Title

What Happens When Native People Lose Their Traditional Foods?

abe-sanchez-gathers-chia-11-17-16.jpg
Purepecha public health worker Abe Sanchez gathers chia seeds. | Photo: Deborah Small

“The revitalization of tradition is much more complex than people can imagine. It really is a process that reaches far into the silenced knowing. Recovering from intergenerational historical trauma is something that continues to seep into the lives of California Indians today. Growing, nurturing, harvesting, and preparing native foods not only feed and renew the body—they feed the mind, the soul, the dreamtime of the people. Most importantly, our practices contribute to the healing of our common relative, our Mother Earth, and right now, she is sick and unable to attract all the beauty of the universe to come to her. And if our Mother Earth is sick, so are we, simply because we are part of her.”

—Cindi Alvitre, Tongva educator, Chia Café Collective

The native people I have worked with in southern California for the past 16 years have a profound spiritual connection to the land through their ancestors and their long history of living on the land. They pay homage to plants and consider them as their teachers. They’re dedicated to passing on what they know to others. All stress our interdependence with other species. All have a fierce devotion to revitalizing their culture as part of the larger cultural revitalization sweeping California.

Cahuilla/Apache elder Lorene Sisquoc describes a reciprocal relationship with the plants and the land. “The plants are waiting for us to come take care of them so they can take care of us. In Temalpakh, Katherine Saubel writes that the Cahuilla word for an oak grove, meki'i'wah, means ‘the place that waits for me.’ It’s our responsibility to take care of the land, to get out there and gather, to sing songs, tell stories, do ceremony, share our laughter and our language. To preserve our oral traditions by passing our knowledge to our kids and grandkids. It’s important that they start learning very young. Taking care of the plants helps make our families healthy. We’re working hard to heal our communities by deepening our connection to the land.”

Story continues below

Sisquoc is a founding member of the Chia Café Collective, or CCC, a grassroots group of southern California tribal members and their allies committed to the revitalization of native foods, medicines, culture and community. Their work to revitalize native foods honors the vast traditional knowledge and spiritual relationship to the land, and explores the nutritive and medicinal bounty the land offers us.

Through workshops, classes, demonstrations, and native foods celebrations, the CCC focus on ways to re-incorporate native food plants into their daily diets to take back responsibility for their health and well-being. Their work helps others to reconnect with the land through gathering, gardening, and cooking native foods, and by preparing medicinal plants as teas, tinctures, salves, and soaps.

The goal of the CCC’s classes and workshops is to inspire healthy eating practices for individuals and social justice for communities whose land management practices and native food traditions were disrupted when tribal land bases were taken away, native children sent to boarding schools, and traditional foods replaced by white flour, white sugar, and other unhealthy commodities and fast foods.

​Sisquoc teaches at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, a former boarding school created to assimilate Indian children into the dominant culture. Sisquoc relates that students were instructed: “‘Forget about your traditional plants. Forget about the acorns and pine nuts and mesquite waiting to be gathered. You’ve got to get over here and make a garden and milk that cow. That’s what the boarding schools were about. It was lactose-intolerant kids being fed dairy products and introduced foods, and taught cooking and home economics that were different from theirs. They were taught that their ways were wrong. Many of our gathering practices and our culinary secrets and specialties were not passed down because the boarding school students weren’t home to learn them.”

Shimwich Chumash educator and CCC member Tima Lotah Link echoes Sisquoc: “If you want to wreck a culture, hit it in the kitchen. Boarding schools did that in one generation. Take away the kids, take away their plants, take away their knowledge of the kitchen. Parents and children no longer gathered their plants together. They no longer spoke their language or shared information.”

Tongva educator and CCC founding member Barbara Drake also describes a shattered way of life: “Our lives and our cultures were disrupted by colonization, and we became disconnected. The colonizers tried to eradicate us by severing our relationship with the natural world, with our plants and animals and the land. They took away the benefits of our traditional foods. We were no longer celebrating the seasons, caretaking our land, using digging sticks to aerate the soil, pruning plants, or thinning stands of trees. We were no longer spreading seeds or saving them, or helping plants to grow. We were letting them down. It was disastrous, but all was not lost. Today, we’re asking elders what they remember. We’re piecing together our traditional knowledge and sharing the benefits of eating our traditional foods.”

The agave harvest
The agave harvest | Photo: Deborah Small

Re-introducing native foods into people’s diets has a remarkable effect, helping individuals and communities take back a large measure of responsibility for their health and well being, and for reclaiming their cultural identity. For the past 20 years, the Malki Museum on the Morongo Reservation has sponsored a yearly Agave Harvest and Feast to celebrate what Lorene Sisquoc calls “our most important staple every spring.” The Cahuilla have been working for over 20 years with CCC member Daniel McCarthy, former Tribal Liaison for the U.S. Forest Service, to restore the nutrient-dense agave to its honored place at the table of traditional foods. McCarthy speaks of the historic importance of agave as a staple food by noting that over 10,000 ancient roasting pits have been found in agave gathering areas. “So many foods like agave were almost forgotten,” Sisquoc says, “but now we’re continuing to gather, eat, and celebrate these native foods.”

roasting agaves
Agave hearts in a roasting pit | Photo: Deborah Small

Those foods include cholla, whose buds pack a nutrient punch with their highly absorbable calcium, a boon for lactose-intolerant people. The slow-release mesquite and acorn are two of the most effective foods for controlling blood sugar levels and diabetes. Chia seeds are high in protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, and their mucilage is of great assistance to the digestive system. Prickly pear juice can alleviate musculo-skeletal inflammation, sage provides a dose of antioxidants, and rose hips and lemonade berries are a rich source of vitamin C.

The Chia Café Collective promote an ethic of gathering and cultivating native plants in a manner that is sustainable, and they stress the importance of preserving native plants, plant communities, habitats, and the land for the future generations of all species. When they teach the protocol and etiquette of traditional gathering practices, Barbara Drake reminds us to take no more than we can use, and to share what we gather with everyone. “Our ancestors were doing that sharing all the time. We knew that if we didn’t do that, it was endangering the life of everyone.”

For Lorene Sisquoc, gathering native foods is a way to heal both individuals and communities. “A long time ago it was our families and our clans, but now we go out as intertribal groups. We pray before we gather. We’re teaching the young people and teaching each other about discipline, about respect for the land, about taking care of the land and creating a healthy environment. Gathering is about community.”

For Rose Ramirez, of Chumash descent, the healing dimension of gathering native foods comes from a very palpable connection to the ancestors. “When we gather, we feel spiritually as if our ancestors are right there alongside of us. Either they’re my ancestors or my husband Joe’s ancestors, because we’re in his territory [Luiseño]. They’re side by side with us. By revitalizing native foods, by bringing them back, we’re honoring our ancestors. We’re cherishing not only what they used to do and create, but also what they lost. I don’t think our ancestors lost their foods, their language, and their culture willingly. It’s a real honor to try to recover as much as we can. This is one of the best things we can do.”

Watch Tending the Wild: Decolonizing the Diet

For Tongva educator and CCC member Craig Torres, his profound sense of responsibility and compassion for other species extends to the oaks, pinyon pines, yucca, mesquite, chia, sage, and stinging nettle. For Torres, “Plants are not just ‘cultural resources.’ Plants are our relatives. They’re to be treated with reciprocal respect as relatives in the web of nature, in the circle of life. Plants enable us to survive and to maintain a sacred balance on this particular place on Mother Earth. In Tongva sacred oral narratives, it is we humans who were the last created. We were given the responsibility and obligation to maintain a sacred balance for all life on Mother Earth.”

Similar to the protectors of the waters fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, Torres tells us: “If we don’t fight to protect the plants and to protect the land, they’re no longer there for us. We’re trying to re-establish those relationships with the native plants, because they’re so important to us. The connection to who we are as a people has everything to do with the plants.”

One significant way to re-establish those relationships with native plants and foods is to put in some labor-intensive hours to insure the sustainability and survival of the plants. As part of the Parry Pinyon Pines Project, the CCC worked alongside Daniel McCarthy and southern California tribes and to resurrect traditional environmental practices. They removed the lower limbs of pinyon pines, cleared vegetation beneath the trees, and pruned the surrounding shrubs to eliminate potential fuel ladders to make the groves less vulnerable to the ferocious wildfires that can sweep through unmanaged forests.

Roasting pinyon pine cones
Roasting pinyon pine cones | Photo: Deborah Small

Another way to revitalize a relationship with native foods is to reject to the industrialized food chain and all that it represents—the multinational corporate control of seeds, production of genetically modified foods, and the promotion of unsustainable agricultural practices damaging to all species and to the earth that sustains us. For public health worker and CCC member Abe Sanchez, it’s a daily practice to cultivate consciousness about the foods he eats to maintain optimum health. “Native foods sustained indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Native foods are our future. But we have to make choices. We have to be disciplined. We have to be aware of what we’re putting in our bodies to prevent chronic illness, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure. And native foods will help us prevent that.”

When diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, anthropologist and CCC member Leslie Mouriquand had an epiphany: I needed to actually eat the traditional foods that I had been researching, not just for the sake of cultural preservation, but to save my life! I am now passionately immersed in gathering, growing, and eating chia, mesquite, prickly pear, cholla, and other native foods. By changing my diet and sedentary lifestyle, I succeeded in reversing my diabetes. This is a lifetime commitment for me.” Mouriquand is lucky that she caught her diabetes early and knew exactly what she needed to do.

In Recovering the Sacred, Anishinaabeg environmental activist Winona LaDuke writes that “the recovery of the people is tied to the recovery of food, since food itself is medicine: not only for the body, but for the soul, for the spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land.” People speak of the necessity for a major shift to a sustainable society from our unsustainable and ultimately destructive way of life. Like Leslie Mouriquand, we have the opportunity to learn from people whose ancestors were here for thousands of years, who knew how to protect and honor the earth. Their work offers hope, inspiration, and healing for all of us.

Banner photo: Deborah Small

autry-museum-thumbnail-hor-border-2016.png

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. 

Keep Reading