Indigenous Foodways and Lifeways

By Marisha Zeffer

This panel was hosted by Slow Food Turtle Island Association. 

This panel featured indigenous community members, organizers, advocates, and leaders. They shared their efforts, initiatives, and programs to re-introduce indigenous traditional foods, seed sovereignty, and policy and advocacy efforts.

A common thread throughout the panel was the effort to “integrate foods back into the tradition,” by providing hands-on cooking classes and herbal demonstrations.

What became clear was that generations became disconnected from one another due to the enforced boarding school phase of their history, interrupting the continuity of handing down traditions. 

To rectify this disparity, one reservation built community smokehouses to re-teach their people the craft of smoking salmon which had become a lost art. Further, they taught the children how to fish, clean and filet the fish, and perhaps most importantly, how to present the fish as a gift to their elders.

Roy, a shepherd, wanted to train the youth to forage, assess, and care for the land. The unspoken law as forager is: take from the land only what you need and leave the rest for others; give back to the land.

Winona Nutima spoke on behalf of her father, who heads the Traditional Farmers Association. She is both a forager and an herbalist. She shared many of her treasures with the audience, including stories. In 2004, she and her father went to the Slow Food International festival, Terra Madre, in Italy, to share their seed saving practices and the many uses of multicolor corn. Nutima often makes bread called piki from the blue corn superfood, a food from the Hopi tribe in Arizona. 

Tiffany, another panelist, spoke of the importance of pumpkin and chilis for her ancestors in Colorado. She sees her work is to “reclaim traditional knowledge.”  Citing oota, the Navajo tea, she explained how it is used to dye wool. She also noted how as many as 2000 anti-inflammatory plants were known to her ancestors. Using tea bundles she makes infusions from these herbs, thanking and revering her plants with songs, just as her ancestors did.

The great takeaway from the panel was the incredible number of challenges that the indigenous foodways face. These include access to their indigenous land and land rights, the fines they face for foraging, being able to feasibly rid their communities of plastic, being able to protect and sustain their waterways for the clean harvesting of fish, being able to actively teach harvesting and foraging, and the loss of seeds due to colonization. A delegate from Kenya summed up the starting place for solutions in one simple plea: “We must change the narrative…[we can’t focus on] what we used to do, but what we do now.” 

Participating in #MeatlessMondays will not necessarily lead to systemic change. Rather, we need to eat meat that fits our values. Systemic change sometimes seems impossible when considering the way the rallying cries of vegetarians are often silenced by the sheer amount of meat Americans consume.  

Pitting vegetarians/vegans and meat-consumers against one another is not the answer. However, meat consumption is on the rise, pounds per person increasing at a rate in the United States that the earth physically cannot support. 

The symbiotic relationship between plants and animals has led to the rise in popularity of the latest ag buzz word: regenerative agriculture. This term is in contrast to monoculture, and it emphasizes a diversified farming that gives to the earth more than it takes. When maintaining biodiversity and supporting independent family farms, regenerative agriculture can be the next step toward rebuilding topsoil and showing us the future of slow meat. 

A preliminary case study by the University of Vermont demonstrated the benefits of regenerative agriculture. The team monitored 400 acres and reflected how a new model of soil change allowed 2 million gallons of water absorption per year as well as significant sequestration of carbon. Small, local farms benefit not only the soil but also the communities in which they exist – research shows that their profits are spent in their local community 7 times more often than big business. 

To incentivize local farms, Nori gives subsidies for carbon removal, rewarding good practices rather encouraging farmers not to raise meat at all. Some of these good practices include managing grazing to help sequester carbon and raising beef cattle for a longer time. These subsidization efforts help independent farmers stay afloat; whereas the USDA offers little to independent farmers, many – chicken farmers in particular – live below the poverty line and lack a local slaughterhouse that would lower expenses.

Two of the ranches of discussion were Applegate, owned by Hormel, and Niman Ranch, owned by Purdue. Applegate produces a million pounds of meat per year, showing the need for  regionalized supply chain versus massive centralization. In 1979 and 2012 there were the same amount of cows. The difference between then and today? Now there are 90% less farmers.

Farmers have the potential to become the new rock stars like chefs. The terroir of meat is comparable to that of wine. The question is how to get consumers to treat it as a product that deserves just as much heed.

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