Northern Michigan University senior Zoe Fess was invited to participate in the Biennial United Nations Global Indigenous Youth Forum in Rome, Italy. She joined peers representing all seven socio-cultural regions of the world to raise their voices, share concerns and work on proposals for the UN and its member states on improving the lives of Indigenous youth. Topics included climate and biodiversity action, the impacts of pesticides and ultra-processed foods, and the protection of plant genetic resources.
Fess is Ho-Chunk from Wisconsin Dells and will graduate in December with a degree in environmental studies and sustainability. She was among 185 Indigenous youth selected to participate in the forum from nearly 500 applicants.
“It was amazing to spend time with other Indigenous people in a setting like Rome,” said Fess, who has also served as co-leader of NMU's Native American Student Association. “There were a few of us who had never been to Europe or participated in something of this magnitude. We got to listen to ambassadors, presidents and other indigenous youth who are leading change in their communities. I've always been kind of interested in policy in terms of tribal law. While I was there, I was one of three North American delegates writing our personal manifesto declaration for the North American region.
“I felt very fulfilled after and very excited to continue the work that they have been doing. I'm a big proponent for food sovereignty—tribal communities having access to their traditional foods, whether that's growing, harvesting, ranching or consuming the foods our ancestors did. It's important to keep the foods our people have had for thousands of years and understand how they traveled with us through time.”
Fess and her mom, Elena Terry, advocate for the health and well-being of their tribal community by promoting and sustaining ancestral foods. Through the nonprofit Wild Bearies, they advance intergenerational seed-saving and knowledge-keeping through presentations and catering events.
In November 2022, the duo gave a live cooking demonstration at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They prepared “Seedy SassSquash,” a seed crust with squash custard, topped with wild rice or apple dust and cranberry sauce. This dish features Ho-Chunk ancestral squash, lost to their community for generations until recently. Read a related feature story here.
At the cooking demo, Fess met representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, which co-sponsored that Smithsonian event and had also just hosted the first session of the Biennial Global Indigenous Youth Forum in Rome. After hearing about the forum, Fess eagerly applied for the second session held this past October and was “ecstatic” to learn she was accepted.
In reflecting on her NMU experience as commencement approaches, Fess said the natural environment drew her to campus and the quality academics kept her here, providing a sense of belonging and valuable career preparation.
“I was really drawn to Lake Superior,” Fess said. “That's understandable because we have the Wisconsin River where my family's from, so being able to go to college so close to a large body of water and the woods has been very special. My academic program is also amazing. I've loved my time here and the one-on-one relationships with professors. I have a few different things in mind after graduation. Everything I do will be with the goal of bringing it back to my community in the future, but I'm still trying to decide which path I'm going to take.”
Learn more about NMU's environmental studies and sustainability program here.