SAINT PAUL, Minn.—The Minnesota State Fair opened to thousands of attendees last week, kicking off the popular annual 12-day event to celebrate all things Minnesotan, including Indigenous people and culture.

While Indigenous culture has been visible in previous years, this year Native American representation takes the stage, literally, to showcase one of the most popular reasons people attend the fair: food. 

On Sunday, the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS), the nonprofit arm of the award-winning Native-owned restaurant Owamni, organized a full day of presentations featuring Indigenous music and food at Dan Patch Stage, one of the fair’s interactive stages. Indigenous chefs Sean Sherman, Dana Thompson and others from NATIFS and Owamni talked about Indigenous foods and Minnesota Indigenous music artists such as Keith Secola and hip-hop artist Tall Paul.

“It’s tough to talk about healthy eating and Indigenous foods while at the state fair,” said Owamni Chef and Co-Owner Sherman during Sunday’s presentation. Sherman joined with NATIFS Outreach Director Ron Kinneen (Tlingit) in a discussion about the colonization of food and its effects on Indigenous people.

Sugar, flour, and dairy — all foods celebrated at the fair — have had a drastic impact on Native Americans. Sherman said that in some Indigenous communities, up to 60 percent of the population has some form of diabetes.

'A part of Minnesota'

Coined the “The Great Minnesota Get-Together,” the fair had its beginnings in the 1850s, but highlighting Indigenous culture hasn’t always been a priority. It wasn’t until 2019 that all the state’s 11 tribes were showcased together at the fair’s education building in an interactive display.

“It is so exciting to see the growth in Indigenous representation at the Minnesota State Fair,” Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said as she opened Sherman and Kinneen’s presentation on Sunday. “Indigenous lifeways, and our history, are a part of Minnesota and they belong at the state fair,” she said.  

Rob Kelsey has been attending the Minnesota State Fair for 76 years. Kelsey has collected more than 1,300 cotton cloth seed sacks — the largest collection in the world. He displays nearly 400 cloth bags at the fair in the agricultural building. 

Many of the sacks are brightly colored with printed advertising logos, slogans and pictures. In the late 1950s, paper sacks replaced the cloth ones, and today nearly all seed corn is sold in paper sacks.

“The most expensive ones are the ones that have images of Native people on them,” Kelsey said. When asked why he thinks those bags are prized the most, he said it is because of their intricate designs. 

Kelsey also oversees the fair’s contests for scarecrows, seed art and corn. Asked about the distinction of corn varieties, Kelsey replied, “It’s all Indian corn.”

More Stories Like This

7-Year-Old Boy Dies from Dog Attack on Fort Hall Reservation
Navajo Nation Elects Its First Female Speaker
WATCH: Indigenous Chef Crystal Wahpepah on Native Bidaske
Indigenous Food Chef Crystal Wahpepah on This Week's Native Bidaské
WATCH: New Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren on Native Bidaské

Do you appreciate a Native perspective on the news? 

For the past decade-plus, we’ve covered the important Indigenous stories that are often overlooked by other media. From the protests at Standing Rock and the toppling of colonizer statues during the racial equity protests, to the ongoing epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW), the attacks on tribal sovereignty at the Supreme Court and the past-due reckoning related to assimilation, cultural genocide and Indian Boarding Schools, we have been there to provide a Native perspective and elevate Native voices.

Our news is free for everyone to read, but it is not free to produce. That’s why we’re asking you to make a donation this month to help support our efforts. Any contribution — big or small — helps us remain a force for change in Indian Country and continue telling the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked.  Please consider a recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10 to help fund us throughout the year. Whatever you can do, it helps fund our Indigenous-led newsroom and our ability to cover Native news. 

Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you. 

About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.