Sharing the Harvest, Sustaining the Community

Feb 15th, 2011 | By | Category: 22-3: Food Sovereignty, Spring 2011, Editor's Essay
By Laura Paskus

Photo credit: Dennis Neumann

Few acts are as simple—and lovely—as sharing a harvest with friends and family, cooking together with loved ones, or breaking bread together at the end of the day.

In this issue of Tribal College Journal, writers share stories of the foods that can heal and sustain the body, mind, and soul. They also show how many tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are helping Native communities overcome challenges including obesity, diabetes, and drug or alcohol addiction while also restoring local food systems and nurturing local economies.

It is clear from the stories in this issue that students and faculty at TCUs nationwide are leading the way toward a healthier, more sustainable future for Indian Country while drawing on traditional knowledge, respecting the past, and including community members in their plans and activities.

It is important to note that many tribal people hesitate to share their knowledge of traditional foods and medicinal plants. Such knowledge is considered to be wealth, which is often held within a family or spiritual community. Another reason people do not share knowledge is that unscrupulous or careless people, including researchers, scientists, or corporations, have stolen, misunderstood, or disrespected the cultural knowledge that many elders and tribal communities maintain. This continues to happen even today.

That is why when Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest completed their research on traditional foods and wrote their book, Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture, the decision was made to limit the distribution of the book to tribal communities. The authors also respected a protocol developed by the Northwest Indian College’s Diabetes Prevention through Traditional Plants Program so that traditional people would feel willing and comfortable sharing their knowledge.

The protocol, developed in May 2006, might serve as an example to other researchers, healthcare professionals, students, and faculty who delve into food sovereignty issues. (View the protocol by clicking on the title below.)

Cultural Property Rights and Protected Knowledge Guidelines

As we learn about traditional foods and medicinal plants together, it is important to address how we will share knowledge in respectful, culturally appropriate and effective ways.  Unfortunately, many people have had cultural knowledge stolen, misunderstood or misused.  Participants and advisors in the program had a meeting in May of 2006 to discuss this.  The following are a list of guidelines that have been distilled from this conversation.  We will revisit them throughout our time together.

There are many levels of Knowledge

As we study together, we will encounter many layers of knowledge around how plants are used.  Just like us, plants have a body, mind and spirit.  Some plants are used for nutritive qualities, specific ailments and also as spiritual medicine.  There might be ways of using plants that are only appropriate for your family or spiritual community to know.  Some of the knowledge that you carry may not be appropriate to share in this class. Talk to your elders about what is appropriate.  We will try to respect these levels of knowledge by speaking mainly about knowledge that is appropriate to share with a greater community.

Knowledge can be wealth

A family might hold a recipe or an understanding about a medicine that is part of their family inheritance.  They have been trained on how to gather, prepare and administer the food or remedy in a culturally appropriate way that cares for the plant community and the people.  In sharing this, they may be giving away their wealth.

Secret Knowledge

Many people believe that when you speak something, give its power away.  For instance, if you have a special experience with a plant or animal, you may want to hold that experience inside you.  It is yours to carry.  Telling people about it may dissolve the sacredness or power of it.  Do not feel obligated to share anything that feels personal.  The intention of this class is to help people build their relationships with plants in a way that is culturally and personally strengthening.

If knowledge gets in the wrong hands it can be dangerous

There are specific ways to harvest and prepare medicines that make them safe and effective.  Without appropriate training, they can be potentially dangerous.  Information shared about the plants will be geared toward safe uses.

Caring for plant communities

In the past, vast areas of the Northwest were utilized for growing and harvesting foods and medicines.  These areas were actually maintained like a garden.  European cultures did not notice or understand this kind of land management and tried to promote European-style farming of lands and even forests.  Countless traditional gathering areas have been lost to development, deforestation or mismanagement.  This program will try to teach harvesting in a culturally appropriate way that promotes and restores the growth of our traditional plants.

Families may own traditional harvest areas

As a group we will explore and respect how plant communities were owned and maintained through the family and the greater community.

Respecting the Knowledge of Place

The Diabetes Through Traditional Plants Program is not meant to be a cookie-cutter program that teaches everyone the same knowledge about specific plants.  Participants in this class come from many different communities and ecological areas of Puget Sound.  The program may support you in embracing traditional foods and medicines that grow in your specific area.  The hope is that you will use your own resources including elders, community teachers and social service programs to promote the growth and use of traditional foods and plants in your community.  The best medicines for you are probably the ones growing near your own home.  This is what we call the knowledge of place.  The plants have the ability to connect us more deeply to the land we live on.  In learning to appreciate the plants, we become better caretakers of the places they grow.

Engaging Traditional Styles of Learning

This program will try to present information in a way that engages all the senses and promotes hands-on learning.  The best place to learn about the plants is in the place they grow, whether that is in the mountains, along the seashore or in a coastal bog.  We will try to learn about the plants in the field.  Hopefully, you can be a part gathering, medicine making, cooking and storing traditional foods and medicines.  Handouts are only meant to support your own exploration in using the plants.  They are not intended train people without one-on-one experiential learning.

Maintaining Flexibility

The purpose of this program is to explore traditional knowledge of plants in a way that serves tribal.  It must constantly be flexible and responsive to the needs of the communities it serves.

While developing the protocol, participants and advisors reminded people that it is important to openly talk with elders about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for others to know. Not only that, they write, but some knowledge is secret or can even be dangerous if it makes its way into the wrong hands.

As we learn about the programs TCUs are implementing, we hope they inspire others. But it is useful to remember that each community is different—different plants grow and are used in different ways. Landscapes and stories vary, as do the ways in which knowledge is learned and shared. In order to “respect the knowledge of place,” participants must develop their own resources, including the plants and ecosystems themselves, and also reach out to elders and respect their knowledge. By doing so, they can serve their own communities in the best ways possible.

“The plants have the ability to connect us more deeply to the land we live on,” wrote the authors of the Northwest Indian College’s protocol. “In learning to appreciate the plants, we become better caretakers of the places they grow.”

We can also become better caretakers of the people in our communities. At Northwest Indian College, the Northwest Indian Treatment Center, for instance, incorporates gardening, cooking, and culture in their counseling and drug and alcohol treatment centers. While writing her piece that appears in this issue, Elise Krohn interviewed the center’s director, June O’Brien (Nansemond.) O’Brien told her:

“Their culture is their medicine. Native plants, singing, drumming, a sweat lodge, beading, and support from local Native spiritual communities are part of the program. These act like pillars to hold patients up during their recovery.”

And connecting culture with healing obviously works: More than threequarters of the center’s patients remain clean and sober or consume less than before they entered the program.

Such successes can inspire others to continue important work related to other problems Indian Country faces, such as obesity and diabetes and even hunger.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, in 2009 almost 14% of households in the United States were “food insecure.” That is, 50.2 million people living in the United States—including 17.2 million children—were uncertain if they would have enough food to meet the needs of all their household members.

As the economic crisis has deepened, those numbers undoubtedly have continued to rise—and they are most certainly higher in many American Indian communities, where poverty rates are oftentimes higher than off the reservation.

But as many of the writers whose stories are included in this issue show, tribal communities are uniquely poised to overcome this challenge. Not only have Native people maintained traditions from which they can learn and build upon, but those living on rural reservations are particularly connected to their homelands—to the soils that sustain seeds and the plants harvested each summer and autumn—and also to one another.

Consider the story of Henry and Ruby Brockie that author John Phillips shares in this issue. Respected elders in the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal community, the Brockies for decades fed their large family from the bounty of their own garden. As Phillips writes: “Elders such as the Brockies represent an important link between the tribal self-sufficiency of the past and the resilience of today’s tribal families and communities.”

Phillips makes it clear that while a great deal of work lies ahead, TCUs are already leading the way on issues related to food sovereignty and the strengthening of local food systems. Work is underway not only at Fort Belknap College but also at Salish Kootenai College, Turtle Mountain Community College, Tohono O’odham Community College, United Tribes Technical College, Northwest Indian College, the Institute of American Indian Arts, White Earth Tribal and Community College, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, Chief Dull Knife College, and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Projects and gardens are underway at many other TCUs as well, not to mention in communities and families.

Each spring when planting carrots, I’m always humbled that such a tiny seed will survive, never mind thrive. Indeed, anyone who has set seeds in the soil knows that the act of planting is an extraordinarily hopeful act.

But gardeners also know that it requires much more than hope: Planting requires diligence, attention, and patience. Each spring it helps to remember the past—to recall which plants thrived in certain patches of the garden and which ones could have used warmer sun or cooler shade. All gardeners also know that problems will sometimes arise and occasionally even be insurmountable. But with a bit of help, most seeds will stretch out roots and then grow toward the sun, becoming something not only beautiful but also useful.

Gardening—just like community building, healing, or finding a path toward a sustainable future—requires a heart full of hope, a determined mind, and the willingness to work hard and ask for help when necessary. And that’s why this issue of Tribal College Journal is one that will resonate with anyone who has planted a seed, shared the bounty of a harvest, laughed over a meal with family and friends—and looked toward the future with hope.

Laura Paskus is the interim editor of Tribal College Journal, prior to which she was an Earth Journalism Network 2010 Climate Media Fellow reporting on the COP 16 United Nations Climate Talks in Cancún, Mexico.

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