I feel so honored to have spent April 19-23 honoring the exquisite food traditions of Turtle Island with representatives from many tribal communities at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit. More than 350 people from 40 tribes were in attendance to celebrate and learn more about the vibrant and diverse food traditions of the Americas.
As shared stories and laughter around the hearth and learning circles, it was clear that this experience went beyond the typical conference. Often we go to conferences and spend too much time in stuffy boardrooms or hotel conference centers, yet this event, hosted at Camp Jijak, the beautiful powwow grounds of the Gun Lake Potawatomi in Michigan, was a true restoration of the village heart and hearth.
In addition to the incredible feasting, there were a diverse array of hands-on workshops and skill sharing circles. Natasha Smoke-Santiago (Akwesasne Mohawk) taught traditional pottery for cooking from locally dug clay, a local named Peter MeCreedy taught us how to make moose scapula hoes and deer antler rakes, and Roger Labine (Lake Superior Chippewa) shared his teachings on making cedar rice knockers for wild rice harvesting and all the steps to gathering, winnowing, parching and cooking with manoomin, or wild rice. Clayton Brascoupe (Mohawk/Tesuque Pueblo) shared with us how to make traditional Haudenosaunee planting sticks, and we then shared our teachings about traditional seed stewardship and heirloom seeds.
Dave Shananaquet and other locals from Gun Lake Potawatomi shared the art of birch bark basketmaking for vessels for wildcrafting and gathering. There were foraging walks to learn more about the local wild foods, and hands-on cooking demonstrations happened around the several hearths on site. Aretta Begay, (Diné) shared a traditional Churro sheep slaughter and butcher, and how to prepare and honor the life of the sheep in using all the aspects of the sheep as food or fiber. There were sessions on cooperative development, traditional gardening practices, community seed banking, planting by the lunar cycles, and all manner of other topics related to vibrant food system revitalization.
Between the scheduled workshops, we shared wonderful conversations around the colorful and creative plates of food created by the team of some 15 indigenous chefs that traveled in from all over the country. All the ingredients for the meals were made from from pre-colonial indigenous ingredients, including foraged wild edibles and game such as muskrat, beaver, moose, deer and bison.
Those days together were an embodied prayer to all those ancestors we descend from, an honoring song and a love poem for all the sacred foods and seeds and cultural memory they have passed down through the ages to feed us. It is in gatherings such as these that we feed those sacred hungers of our ancestors, those who perhaps we caught in the tumult of the generational change that was brought on by colonialism, acculturation and displacement. In our time together, we fed those hungers and stoked the appetites of a whole new generation of Native people who wish to nourish themselves from the foods and flavors that fed their ancestors. These gatherings represent a beautiful and holistic ecology of indigenous education, where much of the learning happens in the creative acts of doing, helping, making, and sharing of story. Beyond the scheduled workshops, there was sharing of skills and ideas, seeds being swapped and new foods and crafts being traded and bought.
The beauty of our time at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit was the opportunity for cross-cultural sharing. With food at the center, it was an incredible full sensory experience that is a communally integrated expression of indigenous resilience. Much of what was taught was livestreamed and still available to watch.
We are witnessing a new chapter in the movement for tribal food sovereignty, as tribes come together to help each other rebuild and cultivate vibrant foodways. A blending of old techniques and skills melds with modern day tools and new indigenous trade routes to create feasts that inspire a new generation of indigenous culinary arts. The synergy in the kitchen—with chefs from many different cultural backgrounds coming together to create a fusion of food that was deeply nourishing for mind body and spirit—was an amazing thing to see. Cholla buds mixed with wild rice in an incredible salad, Pueblo corn meal mixed with smoky white fish of the Great Lakes, the flavors of north meeting south that inspires the next generation of food and seed culture. This is the restoration of the same indigenous trade routes that allowed corn to move from the heart of Oaxaca all the way up and down the spine of the Americas, the same forces that have helped shape culture throughout the ages as goods, ideas and stories are shared. From this gathering, everyone will bring back rekindled fires of creative inspiration to ensure more nutrient dense indigenous foods are finding a more permanent place in our diets and community centers.
One of the most inspiring aspects of this gathering was the indigenous kitchen hearth; we cannot forget that one vital piece of the revitalization and decolonization of our foodways is to restore our ancestral tools and methods of cooking. This weekend there was a vibrant camp hearth from which many incredible foods emerged; all infused with the flavors of savory smoke, ash and fragrant herbs. How incredibly inspiring to witness the traditional and ancestral ways in which many different communities of people cooked their sacred foods—the clay vessels, the stone grinding bowls, the birchbark and wooden bowls, the clay ovens, the spit roasted meats. Another layer of deep nourishment to see our people cooking around an open camp fire; with laughter and sacred purpose of rekindling our spirit fire as we continue to heal and rise up as Indigenous Peoples, as we restore our magnificent ways of doing what must be done to feed the children and all our relations, to uphold our original agreements to make beauty in the ways in which we live upon this Good Earth. There is no more hopeful and inspiring company than the farmers and people of the Earth. As Winona LaDuke so eloquently states: “The recovery of the people is tied to recovery of food, since food itself is medicine—not only for the body but also for the soul and the spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land.”
As we saw with the movement at Standing Rock, there is an opportunity for indigenous communities to gather around a common mission and prayer, which brings an infusion of power and inspiration to an already thriving local and regional movement for food sovereignty. This gathering was a grand cross pollination of ideas, flavors, projects and networks, and will help foster a supportive network of solutions oriented humans and projects that inspire this food sovereignty movement to grow; just like the seeds themselves, this movement is multiplying exponentially. One person attending this gathering carries home and shares their ideas with their home community, and soon those ideas have sprouted into whole circles of support and action towards bringing more healthy and traditional foods back into our homes, kitchens, pantries, schools, and ceremonial houses.
This is the embodied prayer that will restore good health into our communities, as we rise up from an era of scorched earth policies of the last several centuries, when our foodsystems were deliberately dismantled to disempower our communities. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. This is true indigenous resilience; the ancestral foods are coming back to us as allies to help us reverse the damage produced by centuries of historical trauma and colonial violence. Today, we are witnessing the emergence of an exquisite and foundational movement involving the recovery of ancestral food crops, wild plants, and traditional cuisines.
Many of us who attended the food summit hope that we will see more of these intertribal and regional events being celebrated all over Turtle Island, as a testament to the strength and perseverance of our traditions and the importance of these intertribal trade routes. In this gathering, we made a powerful prayer and statement that the seeds of hope are coming alive in the hearts and minds of people all over Indian country. At the closing of another potent Intertribal Food Summit, I am once again humbled by the strength and resilience of indigenous communities. This event was an honoring song for our collective and ancient cultural memories that still resonate in our blood and bones; and for these time honored agreements we have made with the plants who nourish us: we will take care of you and you will take care of us.
Together with our stories, our voices, our visions and our presence, we wove a basket to hold all the seeds of hope that nourish us. We wove a vessel inside our hearts that makes the ancestors rejoice, one that holds the stories of how we survived with hope in our hearts and seeds in our pockets.
We are still here. We are still vibrant. We are indigenous families with beautifully sustainable ways of living and nourishing our communities. This gathering was a story of healing through many generations. Thank you to the Gun Lake Potawotami community for inviting us to renew our well of hope and for inviting us in with open hearts to grow a more abundant future for those yet to come, and to be a reflection of how inherently abundant this Earth and Life truly is. As our hands moved in unison to create new tools and to learn new skills and to remember ancestral flavors in our quest to feed our families and communities from our lands, our hearts beat in promise to uphold our sacred agreements to care for these wise life giving seeds, foods and cultural memory. As we all travel home feeling reinvigorated by our time together honoring our ancestral food traditions, may we find in our hearts the courage of the seeds sprouting in dark soil…. may we gather this energy of springtime new beginnings, and may we sow the seeds of hope into our gardens and tend them well. This celebration of life will continue to feed and nourish us on many layers for seasons to come, and it is our prayer that this kind of beauty becomes the ceremony of everyday, the indigenous hearths and gardens full of abundance to feed those well beyond this time.
Rowen White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for indigenous seed sovereignty. She is founder of Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed stewardship organization based in California. Rowen is the current National Project Coordinator for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network, which is an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a non-profit aimed at leveraging resources to support tribal food sovereignty projects. She weaves stories of seeds, food, culture and sacred Earth stewardship on her blog, Seed Songs.