One of the most recent books I read, “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse was an epic fantasy centered around precolonial American. In it, Roanhorse uses the rich history and diversity of precolonial America for a very inclusive work of fantasy, so different from anything I’ve read. The world building was extraordinary, but as always, food sticks out to me. The various foods mentioned in the story— maize, dried fish, cacao, and eel—got me thinking about how 3/5 of the food cultivated in the world came from precolonial America. In fact, post contact, Indigenous foods swept across the world, allowing for improved nutrition and population growth (from For Indigenous Eyes Only). Thus the tomatoes from my garden (one of the foods that changed Europe) along with hot chocolate, described in the book as “the food of the gods” have a rich, storied history in America.
Of course, it all ties back to the issue of food sovereignty. Food and culture are as closely intertwined as my snap peas are attached to the chain link fence that I strategically planted them by. Disconnect one part from the other and the system breaks down, wilts and falls apart. Most of my early memories exist because of food, and certain smells, flavors, and textures quickly evoke long forgotten places in time. The best example I have is bread. For me, bread is home. My mother baked bread several times a weeks, lovingly kneading loaf after sweaty loaf until she got a bread maker, but still, only letting the machine do the difficult part. Later she’d return to kneading, saying it was good exercise, but the smell of freshly baked bread billowing out of the oven always takes me right back to childhood. Likewise, the smell of grease and my mom telling me to “light every candle in the house” reminds me of the days she just wanted a taste of home—filling a skillet with oil and grease, carefully flatting each disc-shaped wafer of dough to make fry bread for Indian tacos. The reason why food sovereignty is so important is because food is the greatest reminder of who we are and once were.
Indigenous Food Sovereignty is making cultural and traditional foods easily accessible to people and putting people before profit. It’s about keeping food local and not devastating the environment in the process of harvesting. Food sovereignty is a sustainable practice that values people rather than large corporations, so here are some more reasons why it’s so important to our world.
The first major premise of food sovereignty is to “nurture healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, plants, and animals that provide us with our food. There are many aspects to this, but as a Lummi person I know how important salmon is to my culture and my identity. To practice food sovereignty, I would need to nurture and promote a healthy, interdependent relationship with the main animal that provides us food: salmon. Salmon are born in a river and eventually return to the river. The eggs hatch in spring and the fry spend a year or so growing and preparing to migrate. As they grow, much like any creature, a healthy habitat is important to the young fry, or the fish become diseased and fail to thrive. These days, the erosion of the precious salmon habitat is seen all to often as pollution, rising temperatures, man-made dams, and fish farms threaten to exterminate the sacred fish. Therefore, I believe the first start, and a doable act, in achieving food sovereignty would be to refuse to eat farmed fish. The detrimental impact of farmed fished was clearly illustrated in 2017 when 305,000 fish escaped from a pen collapse in the Salish Sea (see Seattle Times, Mapes, 2017). This particular incident was likened to an oil spill because fish raised in right quarters are often deformed and diseased and steal resources from wild salmon. Restaurants and markets refusing to buy farmed salmon play a crucial role in undermining the farmed salmon market and lobbying business to take part in a boycott would be an effective way to end this practice. The impacts of farmed fish and genetically modified his can be achieved through river restoration and fighting against the placement of farmed fry into waterways.
The next premise of food sovereignty is participatory. To return to the example of the salmon, tribes must be invested in traditional harvesting methods to fully practice food sovereignty. Traditionally, salmon was only caught to feed our families; it was not bought or sold (from Lummi Elder’s Speak). To return to this way of life, and to preserve wild salmon, there must be a complete overhaul of the commercial fishing industry. In addition, camas, a traditional food harvested and grown in the Pacific Northwest, like the salmon, has nearly been depleted in the wild. An easy way to return to camas would be to purchase bulbs and grow them in your own garden. I just bought some from Strictly Medicinal Seeds to experiment. (https://strictlymedicinalseeds.com/product/camas-blue-live-bulbs-camassia-quamash-bag-of-6/)
The third premise of food sovereignty is self-determination. This is where I see the freedom from commodity foods and overreliance on grocery stores. Government commodities have ruined Native diets and have created massive health disparities. Whereas traditional diets would have been lean meat, fruits and vegetables, the effects of colonization have been “highly processed canned, salted and sugared foods, canned fatty meats, and high quantities of refined sugar and bleached white flour” (from For Indigenous Eyes Only) Fry bread has become so tied to Indigenous diets that I brought it every year for my school’s multicultural celebration (salmon was too hard to come by). However, fry bread is the result of commodities, and has been epitomized as such. For instance, Tommy Orange references the lack of resources when he says, “They only knew about Indian tacos because their grandma made them for their birthdays. It was one of the few Indian things she did. And she was always sure to remind them that it’s not traditional, and that it comes from lacking resources and wanting comfort food” (181). When I think back to my early example of my mom wanting a “taste of home” when she made fry bread, I now think about the reminder of who are and were. It is important to recognize that flour, sugar, lard and other commodities are the result of colonization and not having the resources for a traditional diet. These commodities have contributed to the decline of Indigenous health and are the reason why participation in food sovereignty is so important.
Lastly, and closely tied, is the need for policy surrounding food sovereignty. There must be more action taken to ensure that Indigenous people have the access and resources to their traditional foods coming from governments and leaders. A plan must be enacted to educate communities on traditional foods and on how to acquire them.
To me, food sovereignty is closely tied to who I am and my identity as an Indigenous person. It is the right to know and eat the foods that are native to my people and the right to make informed decisions about my diet. It’s about acknowledging where foods come from and what their benefits are. It is shopping like my ancestors are watching me, and being conscious of the food I put into my body. The importance cannot be stated enough—culture, identity and food are so intertwined that it’s an act of decolonization and survival to remember and consume traditional foods. As the old adage goes, you are what you eat—and food is a reminder of who we are as a people.