Indigenous market includes food

·3 min read

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — A trek to any local supermarket will provide the grocery shopper with options of ethnic foods from many places and cultures in the world, except northern Indigenous cultures.

If you try to pick up a jar of bear grease at your local supermarket you will come up empty-handed.

When Kathleen Sawdo began her business, Sister Bear Design, located in the Goods and Co. mall on Red River Road, she found herself facing an expansion to include a supply of traditional foods along with her regular Indigenous-designed jewelry and craft products.

Thanks to a $5,000 Starter Company Plus grant through the Indigenous funding stream of the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission, Sawdo was able to grow her family-run business to include these food items.

“Being able to expand is of course going to help my entire family because we support and contribute to five different households,” she said. “We have four generations working together.”

Sister Bear Designs features an array of wearable art and beaded jewelry with both traditional and contemporary designs. They also offer Indigenous crafts and artwork.

“The majority of our products are handmade and some of them we’ve had to get imported,” Sawdo said. “Our goal is to support other Indigenous businesses. We have a list of Indigenous suppliers that we buy from and if things are not available, then we look further in Northwestern Ontario, and if not there, then through Canada.”

Growing demand for traditional foods has Sawdo including traditional food items that are being requested from the elders because they’re not able to go get them themselves.

“We’re one of the only ethnic groups around where we can’t go to a grocery store and get any of our traditional foods,” she said. “We really would rather find it in smaller stores to ensure it’s responsibly harvested.”

Sawdo says it’s all about making traditional foods accessible in an urban environment and sourcing their items on their own.

"We do harvest ourselves and we follow the teachings and protocols to ensure that we’re harvesting responsibly. We grow and harvest our own wild rice and pick fiddleheads and berries and preserve them.”

Blueberry preserves are prepared with a delicious twist by adding wild mint to the mix. Bear grease, which is a traditional medicine, is also being produced and made available.

Sawdo says the name of her company was chosen with a lot of thought behind it.

“It’s the three sisters,” she laughed. “I have an older sister and a younger sister and we kind of started down this road together. We’re also part of the Bear Clan, which means our role in the community, traditionally, is to gather medicines and to protect or look after the village. We feel we kind of do that in an urban setting, in providing things that people need in a culturally safe environment. So we’re looking after our communities as best we can. And Sister Bear Design just sounded good.”

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal

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