For most all of us, the idea of being in active relationship with our food is an alien concept. We enjoy food: the tasting and eating of it. Many of us take great pleasure in its preparation, the act of cooking and eating a delicious meal with loved ones is at the heart of human connection the world over. Almost all festive holidays revolve around food as the central point of gathering with family and friends, with meals and menus planned meticulously in advance and anticipated with hungry delight.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have fast food — now ubiquitous across the world — not only with corporate chains, but also in the way we eat and the speed with which we expect our food to appear. On-the-go eating, working lunches and TV dinners "cooked" in the microwave are lifestyle stalwarts in the West and now increasingly in urban areas the world over. Here, food is merely fuel: grabbing an anonymous looking sandwich from the gas station while our cars are simultaneously being filled up. The inconvenience of being a perpetually busy human who needs to eat is mercifully medicated by the convenience of always-available fast food.
In both of these — the celebratory enjoyment of food, and the fast food approach — what we eat is, to varying degrees, simply something to be consumed. The practice of being in living relationship with our food is perfunctorily dismissed by mainstream Western culture as hippyish and weird — the outlandish terrain of the mystically-minded.
Yet, for those of us interested in the urgent work of exploring and preserving the ways of First Peoples across the globe, this practiced awareness is a crucial cultural foundation of indigeneity, the loss of which has been a disastrous legacy of colonialism. Diasporic though so many of us may be, we are all ultimately Indigenous to somewhere. Melissa Nelson, of Turtle Mountain Chippewa lineage, and president/CEO of the Cultural Conservancy, potently sums up this legacy of loss as colonialism's quest for the "aphrodisiac of power."
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Nelson, who is also a professor of Indigenous Sustainability at Arizona State University, has worked in the Native American food movement for over two decades. Futhermore, her heavy involvement in international Indigenous food sovereignty ideally places her to shed some light on the often slippery concept of indigeneity. As she explains, a key tenet of indigeneity is diversity: "There's no one definition for everyone. When we talk about diversity as Indigenous peoples, we really mean it; biodiversity, cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, cognitive diversity — different ways of knowing and being and learning."
Notably, this is where we have a crucial point of departure between the Indigenous mindset as rooted in diversity, and the colonizer world-view of homogeneity, of the monoculture of scientific materialism as being the predominantly accepted way to cognitively operate in society. An invasive offshoot of this is the aggressive hegemony of cash-crop monoculture and the genetic modification and commodification of our food.
This segues into the question of universal Indigenous values. Nelson mentions the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document developed for more than 30 years by dozens of Indigenous leaders, where these universal values are encoded. Essentially, says Nelson, these values, which hinge on Indigenous culture and identity, are about responsibilities and obligations as caretakers of the Earth.
That's a universal value [of indigeneity], of understanding that we are nothing without the Earth and all of her creatures — the plants, the rocks, the animals.Melissa Nelson
"In fact, in our Ojibwe creation story, humans are the very last thing that's created because we are completely dependent on everything else," Nelson says. "If we disappear, the redwood trees and the hummingbirds, they're going to continue. But if they disappear, we lose our breath, literally, our air, our water, our food, our medicine. So we are completely dependent on everything else."
Western colonialism has as its modus operandi the upright pyramid, with the human at the very top, separate, dominant and not held to account. In the Indigenous mindset, Nelson continues, this pyramid is turned upside down, with humans at the very bottom, reliant on all of life, "So indigeneity is practicing that humility and knowing that we are dependent on all of these other life processes."
This outlook is common to Indigenous peoples the world over. It is not simply a mystical-philosophical abstraction, but a pragmatic technology of engaging with, and being in reciprocal relationship with the world, most significantly with the cultivation, preparation and eating of food.
The approach of humility and reciprocity stands in stark contrast to the colonial "there for the taking" mentality, where these life processes become commodified into property, which is something that "can be enclosed, controlled, extracted, sold, transferred, destroyed," as Nelson succinctly puts it.
Much of the Cultural Conservancy's work with their Native Foodways program is focused on creating pragmatic experiences around this concept of relating to our food, and particularly to seeds, as living relatives. A compelling aspect of their work in this area is about the revivification of inter-tribal Native American food as a living connection to Indigenous ancestry, not only in terms of human ancestors, but in terms of heirloom seeds as non-human ancestors. As the founder of The Cultural Conservancy, Claire Cummings, says in a recent “Tending Nature” episode about the Native Foodways program, the commodification of food, particularly of seeds, is an "industrialization of relatives," and that the genetic engineering and modification of seeds, indeed of any food, is "cutting off its story": arguably, a potently resonant overview of colonization.
As the Native Foodways program is inter-tribal, on a practical level, before they begin native food cultivation and farming on any given piece of land, they seek out permission from the First People of that region. Whoever the technical legal "owners" of the land may be, the Cultural Conservancy recognizes that the true stewards and guardians of the land are its Indigenous people. This again is a universal tenet of indigeneity: the humility of asking for permission from the First People of the land, who in turn ask permission from the in-dwelling spirits of the land.
Indeed, this where observation — one of the foundational aspects of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and permaculture — arises from; observation not simply in a passively scientific way but also as a dynamic act of relating and communicating. An Indigenous world-view regards the life-giving qualities of the Earth as maternal in a deeply practical sense, with all life on her as sentient, as sentient as any human being. Not asking for permission and waiting to receive an answer is felt intensely as a violation — both by the land, and by the Indigenous human stewards of the land.
When permission is granted, the Cultural Conservancy then works with these native people of the region to decide what seeds they'd like to see planted there, what plants and crops they'd like to cultivate. The emphasis is on partnership and collaboration to achieve, as M. Kat Anderson coined, a tending of the wild. These "farms," for lack of a better word, do not resemble the traditional monoculture spaces that we're used to. Rather, they're biodiverse, polyculture smallholdings, with native food, medicinals and trees such as willow, which can also be used for basket weaving. Indigenous agricultural practices feed back nutrients and nourishment to the soil. And the earth is enriched and sustained so that what grows from it is part of the mobius strip of the story of interconnectedness, right down to the human being who will eat and absorb the energy of the food.
The Cultural Conservancy has created a thriving seed library. We're more used to hearing about seed banks, but this transmits the sense of monetary value and of hoarding that is anathema to Indigenous values of trade and collaboration. Nelson describes the seed library not as a static entity but more as a process, where "you give, you exchange, you receive, you share the collective commons, the collective seed heritage. So we've gathered seeds, and exchanged seeds with Native American farmers and growers from all over Turtle Island, as well as California native tenders and gatherers."
The Native Foodways program grows much of the more classic "three sisters" of Native American agriculture — corns, beans and squash — and the many varieties therein. They're nutritionally symbiotic when eaten, ecologically symbiotic when grown and were common throughout the Americas, including Mesoamerica and South America. For a lot of tribes, they are also spiritually symbiotic, and there are ancient stories from different tribal nations about the "three sisters": one very tall, one shorter, one that crawls around on the ground.
If we don't grow our own food, then cultivating a vivid curiosity about its origins — about where, how and by whom it’s grown or whose farm it comes from, how the plants and animals are tended to — is a way of paying attention to and restoring its story, of not participating in the monoculture of toxic industrialization and commodification.
If the colonization of our food, of the living plants and animals we consume, is a cutting off of their stories, this example of the 'three sisters' is but one of countless instances of what it means to re-indigenize our relationship to food, and how to do it.Rohini Walker
If we think back to the beginnings of money and commerce, seeds were a unit of exchange. The idea of food sovereignty then, is intrinsically linked to a "redefining of wealth," as Nelson puts it, "because he who controls the food supply controls everything, and if you want to control the food supply, you control the seeds." And that's why a mere handful of corporations own the vast majority of seeds, which are then genetically modified — or enslaved, in the Indigenous mindset, a deep violation of sacred natural laws; in Nelson's words, "the very foundation of this loss of relationship."
Indigenous Melanesian and Polynesian people have the word mana to describe the unseen but vivifying life force within all things. This is the invisible connective tissue extant in all phenomena, including the human being and the food she eats. When we eat, we absorb not only the quantifiably measurable nutrients within it, but also its mana, its story — and it is this that governs and dictates the quality of those nutrients. Re-indigenizing our relationship to food begins with just that — cultivating a relationship to it, to move from the mindset of commodification and consumption to reciprocity and respect. This is a small yet seismic shift in outlook — an urgently subversive one — that has the power to transform the quality of our life, our health and that of our planet's, to whom we belong.