The Indigenous Foods Garden at Rare Charitable Research Reserve is an ongoing Indigenous knowledge project founded and directed by Mkomosé (Bearwalker), Dr. Andrew Judge, recipient of the 2018 Ages Foundation Scholarship.
Educational Video Companion: Indigenous Food Security and Farming
Dr. Andrew Judge is an Anishinaabe-Irish Scholar and founded the ongoing Indigenous knowledge project, Minjimendan, at rare Charitable Research Reserve. Minjimendan is an Ojibway word meaning “in a state of remembering.” It is a reference to the state of mind in which the ancestors lived in order to thrive. They would remember where the places of sustenance were and nurture those places for the betterment of future generations. Minjimendan was designed as a sustainable Indigenous foods garden. The project grounds Indigenous knowledge and philosophy rooted in land-based sustainability practices. In the words of Dr. Judge, “The Indigenous Food Garden seeks to foster a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all — a sanctuary where threads of ancient wisdom can be woven into the tapestry of consciousness.”
Indigenous Food Security
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Unfortunately, however, rates of food insecurity are disproportionately higher for Indigenous people, in what is present day Canada. This can directly be attributed to racially motivated legislation like the Indian Act that forced Indigenous peoples to live on isolated reserve communities, sometimes far from their traditional land base. Further exacerbating the challenges posed by food insecurity are the negative health outcomes resulting from a working knowledge of food security developed in a non-Indigenous context – meaning today’s colonial views of food security do not reflect nor account for the traditional food practices of Indigenous people (Power, 2008).
The four pillars of food security identified by the UN are access, availability, supply and utilization. Each holds unique implications for Indigenous peoples and their wellbeing, which customarily depended on the region of the world where they originated. Access includes both physical and economic, which are influenced by income, purchasing power, ecosystem health, transportation, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Availability requires adequate supplies, which are also influenced by ecosystem health, TEK, domestic productions, and trade. Supply is highly dependant on the ability of a community to respond to the demands of their ecosystem. Utilization consists of knowledge of food safety, sanitation conditions, access to clean water, again ecosystem health, TEK, and knowledge of what makes up an adequate diet.
Climate change, which can directly be attributed to human colonial exploits, has severely impacted all four pillars of food security for Indigenous people – not to mention the theft of their lands. Any remaining potential for Indigenous people and all people to utilize their ecosystems in ways that support food security has been muted by environmental contaminants. This is all despite knowing that a traditional local diet tends to be more nutrient-dense than an imported or manufactured one. All of this is impacts quality of life for Indigenous people. Furthermore, the planting, nurturing, harvesting, and sharing of traditional foods is part of Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land, acting as a method for the transmission of values, skills and spirituality (Power, 2008). Food plays an important social and economic role and forms the basis of social activity, cohesion, and integration through the strong symbolic and spiritual values formed when the community comes together. For some, the ability to access traditional food is vital to cultural and physical well-being.
Indigenous identity has been marked as a key characteristic of vulnerability to food insecurity. Research indicates that Indigenous groups have a higher prevalence of sociodemographic risk factors that can leave an individual vulnerable to food insecurity. The lasting impact of colonialism has affected food security through issues including residential schooling, loss of culture, marginalization and relocation to remote locations, and a failure to settle land claims (Subnath, 2017).
While older individuals tend to consume more traditional foods when access permits, younger Indigenous people have become more reliant on store-bought foods, and often were not taught the skills or TEK to live with the land as their predecessors once did (Subnath, 2017). All the parts of an Indigenous food system are inseparable and are meant to function through interdependent and interconnected relationships that includes all parts of the ecosystem as relations, and transfer energy through the ecosystems to the social networks and eventually the economy.
Indigenous Farm Practices
Many modern agricultural system are unsustainable. From monocultures and excessive tillage of the land that harms the soil and attracts pests and diseases to artificial fertilizers polluting soil and water. Soil health becomes an issue when its ability to hold water is reduced, and farmers are forced to strain their reservoirs. Preserving traditional forms of farming knowledge and land-based sustainability practices can enhance food security, maintain biodiversity, and protect natural resources, but we must all work together to recover from the monophasic thinking – the thought that a single reproduced organism is the way to produce food, i.e. a multi hectare soybean field. Indigenous “farming,” and I use quotes here because the practices are about as far from farming as one can get, results when people connect deeply to the land and remember their role as human beings. The goal is to develop food systems that accent biodiversity and restore, revitalize and protect nature instead of destroying it. It's actually a very simple concept, but due to colonial and media influences that have projected Indigenous peoples as primitive, there are few people today with even basic knowledge of this type of relational connection to our mother earth.
There are several practices that reflect Indigenous land-based knowledge. Agroforestry, the intentional planting of trees to develop microclimates that control temperature and protect against harmful weather related event. Crop rotation is a practice by which growing different crops on the same land can preserve the productive ability of the soil. Intercropping is when farmers sow more than two crops at the same time in the same field, which can maximize land use and create biodiversity. Polyculture involves growing many plants of different species in the same area in a way that imitates nature and result in better soil quality and more stable yields. Finally, water harvesting is the redirection and use of rainfall, which helps to create a storage of water in the event of drought or minimal rainfall. Each of these techniques were practiced in varying ways widely by Indigenous peoples and by looking to the Elders and people who still remember or still practice these techniques and others, we can begin to revitalize our destroyed ecosystems together.
There is some evidence suggesting that Indigenous communities grew the “three sisters”: a method of companion planting beans, squash and corn to create a polyculture that protects the soil, prevents pests, and maximizes yields. In wet regions this practice was used on elevated surfaces to help drainage, while in drier climates it was used to border gardens to contain rainfall. There is a lot more, however, to the three sisters than what meets the eyes, but to learn this knowledge, one must be committed to this work and actually start practicing it. It's one thing to talk about something and another to do it! Soon you’ll realize the immense complexity and rewards of producing food for your community. Indigenous farmers combined intercropping and agroforestry to yield significant amounts of produce in small spaces. They exemplify sustainable practices and as we all attempt to decolonize, we can potentially get there again. Indigenous production methods were largely shunned by settler societies once they started to realize their profits from monoculture systems. But they were not thinking long term, as Indigenous people always did. Now those profits mean nothing, as the entire ecosystem of earth is in decline and the future ecosystem health we have left our grandchildren is bleak at best. With increasing awareness of the unsustainability of modern farming techniques, there’s a growing desire to look back at traditional methods, to look back to Indigenous peoples and ask how can we remember what it is to be a human being and how can we together create a more sustainable future for all.
Find out more about RARE charitable research reserve.
If you would like to learn about how to incorporate Indigenous foods into your landscape, or contribute to the Indigenous Foods Garden, you can get in touch with Dr. Andrew Judge at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some resources to learn more about Indigenous food sovereignty:
Coté, C. (2016). “Indigenizing” Food Sovereignty. Revitalizing Indigenous Food Practices and Ecological Knowledges in Canada and the United States. Humanities,5(3), 57. doi:10.3390/h5030057
Subnath, Melissa, "Indigenous Food Insecurity in Canada: An Analysis Using the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey" (2017). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 4459.
Power, Elaine. “Conceptualizing Food Security for Aboriginal People in Canada.” (2008). Canadian Journal of Public Health. 95-97.
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