Food Sovereignty: Nourishing and Teaching the Next Generation

Photo by Rowen White/Basket of heritage seeds gathered at the Indigenous Farming Conference. Teaching Native American youth about food sovereignty is important.

Indigenous chefs pass on their culinary skills to regain food sovereignty.

Our freedom rests in a handful of corn seeds. How can we be truly sovereign peoples (economically, politically, culturally) if we cannot feed and nourish ourselves? We are indeed swimming upstream against a long legacy of scorched earth policies by the dominant colonial forces that systematically dismantled our traditional food systems to attempt to take away our power. Many tribal communities and individuals are returning to the land, and cultivating an array of healthy traditional foods to rebuild our vibrant indigenous economies and lifeways to return food sovereignty to the communities. This is indigenous resilience, as we move through the era of disconnection to our foods and traditions, and breathe new life into them by restoring those intergenerational pathways of learning. My daughter Maizie is finding her heart and path in the world, thanks to these generous friends who take time out of their busy works in the kitchen to offer a place to help.

Early spring is a wonderful time for farmers to gather, to share seeds and stories before the long growing season ahead. Our family spent the last few weeks at a number of vibrant indigenous food sovereignty gatherings; the Food Sovereignty Festival in Tsaile, Arizona, Diné Nation; the Indigenous Farming Conference at White Earth Anishanaabe, and the Food Sovereignty Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin.

As we travel west, home from a two-week adventure of indigenous food gatherings, my heart is warmed by all the memories we carry with us. A new yellow birch corn pounder riding passenger alongside a basket of treasures we gathered along these indigenous trade routes; freshly made maple sugar, an array of speckled beans and corns from the Anishanaabe peoples, wood parched wild rice, chokecherry syrup, wildcrafted sweet gale tea from the Potawotami, and smoked salmon from new friends we met who traveled east from the Wasco communities of Warm Springs.

One of my favorite aspects of these gatherings is the delicious food prepared by the growing network of indigenous chefs. As we are learning new ways of integrating our traditional foodways into our communities, we are being deeply nourished with incredible preparations of these foods that inspire our taste buds and draw to the surface our ancestral memory of flavors. Maizie is now bubbling with excitement over the diverse array of unique recipes and food preparation that were offered, and is hoping to work with these new combinations in our own farm kitchen—corn mush flavored with bear root, blue corn crusted walleye, chia seed pudding with maple cream, trout grilled within a corn husk with any number of new combinations of herbs and wildcrafted treasures to season with. There is a delightful palette of new flavor combinations for her to explore, alongside the stories and memories she carries with these new recipes. Nothing warms a mother’s heart more than seeing her daughter flourish and thrive in her learning path. This is true indigenous education, allowing her natural gifts to come to the surface, and be shaped and honed through the guidance of gifted community members who share a similar passion.

In my Mohawk community, we see the young children as new kernels underneath the cornhusks. Our community and family are the husks that protect our young and help them develop into young adults. As I see my daughter welcomed in to learn and grow alongside these creative indigenous chefs, she is gathering a whole constellation of knowledge that I alone would be unable to impart to her. She is learning new ways of relating to food from these people she has great admiration for, and as she grows deep roots of her sense of place and self, these mentors provide a bundle of nourishing traditions that will help her find her way.

An elder once told me that teenagers are best guided by extended family and community members. During this part of their lifecycle, they look to their uncles and aunties, to elders in their community to gain a sense of independence and a sense of their place in the world.

I am thankful for the small but powerful acts of love and care that come from this circle of support. Thank you to Arlie Doxtator, Oneida Nation, for taking the time to write my daughter a beautiful letter sharing teachings of our traditional foods, our life sustainers, in a way that imparts reverence and relation, love and nourishing care. I am grateful to Tashia Hart and Kristina Stanley for welcoming my daughter into the kitchen and inspiring her with your creativity, grace and humor. Brain Yazzie, thank you for taking the time to teach Maizie, and for trusting my daughter with real responsibilities in the kitchen that help build her confidence and skills. Thank you to M Karlos Baca for sharing your life stories alongside your culinary creations. Deep gratitude to Ben Jacobs for teaching her what indigenous food community is really about, and how our work with the culinary arts can be a catalyst for community building and health of the whole. Thank you to Sean Sherman for inspiring her with your creative eye for detail and your calm presence in the kitchen.

I am so thankful for the ways in which these friends take the time to teach, to help build community through empowerment and mentorship in the kitchen. They are inspiring the next generation of indigenous youth not only in ways to eat healthy, but also how to be proud of who they are and where they come from.

These chefs exemplify the best of indigenous values. Cooperation, reverence, resourcefulness, lineage, respect, balance and importance of cultural memory and story. This is part of the flavor and the terroir of the foods that they share to nourish us. Cooking food is a sacred act. In our cultural teachings, our foods are our relatives; we take care of them as they take care of us. We are bound in a beautiful reciprocal relationship with our traditional foods, and it is our responsibility to uphold these agreements we have with our food relatives. As in the book, “Like Water for Chocolate,” our state of mind and emotion when we prepare food affects the medicine of this food. We are reminded to keep a Good Mind in the kitchen, because any negativity can alter the way in which these foods nourish our bodies and our communities.

In this modern world, we see quite the opposite of this in mainstream food culture. In her quest to learn everything she can about the culinary arts, Maizie has read cookbooks, watched cooking shows and tutorials online, in addition to our time spent at these indigenous culinary gatherings.

Many of the cooking shows on Food Network are a reflection of the values of Western imperial culture. In this era of cult of personality, many of these shows reward chefs who compete, talk down, approach the kitchen with a hurried arrogance and irreverence for the foods themselves. The competition cooking shows that are ubiquitous on Food Network are the exact opposite of indigenous culinary traditions. The mainstream food culture as reflected by these shows is arrogance, irreverence, competition and wastefulness. It is through this media where kids and others are learning by example the hurried culinary culture where whoever can cook meals in under 30 minutes is considered the winner.

It’s refreshing to see this generation of indigenous chefs rising to the challenge, creating slow foods with stories and cultural context; kitchen culture that is imbued with respect and mindfulness; food as medicine. I look forward to seeing this new culinary movement growing exponentially, as we witness these skilled and indigenous creative culinary artists taking leadership to help cultivate the larger food culture into one that has deep roots of grace and beauty, remembrance and respect.

We will be gathering in April as a part of the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, and I hope that I will see many of you there.

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.

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