When Kahlo was an infant I sought out to tell her bedtime stories not only to help her fall asleep but to also give her a sense of history and of morals, particularly about our relationships, which includes our relationship to food and the hands that grow it. Sometimes I made them up, but on one particular day I found a video (I referenced before!) that told about the Origins of Quinoa, which became one of our regular bedtime stories. It is an Aymara tale, the Aymara are an indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia, and it tells the story of how the stars gifted quinoa to the people to sustain us. Since then I have thought more about what it means to be given the gift of food, to be fed, to be sustained.
This last summer I attended, with Kahlo in tow, the Intertribal Food Sovereignty Summit in Connecticut at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. I have been studying quinoa for years and it dawned on me that while I have focused quite a bit on Peru and Peruvian products, I knew too little about my New England food and foodways, from an indigenous perspective. I have heard mostly of the European perspective and of the Columbian Exchange, which drastically altered the food and foodways of the Americas, top to bottom. It made me think: What is truly indigenous to New England and what more can I learn from this history as well as from those first peoples that still lift up their traditional ways today? What does food sovereignty look like for Natives here in New England since rights to their lands are still being fought for? I went to the summit with ears and eyes wide open. I had no idea how much I would learn about a food sovereignty movement that is well underway in Indigenous communities across the nation, and in Canada, and how little I really knew about my own surroundings.
What is food sovereignty? To put it simply, it is the right for people to have access to healthy food, food sustainably sourced, and to choose the type of food they deem appropriate for themselves and grow it on their own land. It is the right for people to define their own food and foodways. When we think about the land that the United States occupies, we think of things like the "corn belt," the "wheat belt," or the "poultry belt." Our food today is highly commodified, commercialized, and industrialized. It is hard to imagine what food sovereignty would look like if we were to make an effort on this land. There are communities across the nation that do not have equal access to healthy and/or sustainably sourced foods and certainly do not have much say in what is sold in their local small grocery stores or big megastores/supermarkets. What would food sovereignty look like in this context?
The summit was broken up into a 3-day conference with workshops and meetings that ranged from presentations about nutrition studies to food sovereignty programs on reservations to cooking to seed savers and seed exchanges. It was varied and there were quite a few indigenous peoples from all across the nation representing, learning and exchanging. The two hosting tribes, the Pequot and Narragansett both also had opportunities to share about their programs and projects as well. Throughout the weekend, Native chefs prepared delicious meals using mostly foodstuffs indigenous to North America, pre-Columbus. I can say that this is the first conference I have ever attended where I did not consume one ounce of chicken. I did, however, eat delicious seafood, venison, bison, beans, corn, squash, cranberries, maple syrup, corn mush, johnny cakes, and lots of local greens and root veggies. The colors and flavors were incredible. I didn't even miss that chicken.
The last day, we visited the Narragansett Tribal Farm, the manifestation of their own food sovereignty program. This was the first year they were growing and soon harvesting their own people's corn, the White Cap Flint Corn (aka Narragansett Indian Flint Corn), in over 200 years. It was wonderful to learn about the recent history of the Narragansett, how some of their land was returned to them, and the ways in which the tribe plans to build out its farm. While we toured the land, listened to different family members express their joy and frustrations, the challenges they've met in tending to the land, the excitement they had for the harvest to come, it was hard not to feel something: to feel spirit, to feel ancestors, to feel new bonds being created.
I took away many things from this Summit, including new friendships and connections, but the biggest take-away was having my ignorance of my surroundings revealed to me. I study food, yet, I was truly unaware of how much I did not know. I was impressed by everyone I met no matter their role as each person was doing something to add to the momentum of this care-taking, this story-telling, this exchange of wisdom and word within this movement.
Sean Sherman, aka the Sioux Chef, who gave the keynote, is working towards achieving a huge dream: creating an Indigenous Food Lab where within its lab will be housed an Indigenous Restaurant designed to teach food business skills, a place to hire educators to teach about the knowledge of the Indigenous Food System as well as a place to create more knowledge-based curriculum and resources for any one interested in learning more about Indigenous Food Ways (from The Sioux Chef FB). He also founded NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), a non-profit who aims to teach Indigenous culinary education and Indigenous food access first in Minnesota and then create hubs around the United States. Indigenous food, foodways, and cuisine, not just in the U.S. but also throughout the Americas, have often been de-valued, under-valued, or not valued at all except by those within the boundaries of those communities and nations. Chef Sherman is thoughtfully moving towards achieving his vision to share Indigenous food wisdom with the nation with a great team of Native chefs by his side. It is truly exciting to witness!
I have spent these last few months since the Summit contemplating what I feel are the missing pieces of our modern U.S. food system. There are many, however, the most impactful ones are our lack of respect for, and relationship to, our food. We are simply consumers of it without considering much from where it comes, who grew it, whether farmers or farmworkers are making any money, whether we are supporting our own economy, whether the animals are being treated well, etc. We are very disconnected from that which sustains us. Or, maybe in another scenario, we are conscientious of the food we eat in that we are aware of its nutritional value, we search out "superfoods," or follow a certain type of meal plan to maintain our health yet we are unaware of how our food choices and dollars impact farmers and consumers domestically and internationally. We've taken our food for granted, in essence. Most of us no longer know how to grow and easily gain access to healthy foods. We also rarely have elders to teach us how best to grow and prepare these foods, store them, and consume them in a sustainable way. But it was only 3 generations back that we did. Today, the U.S. wastes a tremendous amount of food. It doesn't have to be this way.
As a country we cannot grow all of the foods we may want to eat. We are home to many immigrants and will never stop importing foods from other places, but there are a great many ways we can produce more, and more locally. If our government could consider using our land and resources more effectively, support our farmers with more regulations or subsidies to protect them, and consider assisting more farmers into converting to organic farming practices, we could grow the most amazingly diverse crops, right here! Or there! Everywhere! We could more efficiently feed our nation without so much dependency on other nations. We are wasting our land growing foodstuffs that we do not need, in quantities we do not need. I dream of being able to find delicious and nutritious potatoes from Idaho again. Oranges, mangoes, and avocados from Florida. Apples from New England and Washington. Peanuts and rice from the Carolinas and peaches from Georgia. We need to look at all our eco-climates and decide to grow the things that grow best there because it's simply makes common sense. They would also be a lot more delicious. This is not a solution, only part of a solution I think is viable if want our food to be healthy, accessible and flavorful again.
Chef Sherman also made a comment during his keynote presentation that lawns were just wasted space were we could be growing food. This got me thinking: While there may be too many people in this country (or on this planet) to be able to sustain ourselves with small-scale farming alone, it does not mean that individuals cannot now try to mitigate their lack of access to affordable food by growing some of it themselves. Perhaps even having a network of friends who grow different foodstuffs to create an exchange to diversify their fare. I know that if I had to grow my own food, at least some of it, I would not only waste less but I would share more. So, I have taken his comment as a challenge. I live in a second floor apartment and while my downstairs neighbor has planted flowers and bushes everywhere where it might make sense to start a small garden, I do have a deck. I can simply buy some planters, right? Start simple. I'm feeling not only emboldened by my seasonal awakening but also by the fact that my basil plant from the summer is still alive and growing. She's looking pretty good! Here's to our right to food, to growing our own food, supporting our local farmers, and to learning from each other in our process! I will start documenting the gardening undertaking come the spring. I can't wait to involve Kahlo in this learning project and lifestyle transformation for two city girls that love to eat. Wish us luck!