Kalispell’s Mariah Gladstone is using local, seasonal whole foods to help revitalize the health of Native American populations

Story by Tristan Scott

Drawing a connection between food sovereignty and nuclear submarines is tenuous at best, but if anyone can unify the two it’s Mariah Gladstone.

The 25-year-old Kalispell woman has established an impressive resume, to be sure, particularly as she expands her advocacy efforts at the core of Indigikitchen, the online cooking show she founded to bring awareness to food insecurity in Native American communities and reintroduce traditional foods — a project that is rapidly gaining ground across the nation as Gladstone travels to speaking engagements and her two-minute cooking videos go viral.

An enrolled member in the Blackfeet and Cherokee tribes, Gladstone has long been a staunch advocate for food sovereignty, marching at the fore of an effort to break down barriers between Indigenous communities and food access, a gulf she became aware of while living in Babb and struggling to find nutritious, traditional meals.

Gladstone cuts open a spaghetti squash in her home in Kalispell, while filming an instructional video for Indigikitchen.

She’s received national recognition for her efforts, and most recently became the recipient of an auspicious three-year fellowship.

“There’s a lot of interest in improving food access. The problem is, a lot of people don’t know where to start,” Gladstone said. “You can give someone a butternut squash, but a lot of folks don’t know what to do with it. It’s an intimidating vegetable.”

But before moving on to butternut squashes, about that submarine.

The circumstances that conspired last year to send Gladstone to the Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia, where she blessed the USS Montana with a smoldering stick of dry sage and a prayer in her native Piegan language, could best be summarized as serendipitous.

And yet there she was, hand-picked by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to serve as the Virginia-class submarine’s “Maid of Honor” to interact with the crew. As the ship’s sponsor, Jewell, who helmed the Interior Department under the Obama Administration, was eager to nominate a Native American woman from Montana to serve as the USS Montana’s Maid of Honor. After consulting with former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, the founder and chairman of the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY), Jewell contacted Gladstone.

“Sally really wanted a Native woman, and Sen. Dorgan suggested me,” Gladstone said during a recent morning at Levitation Nation, the Kalispell studio where she practices and teaches aerial hoops and silks. “It was a surprise. It’s a very big boat that makes its own oxygen, and here I am showing up from Montana.”

There are plenty of reasons that Gladstone was well-suited for the ceremony.

For starters, her grandfather served during World War II on the USS Iowa, she and grew up hearing Navy stories. And today, Native Americans serve in the U.S. military at the highest rate per capita of any ethnic or cultural population, and Montana is home to more than 6,000 tribal veterans, many of them Blackfeet.

Mariah Gladstone delivers a presentation in Indigikitchen at a TEDx talk in Bozeman in 2017.

But it was Gladstone’s work in removing barriers to achieve food sovereignty in Montana and beyond that landed her squarely on the radar of the USS Montana, as well as that of Jewell’s and Dorgan’s.

Following his departure from the Senate, Dorgan announced the creation of a nonprofit organization to help Native American youth living on American Indian reservations. He donated $1 million of unused campaign funds to create the organization, which is housed as a separate program under the Aspen Institute. The nonprofit works on teen suicide prevention, as well as providing educational opportunities and offering additional outreach to Indian youth.

CNAY sponsors a program called Champions of Change that recognizes outstanding young Native Americans and develops mentors for youth, and in 2017 Gladstone was named one of five young Native Americans from across the nation to serve as an ambassador.

The 2011 Glacier High School graduate, who attended Columbia University and earned a degree in environmental engineering, increasingly began championing the need for healthy, affordable food in communities that need it most, such as the Blackfeet reservation — an area roughly the size of Delaware with only two grocery stores, both in Browning, and each offering a small inventory of fresh, healthy, traditional foods.

Mariah Gladstone teaches a cooking class.

“You have these different food systems, and after a few generations of shelf-stable foods, that’s what people are used to,” she said. “My goal is getting people excited about different food, getting excited about community gardens and sustainable sources of traditional food.”

Gladstone is also providing a practical solution for families by producing online cooking episodes showcasing pre-contact Native American food, or traditional food that Indigenous people would have had access to prior to the arrival of settlers.

“A lot of reservations have really started to embrace the concept,” she said. “Now the issue is getting people excited about that.”

In addition to reviving Indigenous food traditions online and through speaking engagements at Native American nutrition conferences, Gladstone was recently selected to participate in one of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s leadership development programs, designed to equip leaders across the country — in every sector and field — to collaborate, break down silos, and use her influence to make communities healthier and more equitable.

Specifically, she was selected for the Culture of Health Leaders Fellowship, design for people from sectors ranging from technology to business to architecture and urban planning. The fellowship enables participants to remain in their homes and jobs and directly apply everything they learn to improve policies and practices in their communities and organizations. The three-year program provides participants with an annual stipend of up to $20,000.

Gladstone makes elk sausage meatballs

As a member of the program’s newest cohort, Gladstone will focus on spreading the advocacy efforts of Indigikitchen, creating modern, nutritional meals using traditional ingredients that were indigenous to the North American continent prior to settlers’ arrival. She uses the show to educate a broad, diverse audience about the history of food sovereignty among Indigenous peoples in what is now known as the United States.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum in the Native community surrounding traditional foods and food sovereignty, but I think that in order to really connect that to the communities on the ground, our people that are living in food desserts and experiencing this disconnect from our traditional foods in large part due to the colonization of our diets and the systematic eradication of our foodways, there is a lack of information about how to prepare a lot of those foods,” Gladstone said of her mission. “So in order to get the community and the grassroots population interested in food sovereignty and traditional foods, again we need to teach people that preparing these meals is easy and can be done in their own kitchen.”

She’s also helped the city of Whitefish draft its climate-action plan, delivered a TEDx talk, testified in the U.S. Senate on the proposed Farm Bill, and collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Indigenous culinary customs.

Indigikitchen remains her full-time pursuit, however, as she attempts to impress upon her followers that the high rates of heart disease and diabetes among Native American populations is the result of the appropriation of Indian lands, the eradication of essential food species, the destruction of ecosystems, and the suppression of culture.

Acorn squash with wild stuffing

In her attempts to revive that knowledge and reawaken interest, she said communities have an appetite to relearn traditional knowledge about how to prepare foods like wild game, roots, berries, dandelion leaves, and more.

Gladstone’s acorn squash with wild rice stuffing is an easy favorite as winter transitions to spring, as are her bison and wild rice stuffed peppers and bison butternut lasagna. Although ground bison is relatively easy to find, it can be substituted with wild game or store-bought meat.

As a child, Gladstone’s mother taught her math by showing her how to make banana bread and cookies, explaining how to double the recipes by multiplying by two. It wasn’t long before Gladstone was concocting her own recipes, experimenting with cookies.

It’s no surprise, then, that healthy desserts figure prominently into her catalog of favorite recipes — dark chocolate pumpkin seed brownies, white bean coffee cake, and peanut butter cookies are a few classics.

One of the most striking aspects of her recipes is their relative simplicity, which she says helps people overcome their fear and intimidation over trying something new.

“It is relatively cheap to do, but in order to fill that knowledge gap I decided I needed to get the information out to as many people as possible about how to cook something other than fry bread,” she said. “And that’s why I these little two-minute videos that show you how to prepare an easy, healthy dish using the ingredients that our ancestors have been using for thousands of years are so helpful.”