In the summer of 2018, Matthew Wilson embarked on his first native-foods forage, a casual outing with friends on the Rosebud Reservation in rural southern South Dakota, where he grew up as a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate Nation. At 26 years old, he unearthed for the first time one of the prairie’s most prolific provisions: a wild turnip known as timpsila in the Lakota language.
“I picked up the root and peeled back the skin,” Wilson remembers. “Right there in the field, I took my first bite, and it was a powerful moment. Even though I had never tasted timpsila, its starchy sweetness was so familiar to me. It’s like my spirit instantly recognized it.” He speculates it was a surge of ancestral knowledge, downloading in one fateful moment; like many Indigenous peoples, the Sioux regard land stewardship as spiritual practice. Wotakuye is the Lakota belief that everything is interdependent and connected, and therefore, everything is kin.
Countless food discoveries later, Wilson is now the 30-year-old director of the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative (FSI), which works to create a self-sustaining, ecologically sound and culturally appropriate food system for Rosebud. Established in 2015, the organization is run by the Sicangu Community Development Corporation (SCDC), a nonprofit that amplifies and preserves Lakota culture through food, language and health initiatives. Its larger mission is guided by an ancient Indigenous philosophy called the seventh generation principle: The “7Gen Plan,” in Sicangu shorthand, considers the welfare of people seven generations in the future, using the wisdom of seven generations in the past, adapted to the needs of the present day.
Indigenous foodways are not automatically inherited — cultural knowledge is often entangled in a complicated history of colonization that has resulted in a profound loss of land, language and culture. Many see food sovereignty as one way to reclaim that heritage. While the practice of food sovereignty is nothing new, the term was coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, a global grassroots movement for agrarian reform, to affirm the right of people and nations to control their own food