Through food: learning the importance of preserving the land
Updated: Mar 17
Food’s pathway to the past and the present
Photo credit: Joel Wigelsworth
Plants like corn, beans, squash and tobacco are so integrated into the science, diet and spiritual life within Diné culture that when the tribe was forcibly separated from their land in the mid-1800s [see part one of Through Food], it meant more than just relocation. It was a violent and intentional attempt to separate and exterminate tribal identity by any means necessary. It was genocide.
Andi Murphy (Diné) a journalist, podcast host and part of the present-day indigenous food movement, has spent the last four years exploring the links between connectivity, food, and Indigenous resilience with her award winning podcast, Toasted Sister, a show dedicated to storytelling through food. Over the course of two, hour-long calls with me in January 2021, Murphy shared her journey into journalism, podcasting and food, food’s relationship with Native culture, and the success and significance of her podcast within the Indigenous food movement. She explains:
“Food has opened up a lot for me. It’s given me a sense of connection to this whole big Native world. Connections are everything…for some there’s that spiritual connection that people feel with food. The connection to tradition – you’re not just learning about food but the cultural aspects; language, taboos, origin stories, ceremony, health, connection to the environment, to Earth, and the realisation that we can’t have any of this if we can’t have water, good clean land.
I’ve learned a lot about Indigenous science through all of this. I mean lots of people think that Natives were just here eating things off the trees but there was a whole science behind it. Think about star gazing and using the stars and the moon to tell time and figure out when your plants are supposed to be planted or harvested. Learning from the animals. All of it is science. It’s all about connectivity. It’s like in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the dad is like “take any word and I’ll show you the Greek root of it.” Well, give me any topic and I’ll show you how it connects to food and how that originated in Native communities – any topic!”
Erasing the shame of commodity foods
Due to continual and unrelenting interferences from the American government, the Diné economy began to shift away from reliance on the land to reliance on the purchase of commercial food products and the federal Commodity Food Programme. The programme, which began in 1959, included supplemental food deliveries to the Dine community living on reservations. According to a report in 2012 by the Diné Policy Institute (DPI) - 63% of respondents surveyed indicated that they receive aid from at least one form of food assistance programming, while many indicated that they participate in two, or multiple programs. This, as the report continued to outline, is a reflection of economic disparity and lack of access to resources and agricultural infrastructure within the reservation itself.
The same report from the DPI revealed only 33% of the population surveyed were above the government-defined poverty line. When participants were asked during that same survey how they shopped for foods, over 50% indicated that had to leave the reservation in order to do so traveling a minimum of 155 miles round trip, emphasising the need not only for independent foods grown or purchased off the reservation, but the need for nutrient-rich, local Native-owned and run food systems within it, including the commodity foods programme. Murphy describes her own experience:
“We grew up on commodity foods, so we got to see the evolution of the programme from canned vegetables and fruits that were just black and white cans that just said ‘fruit’ or ‘beef’ on it…but that’s what we had to eat. Eventually over time we saw it change”
She also describes the change from the delivery of the same generically labelled, non-perishables to different Indigenous reservations and communities around the entire country, to more localised control of what was included in the boxes, depending on the location and the tribe’s food practices:
“There started to be more structure, more of a variety of foods available. And now just in the last 5-7 years there’s a lot more variety and a lot more seasonal stuff too. I remember my dad was really excited when they installed big freezers and refrigerators at the warehouse to stock with frozen meats and fresh fruits. But it all depends on what the clients need.
There are still some people out there who don’t have electricity so they still need shelf-stable foods. That’s the reality. You can’t shame people for having these foods because it's what they need. I don’t appreciate when people look down on commodity foods. Even though it’s coming slow, people are trying to change things.
There’s so much work to be done to change all these food systems and it doesn’t help to have shaming around getting commodity foods. I’m excited to see where it’s going.
There’s more of a focus on local Indigenous-produced foods and local producers. I think part of this change is a result of this Native food movement - all the Native chefs and farmers and everyone I’ve been talking to for Toasted Sister who are making noise in their own communities. That trickles upwards until they [those in charge] realise that ‘yeah we are part of the problem’. And they start rolling out some changes.”
Food sovereignty is at the very foundation of the Indigenous food movement currently taking place in the United States and is a key aspect by which the public health of any community can improve. Simultaneously, as described by many advocates such as Murphy and Yazzie from within the movement, the capacity for nuance is also crucial to real advocacy and change; this is about understanding cultural identities beyond simply food.
In 1996 at a World Food Summit, the organisation La Via Campesina, [The Peasants Way/ Movement] publicly launched and defined the concept of political food sovereignty as, ‘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. It develops a model of small-scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. Food sovereignty prioritises local food production and consumption, giving a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control its production. It includes the struggle for land and genuine agrarian reform that ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector’.
La Via Campesina, which now coordinates more than 150 million farmers, fishers, foresters and agriculture workers internationally, formed in order to address issues of concern to farmers and other rural and agricultural workers. In the US groups like Lideres Campesinas, Family Farm Defenders and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives work with La Via Campesina to promote and protect the rights and sovereignty of smaller, independently run farms and agricultural workers and farm owners most susceptible to exploitation, namely women and people of colour .
Living in Two Worlds
The act of cooking and feeding is one of the ways through which community and interconnection, values which play a central role in the life and health of many Native communities, is expressed.
In a 2019 interview with Murphy forToasted Sister, community health nutritionist Lynn Lane (Diné) detailed some of the food education classes she provides to Native community members on how to prepare fresh foods. Lane tells Murphy:
“One of the things I’ve noticed about non-Natives working within the Native community is that they’re not aware of traditional foods. They’re not aware that prior to contact we were very largely plant eaters so getting calcium in the form of blue corn mush isn’t something that they know. One of the elements that I do within my programme is training service providers on healthy eating AND traditional foods so that we’re all sending the same message…I think there’s a huge misconception on what traditional foods are.
There’s this idea that fry bread and Indian tacos are traditional foods so getting that message that those aren’t true traditional foods is something that we’re really trying to work to help people understand. It’s really tough because when commodity foods give you those ingredients and you have limited income, well what else are you going to prepare? How are you going to make ends meet? So, if we’re going to provide a recipe for a healthy alternative, we want to provide the food as well”.
A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti Pueblo/Kiowa) the director of program for the First Nations Development Institute says, during a 2019 interview on the radio show Native America Calling:
“The medical industry looks at health and diets mainly as an individual responsibility. But in Indigenous communities our food systems and our health are communal. It’s a communal resource. We are connected by the traditional foods that we eat and how we gather them or where they come from. And when we look at it, it’s important to remember these are the results of long term policies that began before our time… from the moment they disconnected us from our lands.”
And, within our conversations, Murphy discusses with me her mother’s experience cooking and providing food for patients in IHS (Indian Health Services):
“A lot of the issues [she had] were dealing with the nutritionists. It’s the nutritionist who sets the menu... A nutritionist will come in and they’re all about a keto diet so all of a sudden the menu will become keto. Then all of a sudden they don’t want tortillas or corn tortillas and my mom’s staff will have to adjust to that.
I realise all the inconsistencies that come within the nutrition field. The nutritionist will have their own palate; they’re not all the same with the Native diet. My mom would talk about nutritionists who would not allow some Native foods like blue corn mush or lamb stew. It’s a shame that in some homes or hospice care these Native foods are not there either because the staff doesn’t know how to cook it or the nutritionist who is at the top of the chain doesn’t understand it or value it.”
In 2014 the Healthy Diné Nation Act removed sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables sold on the Navajo Nation and increased tax on nutrient-low foods like candy and soda, the proceeds of which went back into the community. In a 2019 interview on Native America Calling, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez a explained why the act signified a big step forward describing it as ‘sovereignty at its highest level.’ But this isn’t a sentiment held by the whole community, as the discussion on air continued, a caller disputes Nez, echoing the message of many within the Indigenous food sovereignty movement; “True sovereignty begins with the farm. I think it’s a good step to create awareness of diet, but the next step to initiating the cultural aspects of growing our own food, which is tied to all of our ceremonies and stories, the cycle of planting”.
As Karlos Baca (Tewa/Diné/Nuuciu) founder of Taste of Native Cuisine, and a cofounder of the I-Collective tells Murphy in 2017 on Toasted Sister, when discussing Native and Indigenous representation;
“We can get written into the books on how we’re perceived, or we can tell our own story. Food tells a story.”
Limits to food access and domestic stability has long been a tool of oppression used by the US government against indigenous communities. In the 1930s, the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program implemented a mandatory programme which drastically affected one of the main sources of income for the Navajo Nation; created in the name of reducing soil erosion from grazing of sheep it did not take into account the wool weavings, crafted by Diné women and sold and traded for resources that had been stripped by the government with the land. Simultaneously compulsory boarding school programmes which had been running throughout areas of the country since the 19th century forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families, placing them in boarding schools, forbidding students to speak their language, practice their traditions, or eat their foods. These programmes ran until the late 1970s, severing the access of generations to their own history and ancestral knowledge through forced assimilation, in an attempt to eradicate future generations from a relationship with their culture and land.
In the 1950s another relocation programme was added, one in which Native community members were relocated away from their reservations and local communities to cities and unfamiliar environments that were disassociated from their Native culture. The colonial relationship with the Diné was one of separation from land, which is inherent in connection with the community’s culture. But as is outlined in this piece the Diné are taking back control and are being placed at the centre of the conversation around food, soil, land and ownership.
“Through food you can learn about the importance of preserving the land. It’s hard in Native America to separate all of these things. We eat what comes out of the ground. We eat the animals that eat what comes out of the ground. We need the water – it’s all connected,” says Murphy.
The pandemic has affected the Indeginous community disproportionately, here are some organisations addressing these issues, please take the time read and support if you are able to:
Juniper ash and blue cornmeal surrounded by dried blue corn
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a trained dance anthropologist, now food writer. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she calls London home by way of formative years spent living in New Mexico. Adrienne’s work explores the connections between food, culture, and identity, occasionally drawing upon her Jewish heritage as a jumping-off point for exploration. She’s @akatzkennedy on Instagram/Twitter. adriennekatzkennedy.com