Decolonizing Foodways: An Act of Resistance
By Erin Eberle
Food is essential to human existence and is a universal shared experience. If we do not control the production and consumption of the foods we eat, we cannot possibly nourish our bodies, minds, and spirits. Historically, Indigenous food systems were connected to Indigenous economies, culture, spirituality, and health. The fundamental values of respect, responsibility, stewardship, and sharing once guided these food systems from coast to coast. That is, until the white man “discovered” America, ultimately leading to centuries of devastating colonial practices which continue, to this day, to impact Indigenous peoples’ overall health and wellness. The colonization of Indigenous communities stripped them of their power and created a deep dependence on the U.S. government for survival.
One result of colonization was the formation of reservations. In 1890 the federal government made the decision to restrict Native Americans from leaving their reservations to hunt, fish, or gather local foods—all traditional ways of procuring their food. Instead, they would receive rations from the government. These rations were all nutritionally empty foods like sugar, flour, and lard. Over time, a preference for processed foods high in sugar and white flour became the norm in Native communities. This one oppressive act altered the future health of all Native Americans.
How can we maintain a healthy, connected, meaningful life if stripped of the ability to feed and sustain ourselves? The answer, clearly, is that we cannot. We see this reflected in unprecedented health epidemics including diabetes, cancer, and substance abuse in Native populations across the nation. Food insecurity is rampant and causing this “dis-ease.” There are 26 counties in the U.S. with a Native American majority population. At just over 20 percent, the average food insecurity rate of these counties is well above the average for U.S. counties — which is 15 percent — according to a recent study by Feeding America, a hunger relief nonprofit. These oppressive acts and resulting statistics require action.
It is time we take back our power.
Now more than ever we should be asking, “how can we increase the vitality of indigenous peoples? How can we maintain the integrity of ancestral traditions, embrace food and ways of growing, cooking, and eating that resist subjugation and instead empower?”
There is a growing movement among Indigenous communities to restore traditional foodways. The future of younger generations is dependent upon our willingness to listen, learn, and re-engage with the land and food supply in a more balanced way.
In northern California the Karuk Tribe teamed up with UC Berkeley to create The Klamath Basin Tribal Food Security Project. Their long-term goal is to achieve a sustainable food system in the Klamath Basin—one that re-educates communities about traditional foods and ways of farming—that results in healthy communities, healthy ecosystems and healthy economies among the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes and to become a model for other tribal and rural communities.
Another powerful and important project leading this movement to decolonize our food system is Native Harvest, a project founded and run by activist Winona LaDuke. Native Harvest connects Indians on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation with the growing and gathering of traditional foods such as wild rice, corn and maple syrup not only for consumption but also for sale internationally as premium, organic products. Profits from Native Harvest support the affiliated White Earth Land Recovery Project, which aims to reclaim the original land base and preserve original land practices. These and many more projects are at the forefront of reframing our food system narrative in order to create a balance of power and health.
Decolonizing our food system—the quest to be truly free— is critical to taking back our power. It is also an act of resistance. A resistance to the patriarchal systems responsible for the degradation of our individual health, our communities, and our environment. In the truest sense, this act of resistance is the ultimate form of rebellion. It gives us a voice and space to stand up for our lives and our history. It allows us to take our power back, thus opening up the possibility of asserting that power in other spheres as well.
The revolutionary act of reclaiming the right to feed ourselves may be the essential act required to transform our nation in these uncertain times. We must start somewhere and we must work together. I cannot think of a better place to begin planting the seeds of change—to challenge the colonial systems of power and privilege—than with the food we grow and eat.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 4