Bringing food, communities and culture together

A Cree-English cookbook helps reconnect Cree youth with Indigenous knowledge and language

Photo: Gerald Mason, Fisher River Cree Nation

Food is an essential element of Indigenous life and culture: it brings people together and nourishes both body and soul. To prevent traditional recipes from disappearing as Elders get older—and to preserve the Cree language and knowledge of how to live off the land—Manitoba’s Fisher River Cree Nation (FRCN) worked with Shailesh Shukla, associate professor of Indigenous Studies at The University of Winnipeg, to produce a cookbook with recipes, stories and teachings in both English and Cree.

The cookbook is an update of The Forgotten Traditional Foods of Fisher River, which was first published in 2014—in English only—as part of a University of Winnipeg field placement program. Students interviewed 17 Elders and Knowledge Keepers, including gardeners, fishers, picklers, canners and hunters, resulting in a book that pairs storytelling with 69 traditional recipes.

“We wanted to create something that would help our youth reconnect with some of the skills and knowledge that had been lost between generations,” says Carol Cochrane, a diabetes support worker with Fisher River Health Services who was instrumental in the development of the original cookbook.

Bringing together food and language

Photo: Gerald Mason, Fisher River Cree Nation

As a researcher, Shukla’s work has focused primarily on Indigenous food security and sovereignty, and the revitalization of Indigenous knowledge systems. When he came to FRCN to lead an orientation session for the university’s field program, he saw firsthand how central food was to the community’s culture and identity.

“As I talked to Elders and other community members, the subject of food kept coming up,” he says. “I could see that it was the common denominator that binds all people together.”

His conversations also revealed the Elders’ concerns about the loss of the Cree language, so he thought revisiting the 2014 cookbook could be an ideal way to bridge the two issues.

With funding from The University of Winnipeg and a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, Shukla spearheaded the translation of the cookbook into Cree, working closely with the FRCN community and Cree-language experts to ensure the translation was accurate and met the community’s needs. The new version was published in late 2019, marking the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages.

An international success

The cookbook has been extremely well received in the FRCN community, throughout Canada and around the world. By fall 2020, the original print run was almost sold out and plans were in the works for a second printing. The book was even nominated for a Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the University Press category.

Since the book’s publication, Shukla has been approached by other First Nations, including the Bloodvein and Brokenhead Ojibway Nations, who are interested in undertaking similar projects to preserve their own traditional foods, language and culture.

Shukla says the book is already having an impact: it’s been distributed to other Indigenous communities in Manitoba and is being used in home economics and language classes in FRCN schools. He looks forward to building on this work and supporting FRCN and other Indigenous communities in re-establishing the importance of traditional food as a way of life and improving community health by strengthening food security and sovereignty.

“I think it’s a great platform for reconciliation because of the way it brings people together to make a difference and work toward a sustainable future,” he says.

See the media release about the book’s publication and about the Gourmand Award, and read more about Shukla’s research. The story has also been featured on Sweetgrass Tradin, Windspeaker and The University of Winnipeg’s NewsCentre. To purchase a copy of the book, contact the Department of Indigenous Studies at The University of Winnipeg.