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Food Sovereignty: How Well Do We Know Our Food?

[ 0 ] August 1, 2010 |

Restoring healthy relationships with food and the land is all about decolonizing.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Coast Salish territory, I grew up eating the salmonberries, huckleberries and other gifts from this rainforested land. I am Metis Cree, but my cells have been fed by cedar-cleaned air and oilrich salmon, not sweetgrass wind or hearty buffalo. I have spent only a few days in a few prairie towns, so my contact with the lands and offerings of Cree territories is limited. I wish I knew what a saskatoon berry bush looks like, but I don’t.

I do know what a fiddlehead looks like, though. As a kid, I got to know a lot of the things sprouting up around me. I munched on anything that was edible— grass, red clover petals, clover leaves, dandelion greens (yuck), blackberries, wild strawberries, salal berries and, best of all, the sun-warmed thimbleberry, which makes its splashy red appearance at the end of the summer.

I gleaned all of these goodies from within the city limits. When you live in a city, it’s easy to see the land as a concrete conglomerate devoid of life, an enclave of civilization separate from the cycles of life found in the wilderness. But the city is an ecosystem, and each city has a unique matrix of foods and species and medicines that belong there, that can—and should be used to—connect us deeper to the ground.

Now that I am a mother, I experience the joy of teaching my children about the life around us. The berries and sea water and cedar breezes of this land now nourish them too. We don’t take too much. We give thanks to the plants. When we remember, we bring tobacco and leave some as an offering. We are cultivating an appreciation, a sense of connection to the land, even as urbanites and as relative newcomers to this Coast Salish territory.

But I often have to explain to concerned passersby, that yes, the berries are safe to eat. One summer my own lack of land knowledge caused great distress. I was a teenager, working at a day camp, and we brought the city kids to a local regional park. A bunch of our kids ran to us in a panic, their lips and hands stained deep purple. They had been gobbling down dark blue berries from a shiny-leafed bush. Surely the berries were poisonous! The other camp counsellor and I looked at each other in horror. Were we going to end up with a troupe of sick kids? Somehow we figured out that the berries were safe to eat, but for me, this moment highlights a widespread alienation from the land.

I know now that those berries were salal—one of the most quintessential and nourishing plants of this region. How can people know so little about the ecological landscape and culture of the region they inhabit? Indigenous people have lived on their lands for millennia, developing relationships to and understandings of the many life-sustaining gifts from the land and water, so it is strange that the people who have come to live on these lands would know so little about the natural world around them.

Grocery stores, like streets and high-rises, have become symbols of progress.

But then again, not really. The imposition of colonial cultures onto indigenous lands brought a new social order that was based upon disconnecting from the land. The colonizers devalued local knowledge and ways of life, and saw progress as a movement away from depending upon the land. They believed that humans could live above and apart from nature. And so scraping fish scales, removing moose guts, digging roots and making medicinal teas were seen as ways of the past, of primitives. Grocery stores, like streets and high-rises, became symbols of progress.

We now live with an industrialized food system of factories and labs and artificial ingredients that are said to be scientifically advanced. Simulated nature, like baby formula, is upheld as better than the real thing. Animals and plants are treated as inputs, as commodities to be processed. Most of us in cities grow up not knowing how food is cultivated, and buying in to a market economy that does not nurture us.

Indigenous food knowledge has been developed over thousands of years. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about nutrition. Many people still have this valuable knowledge. But no matter how determinedly indigenous people have worked to maintain their food systems and eat what they have always eaten, endless constraints have impacted their freedoms to do so. Loss of land. Bans on hunting and fishing. Dams in rivers. Pollution of water and soil. Disdain for traditional food-production methods.

Our ancestors knew a thing or two about nutrition. Many people still have this valuable knowledge.

So what became the normal diet of this new country? Highly processed and mistreated foods stripped of their wildness and rich nutrients and cultural significance. Many Aboriginal people consume litres of pop every day and fill up on bologna, fake cheese and white flour. Aboriginal diabetes rates are three times higher than those in the rest of Canada.

Restoring healthy relationships with food and the land is all about decolonizing—transforming the oppressive systems and mindsets that say indigenous ways are wrong, useless and destined to die out. Indigenous people across this land have been trying to do this since day one, and many of their efforts and teachings are finally taking root.

People are awakening to the imbalances of how we live. When you listen to an Aboriginal teacher tell the rich stories of a plant that you found in an alley, you sense the depth of the nutrients contained in the land around you. When you learn that the shores you jog along once fed hundreds of thousands of people, with an incredible diversity of foods, you sense what has been lost.

Self-determination over what we eat, how we get our food, and how we take care of our health is the core of food sovereignty.

Elk and deer were abundant where your home now stands—where did they go? Teas and berries and greens and roots and a whole spectrum of foods were everywhere, sustaining many communities of life. Can they grow here again?

Food matters. Access to culturally appropriate foods is a right, and a key to good health. Selfdetermination over what we eat, how we get our food, and how we take care of our health is the core of food sovereignty.

A new crop of well-paid sustainability and food “experts” are coining phrases and shaping policies around food security that do nothing to address the impacts of colonialism on indigenous people or shift the balance of power that has kept indigenous people from practicing their inherent rights, like hunting and gathering foods on their own lands.

Indigenous people are charged with the responsibility of taking care of their lands; restoring these relationships in the urban setting promises to shift the imbalances and offer a beautiful new vision of how to live in a much better way.

Poor nutrition is a product of colonialism. Aboriginal people should not internalize or embody the mistreatment of our lands any longer. We must value ourselves as we value the land as we value our children as we value our women as we value our Elders as we value our men as we value the precious life-giving circle.

For the first time in the [Tsleil-Waututh] Nation’s history, the bounty of the Burrard Inlet, the food that has sustained the Nation for hundreds of generations, is unsafe to eat. It was said that when the tide went out, the table was set. But industrialization and urbanization of the Inlet’s shores have caused the waters to be polluted, disturbing the balance of the ecosystem within our territory, causing harm to our food supplies, and deeply impacting our way of life.

—Tsleil-Waututh Nation website,

Category: Food Sovereignty

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