At a time when food has become better known as a commodity rather than a life source, it is more pressing than ever to remember that food, in its deepest, truest essence, is a gift. It’s a gift that connects us to the land, plants, animals, and waters, that nourishes us, feeds our minds and our bodies, and guides us in our original roles as human members of our sacred ecosystems. As Indigenous peoples, we have a sacred responsibility to take care of our foods and of all the elements of life – soil, water, air, seeds, fire, prayers – that create it.
There was a time when a group of people living in a place for a long period of time acquired an intimate knowledge of local edible plants and animals, and developed cultures and traditions honoring them. In the worldview of the Haudenosaunee, for instance, corn represents the center of life. Intertwined in one cob of corn is the history of their culture, its origins, and its worldview. What the corn is to the Haudenosaunee, the manoomin, or wild rice, is to the Anishnaabe and the potato (for which there are countless names) is to the Quechua and Aymara.
All these foods represent cultural pillars within distinct eco-cultural landscapes. They represent livelihoods and age-old traditions that bring people together around food cultivation, production, and eating. And they serve as valuable entry points from which we can understand the vast landscape of cultural beliefs, customs, and traditions of Indigenous peoples around the world. These “first foods” illuminate the cosmological and philosophical centers of origin that explain why we are here, how we behave, and what it means to be thankful. We call this holistic and interrelated nature of cultural food systems Native foodways – a term that enables us to comprehend the complex significance of food within native ideology. Using Native foodways as a cultural framework, we can begin to explore the challenges Indigenous peoples face in maintaining practices and customs built within particular eco-cultural landscapes.
Indigenous peoples’ genetic makeup has been largely determined by the foods and medicines our ancestors relied upon for thousands of years. After generations and generations of reliance on a particular food system, each community adapted to the plants and animals in their homelands. In the last century, this intimate relationship with the landscape has been violently disrupted due to colonization and globalization, as well as alarming rates of environmental degradation.
Removed from their lands and forced to assimilate into the so-called “mainstream” culture, many Native people no longer live in their traditional territories, nor do they eat their traditional foods. Among North American Indigenous people, for instance, sugar, flour, cheese, and domesticated meats have become the staple diet, and nutrition-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes have become epidemics as Native people become more and more dependent on foods that our bodies are not adapted to process well.
Today, many traditional foods are on the verge of extinction. Others are more abundant, but due to tremendous land loss are inaccessible to Native communities. Other foods may be available; however the traditional knowledge of how to utilize and prepare them has been severely diminished. Despite these setbacks, Indigenous people around the world are finding unique and innovative ways to adapt and revitalize their foodways on reservations, on public land, in rural parks, and in urban gardens.
Take the Oneida Nation, located in present day Wisconsin and New York, which faces the risk of losing its rich traditions connected to Iroquois white corn. The densely nutritious white corn flour was once a staple of the Haudenosaunee diet. In an effort to bring the 1,400-year-old heirloom corn back into regular use, the Oneida have developed Tsyunhehkwa or “Three Sisters,” a community-led initiative in Wisconsin that aims to boost the tribe’s socioeconomic development through small-scale farms that grow and sell white corn products and farm-raised bison. The initiative has created renewed interest in Native farming traditions and provided a way to integrate Iroquois white corn back into Natives’ diets.
Similarly, in San Francisco, a 30-year-old Native-led nonprofit called The Cultural Conservancy (where the two of us work) has been helping the region’s diverse Native communities apply their traditional knowledge of food and farming practices in urban landscapes. The Cultural Conservancy runs several educational workshops on Native science, horticulture, and food justice, and has developed a Native Community Supported Agriculture Program as well.
Foodways revitalization initiatives like these are cropping up across the globe. Given the common threads linking food, health, and environmental well-being in traditional societies, such emerging native food sovereignty movements offer mainstream societies important lessons in resilience and adaptation. With the current state of environmental conditions threatening human survival, there is no better time than now to remember and restore “that which sustains us.”
Kaylena Bray (Seneca) is the Native foodways coordinator of the Cultural Conservancy. Melissa K. Nelson, PhD (Anishinaabe/Turtle Mountain Chippewa) is the president of the Cultural Conservancy and associate professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University.
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