January 20, 2021
“When you have food sovereignty, you’re free to be self-reliant, to grow your own food, to choose the foods you want to eat, choose the foods you want to put in school systems, and really be self-sustaining or sustainable.”
This is a quote from the powerful film, Gather, The Fight to Revitalize our Native Foodways, which shares the stories of many Indigenous tribes across the country and their fight to rebuild their culture through food sovereignty. We had the privilege of attending a screening of this documentary and a post-film discussion which was hosted by the ASU Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and Slow Food Phoenix on November 19th, 2020.
As undergraduate students studying sustainable food systems, this film was eye-opening to the role that Indigenous peoples hold in American agriculture. According to the film, around 70% of the food consumed around the world originated from Indigenous peoples. Land stewardship is deeply rooted in these cultures, but a large portion of tribes today live in food apartheids where, as is stated in the film, the youth “have a better shot of buying drugs in [their] local community than of buying healthy, affordable food.” Their lack of access to nutritious food is closely related to the high rates of alcoholism, diabetes, and other diet related diseases in tribes across the United States.
The physical, mental, and spiritual realities for Indigenous communities are disquieting, but there is also a strong feeling of hope in the documentary. There are stories of many Indigenous people fighting for food sovereignty: a chef opening up a local restaurant, a high-school student studying the health of buffalo meat, an elder forager teaching about traditional food harvesting, young men defending their right to fish salmon, a farmer growing fresh food for his community, and more. These stories are profoundly insightful not only about the work they are doing for their own tribes, but also about what we, as non-Indigenous people, can do to better support them. They must be included more in the conversations about our food system because as we strive to heal the land we have degraded from conventional agriculture practices, we must remember whose land it actually is. It is Native American land, and in order to heal that land, it is essential for Indigenous peoples to heal. We can help with that by returning their right to care for and steward the land.
Sara Aly El-Sayed, a board member of Slow Food Phoenix and ASU Graduate Student, reported after the screening that she “loved how intergenerational it was, with so many approaches to what protecting their food system is, from activism, to scientific endeavors, to reclaiming stories.” She hopes to see more collaborations between Slow Food Phoenix and the Swette Center in the future, especially since they both strongly value educating the public about sustainable, equitable, and just food systems.
After the film screening, we were able to enjoy a panel discussion with School of Sustainability professor and Indigenous scholar/ecologist Melissa K. Nelson, School of Sustainability professor and food systems expert Kathleen Merrigan, and Slow Food Phoenix board member and Indigenous scholar Cristal Franco. They all shared information about the amazing work that they do and how they are including Indigenous culture into that work, as well as their thoughts on the film. The main message from the speakers was clear: there is an immense amount of Indigenous knowledge right here in Arizona, and we must humble ourselves to appreciate all that there is to learn and figure out our responsibilities. As students, we must remember that all of the sustainable agricultural practices that we learn about are borrowed from Indigenous peoples, and we need to incorporate their worldviews as being caretakers of the Earth. We have to do better than our ancestors, and bring light to Indigenous history and their contributions to our modern food system.