For instance, why is fry bread so popular as an Indigenous food? It’s not just that our palates now love gluten and sugary, salty foods. It’s also that people have watched their grandma make fry bread, so there’s this emotional and spiritual connection to that food. We need to rebuild those connections with our traditional foods, those really visceral memories of processing wild rice and cutting up bison meat to hang and dry. I have beautiful memories of making kimchi, a traditional Korean food, with my mom.
The fact is that our current food system pours herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides on so much of our food. Our meat is laced with all kinds of hormones and antibiotics. Not to mention that industrial agriculture is hugely destructive to the environment. In order for us to move away from that, we have to get back to foods that love growing here, foods that we have a long-term relationship with.
We’re trying to grow crops that would love tons of precipitation that we just don’t have. We’ve also destroyed our topsoil, so we now have to put minerals and other nutrients back into the soil. It’s just hugely destructive and contributes to climate change. So if we get back to traditional foods through traditional ecological knowledge, we won’t have the full-scale destruction brought on by industrial agriculture.
Our consumption culture really contributes to climate change as well. When you build a relationship with the natural world, you start to realize that plants and animals are beings that have more value than just their monetary value. You start being more careful about how you move through the world and how you walk on the land. When you have a relationship with plants and animals, you’re a lot less likely to use and abuse these gifts. Instead, you’re going to make sure they’re well taken care of for future generations.
“We’ve got to change our diets so we can break that vicious cycle of a poor diet leading to poor health, which then leads to higher risk factors.”
How can we improve our relationship with plants, animals, and the natural environment around us?
On an individual level, it is about getting out there, introducing yourself to the natural world, and being willing to speak and listen. Plants do communicate with us if we take our time and approach them in a respectful way. For example, one spring day I noticed chickweed had started randomly growing right outside my kitchen door, which seemed so strange because it had never grown there before. Then I found out I had a thyroid issue. Chickweed has historically been used for thyroid regulation, so I realized that plant was communicating with me, being like, “Here I am. You need me.”
I do think plants come to us when we need them. But if you don’t recognize that plant, you might not know that it’s trying to communicate with you. I always recommend starting with dandelions and learning about their place in the world, since everyone knows what a dandelion looks like. They are a gateway plant, because they’ve been so vilified by Western culture yet they are an amazing food and medicine. Building these relationships opens us up to listening to the world around us instead of just constantly thinking about consumption.
Can you explain how you see foraging as an act of resistance?
In this society, food and medicine are expensive and inaccessible for a massive portion of the population. We are purposefully kept ignorant about and in fear of plant foods and medicines; we are indoctrinated into this idea that they are somehow dangerous or inferior.
But why? Why is a round crunchy ball of water in the form of iceberg lettuce somehow better than dandelion leaves? It certainly is not more healthful, but we have this perception that it is somehow better. We have to resist by questioning these assumptions about so-called “wild” foods. Even the word “wild” has certain connotations and can bring up images of danger in people’s minds. So it is an act of resistance to stand against that indoctrination and decolonize our palates.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the pandemic. What did we find out were some of the major risk factors for COVID complications? Diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. We were seeing all these elders and knowledge keepers dying from COVID and complications that were exacerbated by these health issues that are very much associated with diet and air quality. How are we going to prevent this from happening again in the future? We’ve got to change our diets so we can break that vicious cycle of a poor diet leading to poor health, which then leads to higher risk factors.
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Author: Kate Nelson