night sky, their smoky embers warming the late summer air of the Wisconsin Dells, time has almost collapsed around Elena Terry and her family. It is corn harvest season.

    The Hoocąk (or Ho-Chunk) people, meaning “people of the big voice,” have lived in the Western Great Lakes region for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For them, the Dells are an eternal and sacred place where farmers sow the same seeds as their fathers and where they believe they, themselves, were planted the moment Earthmaker created the universe. It is here, around the open fire and amid the pines and sandstone cliffs, that Terry’s journey as a chef, tradition bearer, and steward of Ho-Chunk foodways began.

    “I’ve always viewed food as this beautiful vessel,” she says. “It can transport you to different times and places but also bring people together in incredible ways.”

    Hąhą́jere wa’ą́wąkšikčega čorąge
    (Don’t forget to be kind to one another)

    I met Elena Terry on a hot July day in the shade of a white tent, one of dozens that had sprouted on the National Mall to celebrate the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival—she’ll return in 2024 for the Indigenous Voices of the Americas program. Smoke from Canadian wildfires had settled on the district days before, and the sun hung heavy over the grounds, causing the humid air to feel even thicker and my sundress to cling to my legs.

    While thunderclouds built above, as they always seem to on Mid-Atlantic summer afternoons, Terry demonstrated how to use a traditional corn pounder, which is carved from a tree trunk and functions as a large mortar and pestle. Her shiny black hair was slicked into a bun, framing colorful-beaded earrings that swung as her arms rose and fell—each thump “waking up” what is considered a Ho-Chunk ancestor: corn, the “seed of seeds” and “mother of sustained life” for many Native Americans.

    From above, dried ears of red and blue corn in a wicker basket.
    At the 2023 Festival, Wild Bearies displayed corn, or maize, in the form of meal, cobbs, and kernels. As many as 5,000 cultivated varieties exist today—a direct result of thousands of years of observation, selective breeding, sustainable land management practices, seed saving, and knowledge transfer by Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Today, corn serves as a primary source of nutrition for billions of people worldwide, followed by wheat and rice as staple crops.
    Photo by Samantha Windley

    Terry is the founder of Wild Bearies, a community outreach program based in Wisconsin and dedicated to empowering Indigenous communities through harvesting ancestral foods and sharing ancestral knowledge. In 2017, after more than a decade in the professional restaurant industry, Terry became alarmed by the substance-abuse epidemic and the loss of tribal members. She created Wild Bearies as a catering service, a way to fund and mentor people in the Native community who suffer from disconnection, drug and alcohol abuse, grief, and trauma.

    Using a cooking space at FEED Kitchens in Madison, Wisconsin, Terry and her “bears” create dishes that celebrate their Ho-Chunk heritage, such as bison meatballs, wild rice, roasted root vegetables, and blue corn desserts. She believes that embracing Indigenous food concepts can allow us to rekindle our intimate ecological and personal relationships, grasp generations of cumulative knowledge, and help us understand cultural traditions that have stabilized and perpetuated successful strategies in given environments.

    As of 2023, there were more than 270 Wild Bearies participants and mentors. This method of mentoring echoes the Ho-Chunk way of teaching through apprenticeship and offers a precious space for collective healing. It is a pathway back home.

    “We all have the ability to heal,” Terry believes. “The medicine is in the creation and in the relationships we build around food. Without knowing your journey or your pain, the table we share is the power of kindness. The more space we create for each other, for all our relatives—our seeds or neighbors down the street—the more we can all grow and thrive.”

    Foot-tall sunflower plants in a garden bed with broad green leaves and bright yellow petals.
    For the Ho-Chunk community, the sunflower is considered the fourth “sister” to corn, beans, and squash. In this ancient Indigenous technique of companion planting, the food crops are grown in close proximity to mutually benefit each other. The sunflower provides additional support for beans to climb and attracts pollinators.
    Photo by Samantha Windley

    Wą́kšikčega hičąk wąkšikčega
    (Spirit speaks to spirit)

    As we sat together, the tree above us warning of rain to come, Terry’s eyes drifted across the landscaped grass toward the U.S. Capitol Building at the eastern end of the National Mall. Since the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Ho-Chunk people have been displaced at least sixteen times due to federal policy and crop destruction.

    “It is painful, because we once cared for the land differently and the land cared for us.”

    When American troops near Four Lakes (now Madison) observed Ho-Chunk people gathering wild rice in September 1833, a frustrated white inhabitant complained: “They have been removed in pursuance of their treaty, but they will not stay removed.” Through generations of struggle, starvation, loss, sorrow, and death, Terry and her Ho-Chunk community are here today, articulating their peoplehood and protecting their subsistence history.

    Terry comes from a long lineage of matriarchs; her great-great-grandmother Rose Rabbit Miner, whose Hoocąk name means “She Who Shakes the Earth,” solely communicated in the Ho-Chunk language and exchanged stories while cooking over open fires.

    “The open fire was not only the preferred method of cooking and added depth of flavor to the food; it was a space that we occupied together,” Terry says. “Great conversations were had around the fireplace, and many lessons were taught—not just cooking.”

    Two women sit on the ground, working with tools. In the background, clothes and a blanket hang on a clothesline. Black-and-white photo.
    Ho-Chunk women cut roots for medicine in Jackson, Wisconsin, 1923.
    Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

    Processing an animal or harvesting a plant is a time for prayer, mindfulness, and intention in order to honor the ingredient, not only for the sustenance it provides but for those who have helped it along its journey. Participants of Wild Bearies spend time together in the kitchen and also commit to gardening, harvesting, processing, and preserving food.

    Community engagement and education are also important parts of the Wild Bearies mission. Anne Thundercloud, a chef apprentice, visited Deforest High School to cook with local students and talk about the health benefits of wild rice along with the crop’s deeper meaning to woodland tribes. Once a participant demonstrates the ability to fulfill responsibilities, they are awarded a chef’s coat to symbolize their discipline and dedication to the team. Many of them have gone on to long-term employment in the restaurant industry or start their own small businesses.

    By sharing her Ho-Chunk traditional foodways and spirit, Terry hopes to promote belonging—to the land, to each other, and to our creator. 

    “We can look at ourselves as seeds,” she says. “How we interact with ingredients is really how we should care for one another. How do we choose to grow? How do we grow with each other?”

    (Be good guardians)

    Since its inception, Wild Bearies has evolved from a catering service and mentorship program into agriculture, gardens, and community growing spaces. Terry’s daughter, Zoe Lea, is a passionate seed saver, currently studying sustainable food and agricultural systems at Northern Michigan University. She was the first to encourage her mother to care for seeds as living beings—a commitment to their ancestors, living descendants, and those yet to come. Lea interned with the Folklife Festival in 2023, and this summer she will participate in the demonstration kitchen alongside her mother.

    Under a white tent, a visitor uses a giant mortar and pestle with Elena Terry oversees. Other visitors sit at nearby tables, set with ears of corn and bowls of corn kernels.
    Terry shares a Ho-Chunk corn variety with a young Festival visitor. Historically, seeds were often given to neighboring tribes for protection during times of forced removal and crop destruction. Because of the efforts of Indigenous community leaders like Terry, these seeds are finding their way back home.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Terry came across the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network while working with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. This group collects and distributes seeds from ancestral fruits and vegetables to safeguard culturally significant foods and ensure their preservation for future generations. Terry has encountered seeds that can be traced back several centuries to specific families or individuals.

    In the spring, she journeys to Native-owned farms across the area, providing heritage seeds for cultivation. She returns to these farms in the fall to assess growth patterns, discuss soil compatibility, and assist farmers in optimizing row spacing. She acknowledges that the preservation of these Indigenous crops improves with every farmer she encounters, every recipe she shares, and every connection she fosters. She also exchanges ingredients, such as wild rice for corn, just as her ancestors did.

    “In this effort to reclaim Indigeneity in our kitchen space, we wanted to reignite traditional trade routes,” she explains. “These great networks and communities shared with each other to ensure they not only had a diverse food system but could also help support each other.”

    Although Wild Bearies is a relatively new and small community-based nonprofit, it is poised to grow beyond the boundaries of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Terry hopes to undertake a cross-country tour of Native communities to build her network, expand on existing gardening projects, increase funding, and possibly one day open a restaurant.

    “It isn’t about me reaping the benefits,” she assures. “It is about the intention of my grandchildren having these ingredients to feed their families and knowing that my great-great-grandparents had them to help get them through times of great struggle. They will know these seeds brought me hope.”

    Find Elena Terry’s recipe for blue corn crepes.

    A person paints a mural in bright colors of butterflies and flowering plants.
    In 2023, artist Natalie Hinahara painted this mural inspired by the work of Wild Bearies in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. The plants depicted are butterfly weed, bee balm, and amaranth, and the pollinators are swamp metalmark, ruby-throated hummingbird, rusty patch bumblebee, karner blue butterfly, and poweshiek skipperling.
    Photo courtesy of Natalie Hinahara

    Samantha Windley is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a magna cum laude graduate of George Mason University with a BA in anthropology. She hopes to continue to write creatively and foster human connection through her stories surrounding art, archaeology, history, and culture.

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