Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 7, 2020

‘Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States’ Book Review

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States

The renaissance of ancestral food: Far from the pages of fancy magazines, the reality of traditional food means eating local with respect, and when necessary, resisting the destruction that threatens the land and water.

Article by Brenda Norrell
Censored News

Native Chef Nephi Craig is straight-forward about the efforts to celebrate ancestral food in the book Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting the Environment and Regaining Health.

“You want real Indigenous food advocacy?” Craig asks.

“Come to ground zero and speak about truths while offering solutions – not just speaking about Native foods from a disconnected professional level with a message that is designed to appeal to the colonial culinary elite (Native and non-Native) for the sake of making a name for one’s self, company or organization.”

Craig, White Mountain Apache and Dine', points out that not many of the professionals are willing to do this. Craig's White Mountain Apache homeland in central Arizona is far different from the braids of corn and onions in Bon Appetit, he points out.

Craig’s words are in the new book edited by professors Devon A. Mihesuah, Choctaw, and Elizabeth Hoover, with a foreword by Anishinaabe Winona LaDuke. The book of research and essays is suitable for high school and college classrooms.

Laticia McNaughton, Six Nations Mohawk, found herself sick and sought out the help of a naturopathic doctor. She changed her way of eating and began eliminating the modern-day foods making her sick, including white sugar, white four, potatoes, dairy and foods laden with chemicals and additives.

Inspired by John Mohawk’s work, which includes exercise, food and self-respect, she began a healing journey which included examining where the food she eats comes from.

Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, grew up on Pine Ridge in South Dakota, gathering timpsala, chokecherries and juniper. After college, Sherman bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and was inspired by the Huicholes.

Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef, began offering his creative foods on the Tatanka Truck and his food journey continued in Minneapolis and expanded. Promoting fun in a non-European kitchen with recipes of turkey, bison, rabbit, duck and other wild game, he co-founded the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, focusing on culinary education and food access.

In the Pacific, the limu, algae, primarily seaweed, is for salad, spice and relish of Native Hawaiians. In California, there are pine nuts, acorns, elderberry and yucca for Native harvests. On Hopi land in Arizona, the paper-thin bread piki of ground blue corn cooked on a hot flat stone is celebrated. In southern Arizona, O’odham harvest cholla cactus buds to steam and mesquite tree beans to grind for flour.

For Native Hawaiians, the kaona (hidden meanings) of respect for elders and family resonate.

“Hawaiian family systems are founded on the concept of respect for elders.” Further, a traditional family mirrors functions in nature, such as the planting stalk which means “parent,” writes a collective of Native Hawaiians.

Hualapai Tribal ethnobotany project elder Jorigine Paya remembers gathering and eating traditional foods. “I remember when growing up with my paternal grandparents, we harvested a lot of the traditional food plants, such as the prickly pear, mescal, banana yucca, sumac berries and the Indian tea.” Paya shares this knowledge on his homeland with Hualapai youths in northwest Arizona.

With the knowledge of food -- where it comes from and how to prepare it -- comes preservation and sharing in the traditional way. On the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, seeds are collected for a seed bank to ensure authentic seeds for future generations. The Ponca Nation in Oklahoma is seed saving and reclaiming their traditional corn varieties.

As elsewhere, for Comanches in Oklahoma, sharing food is a way of life.

Change comes in many forms.

In the far north, Sheila Watt-Cloutier says her people, Inuit, are adaptable, but the change around them is rapid.

“Climate change is yet another rapid assault on our way of life. It cannot be separated from the first waves of changes and assaults at the very core of the human spirit that has come our way.”

Caitlin Krenn, who directs the Nisqually Community Garden project in the Northwest describes food sovereignty as not just catching and eating traditional foods like fish, “it means actually trying to sustain the rivers again, the sound, the ocean,” the environment that supports those fish.

Brian Yazzie, Yazzie the Chef, serving buffalo burgers at Oceti Sakowin Camp for water protectors.
Brian Yazzie, Dine’ from Dennehotso on the Navajo Nation, was inspired by the food innovations of Lakota Sean Sherman in Minneapolis. Yazzie says traditional food is all about keeping it local and celebrating one’s own stories.

“People are talking about farm-to-table and sustainability, and as part of that, they should focus on the revitalization and stories of their own ancestral foods as opposed to ‘saving’ the foods of others, even if they are well-meaning.”

Yazzie said Native food producers and chefs should be supported, as opposed to others seeking to profit.

At the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock in 2016, Yazzie helped feed water protectors out of the main kitchen.

“With the permission of local elders, I stepped in and cooked bison and wild rice and other traditional foods.”

Yazzie didn’t cook fry bread because he is on the path of serving healthy Indigenous food that doesn’t involve this combination of flour, lard and baking powder. Those were the rations of the U.S. Calvary given to Yazzie’s ancestors on the cruel Longest Walk to Fort Sumner in the 1800s.

When Yazzie returned to Oceti Sakowin Camp, he arrived with a twenty-seven-foot long U-Haul filled with donations from the Twin Cities of St Paul and Minneapolis.

For Native people with a passion for cooking, Yazzie says learn what’s around you and grows in the seasons.

“Start from where you are at and learn about what grows in your area – what kind of wild game and wild plants you have in your area, and focus on the four seasons, or however many seasons you have in your area. Focus on what grows and the time frame that it grows in.”

As was the case at Standing Rock, when water protectors put their lives on the line to protect the water and land that gives birth to seeds and foods, so is it elsewhere.

Michael Dahl, Ojibway from White Earth, says the pipelines that he has been resisting alongside Honor the Earth is not just about resisting pipelines, but about maintaining a healthy way of living.

“Right now, our rice and our sugar bushes and our berries, our gathering rights, are the main thing that we still have to our self-sustainability and our healthy living. So, we need to protect that with our lives.”

Indigenous food activist Karlos Baca, Dine’, Tewa and Nuu-ciu, celebrates the edible landscape of the Southwest.

Baca is the founder of the Taste of Native Cuisine collective.

“The entire desert Southwest would be my mentor because engaging with the landscape as a whole is the ultimate teacher. It is how our recent and ancient ancestors evolved their understanding of the edible landscape.”

Spanning issues from food sovereignty and seed saving, to climate justice and historical perspectives with scholarly research, “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States, Restoring Cultural Knowledge Protecting Environments and Regaining Health,” is available from the University of Oklahoma Press.

About the Editors

Devon A. Mihesuah, a member of the Choctaw Nation, is Cora Lee Beers Price Professor in International Cultural Understanding at the University of Kansas. She has served as Editor of the American Indian Quarterly and is the author of numerous award-winning books, including Choctaw Crime and Punishment, 1884–1887; American Indigenous Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism; Recovering Our Ancestors' Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness; American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities; and Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851–1909.

Elizabeth Hoover, Manning Associate Professor of American Studies at Brown University, is the author of articles about food sovereignty, environmental health, and environmental reproductive justice, as well as the book The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. She is a board member of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance and of the Slow Food Turtle Island regional association and has worked with the Mohawk organization Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie.
Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe writer and economist from the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, is Executive Director of Honor the Earth, a national Native advocacy and environmental organization, and the author of numerous articles and books.

About Censored News

Brenda Norrell has served as a news reporter in Indian country for 38 years. During the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation, she worked for Navajo Times, Indian Country Today and others. After being censored and blacklisted, she created Censored News in 2006. Norrell arrived on the Navajo Nation in 1979 as a nutrition educator for the Navajo-Hopi WIC Program and later worked under Katherine Arviso, executive director of the Navajo Food and Nutrition Program, on a project which published the scientific values of traditional Dine’ foods.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News

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