Pot luck Chance find of ceramic shard led artist to create her own clay cookware, reclaim traditional diet

There was no hunting or searching. All she had to do was look down. The jagged earth-toned pottery shard was resting in the rocky shallows waiting to be found, as if some unseen being had laid the artifact in her path.

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There was no hunting or searching. All she had to do was look down. The jagged earth-toned pottery shard was resting in the rocky shallows waiting to be found, as if some unseen being had laid the artifact in her path.

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The sight sent tears rolling down her cheeks — the weight of history, blood memory and personal journey colliding on the banks of the Whiteshell River.

“It was a profound moment for me because for the first time I really felt connected to the land,” says KC Adams, standing in the colourful kitchen of her Winnipeg home. “I knew that I was on the right path.

“I also felt connected to the ancestors because I picked it up and realized that a woman had made this 300, 400 years ago, maybe even more, and I’m the first one to touch it again since it disappeared.”

Adams — a nêhiyaw, Anishinaabe and British multimedia artist — has found hundreds of pottery shards (or, more accurately, sherds, the name for ceramic fragments) in the years since discovering that first piece during a water gathering near the Bannock Point petroforms.

Her summer days are often spent combing the banks of local waterways looking for bits of pots once used for cooking, storage and ceremony. Vessels that were buried along lakes, rivers and streams generations ago find their way to the surface through flooding and erosion.

Adams keeps what she finds in a Chapman’s ice cream pail filled with plastic baggies, each one labelled with a place name: Lockport, Nutimik, Wanipigow.

The sherds serve as design inspiration for her own clay vessels.

“These are punctates,” she says, pointing to a series of round divots near the lip of a sherd in her collection. She opens a leather pouch filled with found objects and demonstrates how a tool made of deer bone can be used to create the look.

“And this is a fish bone that I found on the beach; sometimes I’ll use it as decoration.”

She sets down the pouch and returns to the stove, where bacon fat is coming to temperature in a reddish brown pot — the smell of salty fat signalling the beginnings of a hearty stew. The handmade cookware sits in stark contrast to Adams’ stainless steel range, two pieces of technology from two very different eras working seamlessly together.

Bison and wild rice stew by KC Adams

Ingredients
45-60 ml (3-4 tbsp) grease/oil
250 ml (1 cup) wild rice
1 litre (4 cups) vegetable (or beef/bison/moose/elk) stock
1/2 onion, chopped
1 package of ground bison
250 ml (1 cup) green beans (frozen or fresh)
125 ml (1/2 cup) corn (frozen or fresh)
125 ml (1/2 cup) diced small potatoes (optional)
Salt and pepper for flavour

Ingredients
45-60 ml (3-4 tbsp) grease/oil
250 ml (1 cup) wild rice
1 litre (4 cups) vegetable (or beef/bison/moose/elk) stock
1/2 onion, chopped
1 package of ground bison
250 ml (1 cup) green beans (frozen or fresh)
125 ml (1/2 cup) corn (frozen or fresh)
125 ml (1/2 cup) diced small potatoes (optional)
Salt and pepper for flavour

Directions

Rinse your wild rice twice and then add 500 ml (2 cups) nibi (water) in a bowl and let sit for 30 minutes.

While your rice is sitting, add 45 ml (3 tbsp) grease to a heated clay vessel and swirl the fat around to prepare and seal the vessel.

Add onions and cook until they are tender.

Add the bison and brown slightly. Remove from heat and pour into a bowl to add later.

Drain the rice and add it to the vessel.

Pour in 500 ml (2 cups) of stock and bring to a boil using medium heat (high heat if you are using a metal pot).

Add the vegetables, the remaining stock and the meat.

Bring it to a boil and it will be ready to eat.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

The pot is made from Manitoba clay and granite rocks retired from sweat ceremonies. The crushed granite tempers the clay, ensuring it can withstand the heat of cooking. It also adds an extra layer of meaning.

“I love that the energy that was part of that ceremony is now in my vessel,” Adams says. “It’s comforting and beautiful.”

She adds ground bison to the stew and gets to work chopping vegetables. A bowl of wild rice is soaking on the nearby countertop. The vessel, which bears a Thunderbird design, was made by coiling and smoothing together ropes of clay. As the contents cook, the fat seeps through the porous material, creating a dark ring where the clay is thinner than its surroundings. The pot and the stew have a symbiotic relationship — each meal adds a little more seasoning to the pot’s interior while the unglazed walls help flavour future dishes.

Clay has been an important part of Adams’ life and art practice since 2015, when she started learning how to make Blackduck pottery — a thin, durable form of stoneware developed and used by Indigenous potters in the region pre-contact. Remnants have been found in areas now known as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and parts of the northern United States.

It’s a method Adams adopted after travelling to Minnesota for a workshop with Grant Goltz, an experimental archeologist who has found ways to recreate Blackduck pottery.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
KC Adams strives to follow a diet that reclaims traditional foods.

During the cross-border exchange she learned how to harvest clay from the land, shape vessels, using shells and a woven bag, and fire pots over an open flame.

“You’re going into partnership with the land and the water and you’re becoming connected to it,” Adams says of the process. “My ancestors had done it and this was my first time experiencing it; it felt incredible.”

Making pottery has given her a tangible connection to the past. It’s an understanding that has also worked its way into her diet.

The stew is now bubbling away on the stovetop. To the pot, Adams has added the wild rice, stock, onions, asparagus and corn (although, the vegetables can change depending on what’s in the kitchen). The recipe and ingredients are a form of reclamation eating — a food philosophy she’s been following for the last two years as a way to improve her health and push back against the colonial food system.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The recipe for bison and wild rice stew is very adaptable, depending on what is seasonally available.

“It’s kind of a resistance to the foods that have been introduced to us and that have caused a lot of harms,” she says, pointing to the high prevalence of diabetes among First Nations communities as an example.

A 2019 paper from the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health explains how disproportionate diabetes rates are rooted in colonization, which, among many things, has forced people off the land and away from traditional, nutrient-rich food sources. Diabetes runs in the family and Adams has turned to reclamation eating to avoid her own diagnosis.

“I’ve seen my mom struggle with it for the past 25 years,” she says. “I don’t want to live my life like that.”

She keeps a handwritten list of ingredients posted next to the fridge: barley, cabbage, pumpkin, beans, elk, turkey, pickerel, strawberries, sunflower seeds and a dozen other items that could have been consumed locally or obtained through trade hundreds of years ago. It’s a list built on historical research and modern approximation — industrial agriculture and a global supply chain have changed the kind of produce available in Manitoba and it can be difficult to source wild meat without a hunter in the family.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Adams combs the banks of waterways to find shards of clay vessels, known as sherds.

For Adams, reclamation eating isn’t all or nothing. It can be expensive and time-consuming to eat this way, but she feels better when she does. Physically and spiritually.

“It’s nourishing our spirit and our bodies and our culture as well,” she says. “It’s really taking back some of the foods that we used to eat and recognizing that we no longer have access and sometimes even the knowledge of (what) we used to eat.”

Family recipes and food traditions are just a few examples of knowledge that has been severed by government attempts to stamp out Indigenous culture through the residential school system and the ’60s Scoop. Adams’ grandmother is a residential school survivor. She refused to teach her daughter Cree because it was “beaten out of her” by institution staff.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Tools for making and decorating handmade clay vessels include pieces of bone.

“It was just easier to try and assimilate, but it leaves a void. Growing up, I always felt like there was something I was missing out on,” Adams says. “Knowledge systems are so important, and that’s why they constantly need to be transferred and passed on to the next generation.”

As an adult, she has dedicated her life to learning about and reclaiming her culture. She does so publicly, with art that interrogates stereotypes and workshops that teach others about Indigenous technology. And she does so privately, with handmade cookware and self-taught recipes steeped in history.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

History

Updated on Saturday, April 23, 2022 11:10 AM CDT: Fixes typo in deck

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