This year I returned to Minnesota for a second year in a row to attend the Fourth Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition, hosted by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. This conference is an extremely important kaupapa as it gathers expert voices each year to share their knowledge, learn from one another and build relationships, with the goal of shining the light on the innovative work being done with hope that it will help inform and inspire the work of others. That is certainly the case for myself the last two times I attended this amazing event. It shows that momentumis continuing to grow in the indegous research and practice space in regards to the revitalisation of tradiional foods, growth of food sovereignty, and stewardship of knowledge systems that support a healthy food future for all indigenous people. The mahi and kōrero is inspiring, and the network and exchange that results from attending this event furthers the growth of the indigenous food movement across the globe, including here in Aotearoa and the Mātaatua rohe.
One of the main kaupapa that was continually referred back to was around the revitalisation of traditional native foods, rather than the overly processed, sugar and fat-laden options that are so prominent in the current food environment that we live in today.
In particular, there was great discussion about using kai as a not only a medicine for our physical ailments, but as a means of reconnecting to our culture and environment to fulfil us spiritually, mentally and emotionally. One of the amazing wahine who presented on this was Linda Black Elk, an ethnobotanist who specialises in teaching about culturally important plants and their uses as food, medicine and materials. I was privileged to attend her pre-conference workshop, Foraging for Native Edible Plants: Marsh Walk.
We walked around a swamp where she identifed and discussed dozens of native plants and their uses as medicine, food and also their cultural significance and whakapapa. We gathered and tasted different roots, flowers, leaves, trees, bushes, mushrooms etc. and talked about how “we’ve been conditioned to be scared of own foods and plants” by the current food environment and systems. Her knowledge and kōrero was truly inspiring as she talked about reconnecting with mother earth as a means of healing our entire holistic being.
Another one of the prominent themes that came out of the conference this year was the effect that climate change has on both our current and traditional food systems. Nora Kassi of the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation people stated that “You can’t talk abou food without talking about the land, the sea the environment from which our food is sourced and the climate that dictates it. Climate dictates life, and therefore is both the greatest enabler and threat to life”.
There were a number of speakers who discussed this notion and how we must all engage in the battle against climate change as a means of increasing food security for not only our own communities, but for everybody world-wide.
Our people, the indigenous people, have survived on the land and in harmony with the environment since time immemorial. It is only in recent times that that has changed, and the consequences of an economy and food system that only exploits and takes from the land without giving back, is what is leading us into a global food crisis.
The Youth Voices session was perhaps my favourite kōrero of the entire conference. It provided an opportunity to hear from the Indian Country’s next generation of food, agriculture, nutrition and health leaders. Ranging in age and experience from high-school through to University and into the early stages of their careers, these young leaders are not only critically engaged with the challenges facing their communities, but are driving the conversation around pathways to a healthier future.
This session really served as a powerful platform for them to share their passion, stories, challenges and successes. They not only talked about what these are in terms of their current mahi, but also during the panel discussion answered questions about what we can do more of now to ensure a brighter, healthier future for them. They feel that young people should be intentionally included in food sovereignty discussions and be kept at the forefront of the work. Establishing intergenerational food-focussed programs that involve indigenous youth is a long-term investment in the health of the culture, they are the future leaders and parents. Our rangatahi have a voice that needs to be heard as they are the ones who will be left with the outcome of our decisions. This is significant as it is advice that we can embrace and harness here in Aotearoa to ensure that rangatahi have a say in their own future. Because as Denisa Livingston stated “we are not just the descendents of our ancestors, we are the ancestors of our descendents”.
Last year I had a truly incredible time at this conference and came home absolutely blown away by the research, initiatives, strategies and discussions that are being had at a variety of levels within Native communities in the United States. This year was better. I’ve come home even more inspired to make sure that we continue to be innovative and bold in our thinking around kai and helping our whānau make better choices in regards to kai.
It is about going back to the mātauranga passed down to us by our tīpuna. The answers are in there, waiting to be found, waiting to be realised, waiting to be embraced again in our current context. In the words of Tā Apirana Ngata - E tipu, e rea i ngā rā o tō ao. Ko tō ringa ki ngā rākau a te Pakehā hei oranga mō tō tinana, ko tō ngākau ki ngā taonga a ō tīpuna hei tikitiki mō tō māhunga...”
Special thanks to Mindy Kurzer and Te Puna Ora o Mātaatua for sponsoring my trip to the conference this year.