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Decolonize Your Diet: a Conversation With Native Food Educators

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Craig Torres, Lorene Sisquoc, and Barbara Drake (left to right) | Photo: KCET

Native cultural educators Kat High (Hupa), Craig Torres (Tongva), Lorene Sisquoc (Cahuilla/Fort Sill Apache), and Barbara Drake (Tongva) have worked for years to restore, research and promote the use of indigenous food plants in California and elsewhere. Along with several other Native activists, Drake, Sisquoc, and Torres are founders of the Chia Cafe Collective, which works to educate Californians about traditional edible plants and their uses.  

What do native plants mean to Indigenous peoples?

Kat: Everything we needed in our life came from our native plants. So if we wanted at tool, it came from our native plants. If we wanted food it came from out native plants. Our whole lives was based around this Garden of Eden that we call California.

Craig: It's part of my cultural identity, it connects me to the land. Those plants are what sustained my ancestors for thousands of generations on this land. Living in the area that I do, we're surrounded by different cultures, we're impacted by all these different influences that take us away from our identity of the land. So the one thing that I can really say that connects me to the land and to my cultural identity, are the plants. I believe that anybody who comes to this land, who makes this their home, needs to understand the importance of the native plants and to start utilizing them. Because there's a lot of healing and there's a lot of food and medicine in those plants.

Do Native peoples view plants primarily as a resource, or is there a deeper connection?

Craig: When we see these plants and the animals, we don't see them as natural resources that are there for our taking, we see them as relatives that live in their own communities, just like other humans live in their communities. There is a particular protocol and etiquette that you need to have with these communities and that's what sustained my ancestors for not hundreds of years on this land, but thousands of years. It hasn't been more than a few hundred years that newcomers have come to this land and it's been degraded so much in just a short time. One of my goals is to educate people on developing those relationships again and understanding it. They are here. We're not in a foreign land, it's here and they need to understand the importance of those type of relationships that have existed and sustained humans forever on this land.

Kat High | Photo: KCET

What are the goals of Chia Cafe Collective?

Craig: As Chia Café Collective, there are certain goals and results that we want from the work that we do.  One of the original goals that [Barbara] had was to make a lot of our harvesting places accessible to people, and to elders who weren't able to get out there and harvest for themselves. It was also to provide education to not only our own communities, but to the general public about the plants and the importance of native plants.

Today, our palates have become so desensitized because of a lot of the processing that our foods contain with the white sugar, and the flour, and many of those things. We're trying to reintroduce people to some of the contemporary foods, the contemporary dishes, by having those items. Sometimes we do use white flour. Sometimes we do use products like agave syrup, but it's a combine those two, and get people used to that way of eating. Then they can gradually start removing some of those items, those products, the white flour, and reverse the process of what has been done. I think those are some of our goals. It's a philosophy that we're trying to impart on the general public as well, and trying to reindigenize California once again.

Craig Torres makes chia energy bars. | Photo: KCET

What are some recipes that you make using native foods?

Craig: One of the things I make I used to call "chia candy," but I changed the name to chia power bars because of the health benefits. I started adding unsweetened coconut, then the dried fruit, the different nuts. It came out to be like a chewy granola bar. That's what I make now. It's something you can take with you on a hike or if you're outdoors gardening, you can keep it in a little baggie. It really boosts your energy level, it gives you a lot of energy.

Barbara's been doing teas for years, and the white sage tea is one that she talks about a lot. It's a little sweeter, because it has all those nice things in it, like the antibacterial properties, antimicrobial, antiseptic.

Barbara Drake makes white sage tea. | Photo: KCET

What does the Chia Cafe Collective hope to teach Californians?

Craig: We, as Chia Café, try to educate people on the importance of the native plants, and advocate redoing your landscape in native plants, because that's going to resolve some of the issues that we're dealing with, with the drought right now and the water crisis that we have.

Lorene: Now, we all live here together, non-Indian and Indian. Anywhere you go, you should learn how the Native people who lived, how they live now, who they are, so that's why we share, because we want people to be aware of our traditional ways and how we took care of this land, and utilized these plants, and they're here now to respect that. A lot of our great helpers come from the outside community that really helps support us, so that we can do what we're supposed to be doing.

Are other Native peoples going back to their traditional foods?

Lorene: All of our communities are threatened, and losing people from diabetes and other diseases that come in from the introduced diet. A lot of the tribes have been going back to their traditional foods, and growing them, and sharing them, and utilizing them, and making themselves healthy. It's all about that, about making our communities healthy again and working at it, and correcting things because of boarding schools and reservation life, and all the things that have impacted our people. That was almost lost, but fortunately it wasn't lost, and now we're correcting things. We[‘re] correcting things by teaching my children, and my children are teaching their children.

How does what you eat connect you to community, and to the landscape?

Craig: I would like people to understand that if you go back to our oral narratives, to our creation stories, in those stories humans aren't separate from nature, we're a part of it. As the last to be created, we were given the responsibility and the obligation to take care of everything and to maintain a particular balance on this Earth. Especially in our particular place that we live. It's all connected.

Barbara: I think children, especially, don't realize that their house is made out of wood, their clothing might come from a plant. Our tribe, everything we needed came from a plant. Our food, our medicine, our clothes, our soap, our string, our tools, our basketry. Everything. The plants were so very important to us, as they still are today. Unfortunately, we've lost a lot of our culture so we are relearning those things today, the importance that the plants share with us. Even giving us oxygen to breathe. That's something that breaks your heart because we know a lot of things cannot be replaced. That's why we try to plant things ourselves in our yard, so that we're helping them come back.

What does the future hold for native plants?

Kat: I'm a hopeful person. I wouldn't be teaching about our culture and our environment and the way we do things without the belief that this is open to all people to not only learn, but understand, to adopt, to take on as their understanding of this. The Indian relocation project moved all these Indians to the urban areas and dumped them, and they were relocated. You look at most everybody in LA, and they're relocated from somewhere. What I'm hoping will happen is that all of those people will find a way to sink their roots into this Earth and get nourishment from it, and get an understanding of it, and be able to give back to it.

Craig: I think, as a person who learned from my elders about these things, the only thing that I can really hold onto is hope, and hope that a new generation will start to pick up the importance of this. No just our native youth, but everybody who makes this their home now. If we can start getting people to understand, I don't care where you go on this earth, you better honor the indigenous of that place whether it's the people, the animals, the plants, the water, because that's what's going to heal you. That's what's going to continue you living as a human on this earth. The moment that you disregard that, everything is thrown out of balance.

Barbara: Well, this is what I think about these beautiful native plants. We do a lot of things to them but they're pretty resilient. Especially after fires, that helps them come back. That's kind of what I equate to our people too. We were disrupted. Our life changed forever. The thing about our plants is they adapt. Our people adapted also. That's why we did survive. That's in the dialog of talking to them and letting them know they're important. If they don't feel that importance, then they'll go away. That'll be a tragic loss to everyone when that happens. Education is part of it, it's a very large part of it. Learning about them and the beautiful qualities that they have, that's when you start bringing them to your home.

What message would you want to pass on about native plants?

Craig: What really sustains us and what has sustained us forever is the land. It's Mother Earth. I think people have lost touch with that today. One of the things I'm always telling the kids in the Tongva program that I do at Rancho Los Alamitos is, we're so used to getting everything from stores, those of us who live in urban areas and city's, everything that we need to survive for the most part comes from a store. Whether it's food, clothing, a repair on your house, everything is from a store, it's there. We're not used to going out and harvesting and gathering that ourselves.

I tell them that there are people who still do that [gathering] today if they live in areas where there's no stores around. Those are things that I try to pass onto the children, is trying to make that connection for them that the earth is what it's all about. I'm always telling them, "We all come from different mothers, but we only share one Mother Earth," and because they live here now, it's their responsibility to be aware of that and to take care of her and to take care of the land that we're on.

Banner: Craig Torres prepares to toast chia seeds. Photo: KCET


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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