Thursday, October 3, 2013

Decolonize Your Diet

I want to fill you in about my absence on the blog lately.  I assure you that I have many, many recipe ideas and photos taking up space in my mind just waiting to be written in post form for your consumption (If you're hard up for inspirations in the meantime and need some foodporn, hit up my Instagram account at 'IndigenousFoodRevolutionary').  Look for some scrumptious posts in the coming two weeks.

What's been keeping me, you ask?  Well, I have been volunteering for the 10th Annual World On Your Plate Conference on Food and Sustainable Living, October 11th & 12th at Daemen College.  More specifically, I've been helping out with working with local, organic farms to secure donations for our amazingly delicious conference luncheon and doing a lot of website work.  Soon after, I will also help co-write and compile the annual recipe book with indigenous-inspired recipes for sale at next year's conference.  If you're interested in hearing more about my work on this site, I will be presenting, "Eat Like a Caveman?: Ancestral and Decolonizing Approaches to Diet and Wellness," an exploration into my health changes including, but not limited to: ideas about diet, food allergy and sensitivities, incorporating new habits, and recipe ideas.  I may even bring some samples in if I can find the time to bake.  :-)  This year's conference features Indigenous agricultural expert, Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant and organic farmer/activist, Elizabeth Henderson.  Our organizing committee has done a wonderful job putting all of this together and I encourage you to check out the program online as there are many interesting topics and workshops - (students get in free!).  I'll have a vendors table set up as well, so come visit!

Aside from this, I have had lots of ideas stewing and marinating (pardon the cooking puns), begging to be organized and written in some form.  Deconstructing the purpose and theme behind this blog may be the best place to begin - "INDIGENOUS FOOD REVOLUTIONARY."  What does this even mean?  What or who qualifies as "indigenous"?  What the heck is "food" anymore, anyway?  And, what do these things have anything to do with "revolution" - do you mean, like, the agricultural revolution or the overthrowing of governments?  Well, I've been giving a lot of thought to this concept.  As I mentioned, the idea of a "food revolutionary" comes from a discussion that took place last year with my friend Nancy about how the supermarket and our food system has changed so much over the last several decades that we can no longer trust the USDA, FDA, or food manufacturers to create food in our best interests (GMOs, high fructose cornsyrup, pesticides, food additives, artificial flavors, anyone?).  It was concluded that instead, we need to be advocates for ourselves, shopping with a sense of skepticism and producing our own foods when possible.  I was inspired by this because it got me thinking about where change or "revolution" ought to come from in terms of our diet, health, and the food we consume.  It's apparent that one has to make change at the individual level to hopefully cause a ripple effect in the system.  It seems as though traditional methods of activism like letter-writing campaigns, organized protests, and marches don't nearly have as big an impact as they used to in terms of the food industry.  One might wonder where our generation of muckrakers are.  Today, it is more about the power of social media, shared knowledge and discourse, individual action and voting with one's dollar - a dollar spent on a locally grown, organic apple rather than a bag of Cheetos sends a message that reverberates.  

Now, for the indigenous part.  As Native American-Indigenous people, we have within us the inherent concept of sovereignty or nationhood: the way-way-way-before-1492 right to self-governance, upholding our traditional ways, and deciding what is in our best interest to sustain our communities at the moment and through seven generations beyond our time.  Several components comprise this idea of sovereignty: our people, land and communities, spiritual beliefs, ceremonies, worldview, languages, arts, traditions, and so forth.  For my non-Native readers who may be lost at this point, you might be familiar with local Indian issues via news media like cigarette and gasoline taxation, casinos and gaming, treaty rights, fishing or hunting rights, or environmental issues - at the heart of these "debates" and "controversy" is this time immemorial right to tribal sovereignty, and the issues televised (albeit, skewed) usually deal with Native resistance to a long legacy of infringements on this concept/right.  There is a lengthy and complicated history as well as federal Indian law background and court cases to support this, and I will bring it up on an as needed basis, but that's not the focus here.  The point is that Indigenous people, being "from the land", have a right to uphold longstanding traditions, protect the earth, and make decisions with these principles in mind.  

What does this have to do with food?  Everything!  Our food is what sustains us; it is our connection to the land, the waters, animal and plant life, the sun, our ceremonial cycles, our higher power.  Despite centuries of colonization, there has been great movement to "decolonize": that is, to do our best to return to traditional ways, exercise this sovereignty, and make changes to undo what has been done through various means with the realistic view that we may never totally get back to what we once had.  Nonetheless, this concept extends to our diet and sustenance.  To "decolonize your diet", as Waziyatawin Angela Wilson writes, is to promote a lifestyle centered on traditional Indigenous foods for "good nutritional health, physical activity, spiritual and cultural strengthening, and a revitalized relationship with the land and its beings" and to undo "the negative effects of colonization on our health and diet and restoring a sense of well-being to ourselves, our families, and communities" (Wilson and Yellowbird 68).  Although this definition might seem exclusionary, I invite my non-Native readers to embrace this idea too as it applies in your life since we share the afflictions of consuming a Standard American Diet.

Allow me to circle back to where we started, considering how to define an "Indigenous food revolutionary."  I believe that being an Indigenous food revolutionary means being an advocate for traditional foods and practices, resisting the Western diet and food industry as reasonably as we can, reconnecting with the land and our food, eating with gratitude and the Good Mind, sharing and connecting with others, participating in ceremony, and exercising sovereignty over these decisions with the intent that each little change can have larger, systemic implications.  This revolution is the little back yard garden that produces tomatoes and peppers.  It is the deer carcass hunted and shared by a family, or the bass fish frying on the stove that came from the nearby stream.  It is the "nya:weh" you say after your meal has been eaten.  It can even be your annual CSA membership or the transaction you make at your Saturday afternoon farmer's market.  Decolonize to make change.

I conclude with some of John Mohawk's thoughts from the article, "Wild and Slow: Nourished by Tradition":
In the contemporary world, doing things without thinking about them is not working out.  This is true for all people, because the same issues are impacting all populations worldwide.  We are seeing an unprecedented growth of the same kinds of diet-related diseases... The antidote may require some organizing.
The first step is nutrition education, but simply telling people about the problem is not enough.  Something like a mini cultural revolution needs to happen in order to change behaviors.  People who are motivated to change are going to need to find alternatives to unhealthy diets and lifestyles.  They will need to support one another and share ideas and, in this case, recipes...
It helps if people organize themselves into support groups to help each other.  This is consistent with the societies created by indigenous cultures of people who were committed to helping one another.  In this case, the help might come in the form of shared recipes and information about how some foods are beneficial and others are dangerous.  Regular meetings can offer information about the traditional culture and provide information about sourcing traditional slow foods.  There are ways to share foods, recipes, and success stories (22). 
He goes on to emphasize that such a movement should reach out to all and contain the messages that "exercise is important, food is important; self-esteem and a long list of other healthy things are important; and sharing a path toward healing is the most important of all" (22-23, emphasis added).  Indeed, this whole journey for me has been "a path toward healing" and this is what has started this blog site and what I envision will help others.  So I ask, won't you share this path with me? 

Barreiro, Jose, ed.  "Wild and Slow: Nourished by Tradition."  Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader.  Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010.

Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, eds.  "Decolonizing Indigenous Diets."  For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook.  Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2005.

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