Food Tank’s Summit “The Wisdom of Indigenous Foodways” in partnership with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu brought together innovative voices in Indigenous foodways and rights–and the allies who seek to support them.
The summit showed that it is important to listen to Native communities, learn from their agricultural practices, and protect their rights to protect the food system. “We must care for this [natural] abundance as it will nourish our families—both physically as well as spiritually,” says Maenette K. P. Ah Nee-Benham, Chancellor of the University of Hawai’i at West O’ahu.
On stage, speakers identified multiple ways that Native agricultural practices contribute to a more biodiverse, sustainable, and resilient food system. But these strategies mean much more than protecting the environment and health: to the Native communities represented onstage, their agricultural practices have spiritual significance. “The Hopi way [of planting] is faith-based. It isn’t a commodity; it’s a way of life. Hopi society is integrated with that, and that makes us really resilient,” says Michael Johnson, Research Associate at the Native American Agriculture Fund and a member of the Hopi Tribe. “To me, planting corn isn’t just putting seeds in the ground, it is sacred.”
The speakers agreed that combining this ancestral knowledge with today’s technology is an opportunity for their communities’ resilience and empowerment. “There’s a new movement of young folks incorporating the best of their elder’s knowledge with multimedia, film, and mapping of ancestral lands… there’s a lot of opportunity in this,” says Melissa Nelson, Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. “Indigenous food systems aren’t folklore, they’re science, and they need to be respected as such.”
“It is important to think about how empowered we can be to absorb our ancestors’ knowledge and still utilize the world we live in today with all the tools., technology—and exposure,” says Sean Sherman, CEO and founder of The Sioux Chef.
Overall, the speakers rise above the continuing narratives about their communities–that they face overwhelming diet-related diseases like diabetes and lack food access. “When I look at Native foodways, I don’t see gloomy statistics about diabetes and obesity; I see shoots of green coming up like a burnt forest regenerating itself—I see healing and regeneration for our food systems,” says Mariah Gladstone, founder of Indigikitchen.
“Compared to three years ago, foodways in Indian country are looking vastly different and we aren’t the statistics put in front of us,” says Gladstone. In tribes with a diversity of historical experiences and foodways, many of the speakers agree, instilling hope in the young people in their communities. “We have to have faith in young adults, that one day we’re going to step back and they’re going to tell us what to do on this land. If we don’t do that, we won’t be sustainable,” says Kamuela Enos, Director of Social Enterprise at MA’O Organic Farms.