Uplifting indigenous voices for a sustainable future in food

Assorted vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains

This article was written by William H. Walker VI, a sophomore in the School of Sustainability. 

Modern consumers have lost touch with how food is more than a commodity and brings more than nutritional value. Cultural, spiritual, ecological and community values are bound up in everything we eat. For food systems to be more sustainable, consumers need to embrace indigenous and place-based food narratives that foster more equitable food systems.
To push back against the common narrative of food for nutrition’s sake, the Wisdom of Indigenous Foodways conference highlighted uplifting agricultural, social and sustainable narratives from the indigenous community.

The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and the University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu partnered with Food Tank to hold a multi-stakeholder summit in Arizona, focusing on indigenous foodways. The event included panels with indigenous food systems professionals, activists and community members who all had a vital connection to the subject.

Mariah Gladstone said the summit was all about accessibility, education and strengthening agency for native communities. Gladstone was one of the speakers and is the creator of Indigikitchen, an online cooking show dedicated to sharing indigenous recipes, fueling bodies and revitalizing culture. Through her digital platform, Gladstone emphasizes that her goals for strengthening cultural native community ties are “making it easy to share” and “made with ancestral tools” because “so much of that information is hard to get.”

As president and CEO of The Cultural Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with Native American communities, Melissa Nelson leads efforts to promote traditional models of health and produces the podcast The Native Seed Pod. Nelson, also a professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, recommends using food sovereignty to rebuild communities and relationships with animal and plant communities because they generate “economic opportunities, nutritional wellness, and political sovereignty.” She said, “Restoring food sovereignty is connection to land, water, seeds, plants and animals.”

Thosh Collins, a board member of The Native Wellness Institute, recognized  the role of the local land and spoke about the resilience of the desert environment saying “All of our desert foods are drought-adapted. It’s important that we connect with these foods here because its cultural, it’s environmental.” By connecting to place and the cultivation of food we can create a stable environment for generations to come.

Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a research associate for the Native American Agriculture Fund, had a similar perspective, saying: “I try to bring back recognition to who we were...I’m not just bringing seeds to the ground, I’m bringing back life to the ground.” Johnson, a Hopi tribe member, emphasized that everything they do is based on their faith. One key takeaway from his panel is that we must “reinforce programs that reinforce culture.” Through this, we reconnect with food on a spiritual level and foster a culture of sustainability.

Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, was thrilled with the event: “We had more than 300 people in the room and thousands of online viewers. We showcased powerful, impressive leaders from Indian Country as well as Native Hawaiians who traveled to be with us. I learned so much.”

There is still work to be done but it must come with recognition, equity-based development and education. ASU Mr. Indian First Attendant Gabriel Garcia said, “It’s important we continue our traditions so we continue to exist for the next seven generations and beyond.”