Reclaiming Native Truth

From Reclaiming Native Truth to Allyship in Action: Activating Intention with Equity, Inclusion, and Justice
By Sophie Javna

Slow Food leaders gathered at the University of Denver campus on Friday, July 19th, for the afternoon Slow Food Nations Leader Summit panel. The session, “Reclaiming Native Truth,” was an opportunity for Slow Food leaders to learn more about the invisibility and misconceptions of Native Americans, to hear from a panel of Indigenous food activists, to understand barriers, and to learn of opportunities as the food movement strives to become an ally to Native American communities.

The event began with Wade Fernandez, award-winning musician and citizen of the Menominee Nation Reservation in Wisconsin. Fernandez played a combination of traditional and original songs, in both Menominee and English. “Our language is considered a dying language,” Fernandez explained, introducing his second song, Suana Mia, or “we are blessed,” in English. “But despite all the things that oppressed us, we’re still alive…and we’re all working to bring things back up again. Remember those blessings, because it’s that love that keeps us going.” Fernandez’s performance was met with standing ovations.

Myths and Misconceptions

Denisa Livingston, the panel’s organizer and Slow Food Indigenous International Councilor of the Global North, thanked Fernandez. “Suana Mia—we are blessed,” Livingston said, “it’s very spiritual and emotional. We are our ancestors wildest dreams. That gives me the chills.”

Livingston then introduced the national research campaign Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT), the first comprehensive research project in America designed to uncover the “myths and misconceptions” shaping mainstream views of Native Americans. “When we’re talking about the narrative of Indigenous people,” Livingston said, “we’re talking about something that is very, very sensitive.” Every person in the room, she explained, has the right to write and tell their own story. However, as RNT’s research findings indicate, serious and harmful biases still underlie most Americans’ perceptions and shape dominant narratives about Native Americans.

With two informational videos providing a framework of understanding led by Crystal Echo Hawk and Michael Roberts, Livingston presented some of the concepts explored by RNT and the implications of its findings; invisibility— perpetuating a misconception that Native people do not exist, or that they actually are like the representations and dehumanizing stereotypes found in most mainstream media— arose as one of the most prevalent and problematic biases held by Americans.

These biases have real-world affects. But so does the comprehensive data, Livingston said. “The significance of Reclaiming Native Truth cannot be underestimated,” she said, adding that the project also revealed hopeful statistics about Americans’ willingness to support positive changes in society’s treatment of Native Americans and to embrace a new narrative. Findings could have affects, she said, “in ways that can lead to policy and culture shifts across society.”

With a foundation of shared understanding grounding Slow Food participants in RNT’s work, the stage was set to pose the question: “How do you ally?”

How Do You Ally?

This question was asked Slow Food Bay Area Governor and panel moderator, Ian McFaul. He began answering this question by asking another: is “ally” really the right term? “You can be an ‘ally’ and choose not to do something. However, as an accomplice, you are involved. It’s hard not to do something.” For further reading on acting as an accomplice, he suggested the Vice article, “100 Ways to Support—Not Appropriate From— Native People,” and a website for users to view a map of the traditional territories of Native nations, available as a tool to intentionally bring awareness to “Indigenous presence and land rights in every day life.” He asked the audience to question their definition of “relative,” (wild rice, Diné (Navajo) Churro sheep, sumac, blue corn, chiltapin peppers, potatoes, and salmon were some examples he gave) and and to expand our “reverence and respect” for place. For instance, Oak Flat, near Phoenix, AZ, is considered sacred land of the San Carlos Apache tribe, but is under threat by mining companies. “How about that?” he said. “Can you imagine the Vatican being turned into a copper mine?”

McFaul then welcomed the session’s panelists: Emigdio Ballon, Roy Kady, Lorraine Kahneratokwas Gray, and Vincent Medina, McFaul began moderating by asking the question: “What are some strategies that Non-Native folks can use to be allies?”

Protect the Sacred

“We always ask the allies around the table to spread the messages from the table to the streets,” Vincent Medina said. “If they hear dangerous misconceptions spoken, that they reject them” he said. “Once the greater public knows these messages, they will know we are alive and strong. And…they will work to protect the sacred.” Medina is a member of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and lives in his family’s indigenous tribal area of Halkin (Southern Oakland/San Leandro/San Lorenzo). His tribe’s federal recognition was removed in 1927, an attempt to make invisible their inhabitance of that land. “I remember how little visibility there was and how damaging that was,” he said. “People didn’t seem to care that we were alive. But even in those painful times,” he said, “they always reminded us, work to make sure that people know we’ve never left this place in the East Bay.” Today, Medina and Louis Trevino run Mak-‘amham, an organization and restaurant, and Cafe Ohlone (named in the top 100 best restaurants in the Bay Area), both focused on reviving and strengthening traditional Ohlone foods. He asked allies to continue to do their part to reverse damaging narratives.

Roy Kady shared a teaching from his grandfather: “When we make a friendship or meet people, [he] said, this is you.” He added, “Your right hand is your mother and your maternal grandparents. The left hand is the same way, your father and your paternal grandparents. That is why we greet them with a handshake and with our left hand we embrace them.” Kady is Diné (Navajo) and a well-established sheep herder, fiber artist, co-founder of the Taa Dibei – Navajo Churro Heritage Lamb Presidium, and resides in Goat Spring, Arizona, a town “so small that if you drove by and blinked, you’d miss it.” He said that embodying the lessons and stories we receive and passing them to the next generation are ways that he builds allies. Kady himself mentors youth within the Navajo Nation about preserving their lifeways with sheep, farming, foraging the land, and fiber arts. “It is going to take us together to approach some of the things we’re talking about,” he said. “My grandfather was a medicine man. He was the teacher, the educator. He was a good samaritan in his community. That’s the legacy I continue because I grew up with that.”

McFaul closed the panel with the question, “How do you be intentional?”

Emigdio Ballon stressed the importance of education, but a different kind than we’re currently taught. A plant geneticist, researcher, biodynamic farmer and organic certification inspector, and seed saver, Emigdio Ballon employs traditional Quechua techniques and rituals which he learned at his grandfather’s side as a boy in Bolivia. “What’s so important is the level of sensitivity and the level of love,” he said. Learning to value seeds, to value the gifts around us, to value each other over greed, this is the education and intentionality we need, explained Ballon. “We have this mentality— ‘it’s me, it’s me, it’s me.’ We come to this planet to love each other and support each other… We have to find a way to work together. To help each other.”

Lorrraine Kahneratokwas Gray, from the Mohawk Nation and currently living in New Mexico, has been working to protect traditional seeds and foods for the last 20 years. Co-founder of many community food projects and Terra Madre delegate, she is currently working as the Executive Director of the Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute, working with youth and elders in South America and throughout Turtle Island. Gray recounted a story that made national news, in which a woman called the police on her two sons when they arrived late to a college tour, because they were quiet and branded as strange. “A bias woman in the group saw the ‘crazy Indians’…they were interrogated, searched, made to be afraid,” she said. “There are many people, supposedly educated, who misrepresent, misspeak, show their bias,” said Gray. She advised allies to be wary and make decisions for themselves. “If it doesn’t feel right, or makes you stop and think, maybe do the opposite, or maybe do something different.”

Intentional Allyship

Some Slow Food members emerged from the panel confused by the connection between the concept of “allyship” and the mission of Slow Food as an organization. “The RNT presentation is a start to opening the conversation and opportunities that exists for all of us to uplift and empower one another through our Slow Food work,” clarified Livingston in a statement. “Indigenous peoples are a lifeline to protecting Mother Earth and in Slow Food, we need to recognize that allyship in action and partnerships needs to exist if we are going to move forward in honorable directions for future generations – together.” She said this was the first time the Land Acknowledgement signage was created and posted at Slow Food Nations, an example of how the Equity, Inclusion and Justice Manifesto had produced “allyship in action.” She described the importance of this panel was within the history of Slow Food USA, saying: “In Slow Food, we need more of this integration that rightfully and respectfully honors the sacred food and life ways of our people that also honors their contribution and efforts. Many times, we are misrepresented, we should be invited to the table to share in the ways meaningful to us.”

However, many Slow Food members were also moved by the Leader Summit session and reflected on its impact. “It’s a lot to process,” said Twinke VanWinkle, Indianapolis Slow Food Chair and Executive Chef for the Patachou Foundation. “Every person needs to think about what allyship is to them and how we can be a part of that change.” Jim Embry, founder of Kentucky’s Sustainable Communities Network and Co-Chair of Slow Food USA’s Equity, Inclusion and Justice Subcommittee, was both encouraged by the panel and reminded that Slow Food USA still has more work to do in its efforts to ally with Native American communities. “This panel reminds me, in a good way,” he said, “that this [conversation] is long overdue.” He referred to Slow Food’s international symbol, the Snail, saying, “In the USA we take the snail pace to the extreme! Lets put that snail on a skateboard and move a little faster.” Lauren Nelson, co-founder of the Slow Food Youth Network USA, agreed with Embry’s sentiment. “I greatly appreciate this discussion,” she said, “but it saddens me that we still haven’t moved past the basics—treat people like humans. We need to strive for more.”

McFaul said he could “hear a pin drop” in the room. “You can see how people are really interested in Indigenous knowledge, in the people who live this work,” he said. Though Reclaiming Native Truth focused on extremely sensitive topics and have historical and systemic violence at their core that must be acknowledged, McFaul said it was important in his conversations with Livingston that the session inspire action and come from a “perspective of positivity and forward motion.”

Or, in the words of Denisa Livingston herself, “They tried to bury us—but they didn’t know that we were seeds. And you’re all seeds too, all of you.”

Are you ready to Ally?

Special thanks to Denisa Livingston and Ian McFaul for curating this panel and editing this article.

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