How to eat local forever: lessons on food security gathered from First Nations
The ongoing controversy over the Enbridge oil pipeline and the testimony of First Nations before the Joint Review panel has brought into focus the connection of First Nations people to their land. Through listening to JRP testimony and having conversations with First Nations Chiefs and members, I observed a strong cultural fusion between food, territory, spiritual practice and governance. This article compiles some observations on how First Nations have managed to eat locally since time immemorial.
They identify with the places from which food comes.
Richard Sam of the Wet’suwet’en explained to the Enbridge Joint Review Panel in Smithers, “That river is only a river to you people. It is our life blood to us…. We depend on that river for our existence.” Hereditary Chief Alfonse Gagnon said, “That river is who we are. It has always been who we are.”
In conversation, Trevor Russ, an elected council member of the Haida Nation, said, “We’ve eaten seafood since the beginning of time. For us, it’s part of who we are. We come from the ocean. Every First Nation you speak to along the proposed pipeline right through to Haida Gwaii has a story of how they come from that land or that part of the sea.”
Yvonne Lattie, a Gitxsan Hereditary Chief, said, “I don’t think Enbridge has any understanding of our connection to the land. It runs through your blood. The blood that runs through the veins is the rivers that run through Mother Earth. Without life giving water, there will be nothing.”
They honour that which is permanent – Gwalxyeinsw.
The life experience I’ve heard described by First Nation leaders and elders portrays a fusion of story, food, land, law, culture and identity. Larry Patsey, hereditary chief of the Gitxsan First Nation, referred to this when asked about the significance of intergenerational legacy, with a Gitxsan word. Because the word originates in an oral tradition, he sounded out the letters to write it down: gwalxyeinsw.
“Gwalxyeinsw means something that progresses through time, in the future from the past and through our lives today,” he said. “It’s hard to explain in English. It’s the recognition that through time culture will always be present to each of those, the past, present or the future. It will never change.”
Food and governance are fused.
In A Death Feast in Dimlahamid, Terry Glavin writes
For the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en, the feast house is the credit union, the House of Commons, the land titles office and the community centre. Disputes are arbitrated, debts are settled, friendships renewed and community stability is reinforced. Each feast is a minor economic engine that disburses goods throughout society, and each transaction is recorded and acknowledged.
The feast hall, as the place where laws are made and business, reveals the centrality of food to governance. Wet’suwet’en testimony to the JRP spoke to a deep concern that, without healthy territories, feast hall obligations would become more difficult to meet. When territories, through good stewardship, are able to produce a lot of food, giving away the abundance creates high status for the hereditary chiefs responsible for that area. This strengthens the governance system. Without healthy territory to provide food, the governance system weakens. According to Glavin, “This is what the anthropologists describe as an economic system based on balanced reciprocity in which perishable wealth is converted into non-perishable status.”
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Darlene Glaim testified before the JRP, “We’ve been here since time immemorial. We come from a rich territory. We trade things with one another in the feast hall. We trade our berries, fish and moose meat. Whenever we hold a feast, what happens at the feast becomes law.”
Samantha Vincent learned trapping from her grandmother, fishing from her aunts and hunting from her uncles. These skills now feed her family, her extended family and she brings food to the feast hall to “share with those who share her laws.” She told the JRP, “It’s the relationship to the particular lands that determines the structure of Wet’suwet’en society.”
They teach their kids about spiritual aspects of land stewardship and how to honour the day.
Marjorie Dumont, of the Wet’suwet’en, told the JRP, “Fishing is more than taking fish out of the water. My grandfather taught me how to honour the day, how to make a frame from the spruce trees, how to make a pack from spruce trees and how to find the trail down to the river. We kids followed him, copying everything he did. When we got down to the river, he told us where to set the net, how to set the net, when to set the net. How it was done was a very spiritual process with great respect for that river. After we had our fish, each grandchild would carry one and he’d put all the rest of the fish on his back to climb out of the river canyon. Who was the first one to the top? My grandfather. He’d be waiting for us, with a smile on his face, knowing he was passing this knowledge to his grandchildren. My grandmother would be waiting at the smokehouse to cut the fish. One day, all of a sudden, I was the one cutting the fish because I needed to learn how to preserve our fish for the winter. My grandmother was a hard worker and communicated with nature all the time. I don’t have the time to share the spirituality of berry picking, where to find the huckleberries. But she always spoke with the plants. She would say, in motherly caring way, ‘You have such big eyes for huckleberries.’”
Alfonse Gagnon, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, told the JRP, “When we walk to an area, we understand that this is all our relations, like the fish relations. Everything that is living comes from the water. We grew up understanding that. We understand through our spirituality as indigenous people that we must protect that. The birds and animals all use the grass and in turn you eat those animals. So when you walk on the grass you must walk carefully and you must respect where you are walking.”
April Churchill, Vice President of the Haida Nation, stated, “Seafood is a mainstay for all of us. I eat it five days a week. We’re not talking about weekend hunting. We’re talking about a spiritual connection, a recognition of the life forms that have been given to us for our well being. Our beliefs aren’t recognized as a ‘religion’ because we aren’t ‘organized.’ But everything we do regarding taking our livelihood from the land and the sea is spiritual in nature for us. We are protecting both food and ceremony.”
They protect the land where their food comes from pollution threats such as pipelines.
Wet’suwet’en testimony exerpts, from the JRP hearings: Our chiefs have decided no Enbridge oil pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory ever. Can I be any clearer? ---Keep your pipeline in your own backyard, we will keep grizzlies in ours. --- The pipeline threatens my livelihood even before it bursts. --- Our chiefs do not want this pipeline. --- My family don’t want no pipeline through our area. ---If Enbridge doesn’t get the message that they are not welcome on our territory unless their pipeline is moving honey, or something like that. ---We are Wet’suwet’en warriors, we are here to scream --- My culture will be devastated if this pipeline breaks. We all see what happens in other parts of the world. We’ve been here since time immemorial. We want the safety and security and good health and well being that we have always had. --- My responsibility is to stand with my clan to oppose devastating pipeline. --- Mr. Harper, 98 hereditary chiefs say our land is not for sale. No pipeline. ---Third season the [trespasser] was still on the trap line. So [my grandfather] took a rope out of his pack. Wrapped it around his neck killed him and tossed him into the river. They were strict about their territory. We don’t want the pipeline to go through my grandfather’s territory. --- Our title is the right to make decision on our lands and headwaters. The decision has been made that there will be no pipeline on our territory. Through the generations we have fought wars for this territory.
They work to regain local control over renewable resources so you can re-create sustainable management.
According to Yvonne Lattie, Hereditary Chief of the Wet’suwet’en, “We need to look at the health of Mother Earth and the wealth of our people and consider the impacts of everyone of our decisions. The resources need to be renewable. Economic development needs to happen on a community basis where we’re not trying to employ the rest of Canada. We need to employ the people of our community who have gone through thick and thin and have stayed here and brought up their children here.”
Leslie Brown, speaking as a member of the Haida Nation, told me, “My first thought is I want our nation and our island to dictate what business happens on Haida Gwaii. In the past, we’ve had business opportunities with people who have come to us and I think it is time for us to say, ‘This is the direction the island is going together as a collective unit.’ I don’t mean just Haidas or non-Haidas, but everybody who is living on Haida Gwaii.”
The newsletter of the Haida Nation, Haida Laas, states,
[W] e're not just talking about the blocking of one pipeline or some industrial projects. This is about the right to reimagine our relationship to the environment. And First Nation's are resisting precisely to protect the alternatives: like the unrivaled marine eco-management system of the Haida Nation, near whose stormy shores on the B.C. coast an oil tanker would spell catastrophe. Or, like so many First Nations along the trail of the potential pipeline and across the country, who are struggling to win recognition of conservation agreements, of sustainable forestry, of the possibility of mixed economies, and of the principle that we must respect the environment that we are a part of.
They see climate change as a food security issue.
April Churchill, Vice President of the Haida Nation, said, “This Pacific Ocean has become 32% more acid. Do that in a garden, put that much extra acid in lettuce patch and you will see what happens. No one is an island into themselves.”
One billion people of the seven billion people on earth go hungry. According to the UN, food supply needs to double by 2050 to feed those who are hungry now and to accommodate the projected population increase from 7 billion to 9.5 billion people. Meanwhile, one quarter of global food production could be lost by 2050 due to climate change.
According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen:
[E] xploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. The tar sands are estimatedto contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels including tar sands are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize earth’s climate.