Indigenous Food Sovereignty In The Time Of COVID-19

For some Indigenous families, the pandemic has created more time and space for to practice and nurture traditional food and kinship systems. Here, three women share how.

Raising my daughter, River-Jaxsen, to treat the land on which she lives as a relative has been imperative in maintaining our roles as Indigenous parents. From taking her out to set and check rabbit snares in -20C weather, to teaching her how to prepare, plant and harvest from our gardens in the summertime, we have witnessed her knowledge and love for the land growing as she grows, too.

She knows to whisper prayers to the land every time we enter the bush. She knows the process of gutting, skinning, and preparing a rabbit for soup when we get one, and most importantly, she knows how to give thanks and gratitude to the rabbit for feeding us a warm meal that day. When I tell her we have to go inside after being outside for hours on end, she’ll often respond: “I need to stay outside, Mother Nature is my kokum!” It is through her words, and her practices, that we are beginning to see our way of life binding into her understanding of the world—teachings that will remain with her for the rest of her life.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown methods, this time of survival preparation—and practicing customary, land-based knowledge—became all the more urgent in many Indigenous families and communities. The pandemic has created more time and space for us to practice and nurture these systems. and the reality is, many families have been living and practicing Indigenous systems with minimal colonial influence prior to COVID-19.

I spoke with three families doing similar work in their own communities and nations in profound ways. Electa Hare-RedCorn comes from the Pawnee Nation, Inhanktowan Dakota, just northeast of Oklahoma City. Her research is focused on bringing knowledge systems together in nutrition, health, law and policy for the Indigenous youth. Jessica Van Ierland is Anishinaabe, and currently resides on Vancouver Island, tucked away on a parcel of land close to Courtenay, B.C. Nitanis Desjarlais has a Cree lineage and is married into the Nuu Chah Nulth Nation; she herself was raised Gitsan/Tsimshian. She and her family currently reside on the mainland of the west coast of British Columbia, while the while the cabin they built to focus on land-based living is located on an island in Seitcher Bay, B.C.

a small girl picks vegetables in a garden

Photo courtesy of Andrea Landry.

Are there food security obligations to Indigenous communities the Canadian government, hasn’t met in relation to the pandemic?

Van Ierland: The time to ensure stability for sustainable and healthy food security was generations ago, when our people were marched to reservations, usually far from where they traditionally harvested, hunted and fished. The system never wanted us to thrive. My own reserve is located across a highway, miles away from the land where traditionally our people thrived on the water. This land was claimed by settlers for commercial ventures, fishing and, now, vacation cabins. We do have some access to all the modern ease of farming and growing, but living so remote has challenges. The ground is frozen half of the year.

Desjarlais: The way our family has lived has always been outside the colonial system and the idea of having to receive any kind of authority from those systems on what we “should” be doing. Living off the land is a process that ensured permission from the hereditary chiefs to reoccupy the territory. We built our own cabin and place to live on the land in Seitcher Bay. If we had to wait for anybody to give us permission, outside of the hereditary chiefs, or provide us services and resources, it would never happen.

What does the revitalization of our systems mean to you?

RedCorn: My Ucca (Pawnee word for grandmother) would tell me that our Creator was not above us; our Creator walked beside us. Our prayers, songs, and ceremonies are vital and significant to our planting and harvesting practices. I want to grow stronger in my inclusion of all of our people in our efforts in food sovereignty and seasonal responsibilities for planting, tending, harvesting and that all-important calm period of rest, which lends to the regeneration of our seeds, our soil and our culture. I practice this by listening and acknowledging my mentors and those women who stand up and stand strong as we rebuild systems of kinship.

Van Ierland: It means feeling that connection, no matter what. I’ve always been strongly connected to the water. Anishinaabe Kwe are water protectors. My best memories are of fishing or swimming. We moved far away from our traditional territory and I always had the strongest obsession with fishing since. I listened to it and learned how to fly fish and ocean fish over 12 years ago. When we take care of the water, it takes care of us.

Has there been a change in how you practice this in your life since the pandemic?

RedCorn: I make an effort to share my knowledge and my teachings in planting, tending and growing our foods. I share seeds, gardening supplies and support with those who would like to give gardening or foraging a hand. I am still on a learning path of my own, but it sure makes me feel good to see my children get excited about a sprout popping up or noticing all the life in the soil and in our waterways.

Desjarlais: When COVID-19 hit, we were already planning on going back to Seitcher Bay. We were on the main land of the wild west coast at the time. We had been preparing for a long time for something, and now we finally knew what it was. When COVID-19 happened, we packed all foods I’d been dehydrating and canning and went to the island. We had whole walls of preserved foods over there. On the island it was cold. The family stayed in a tent because the cabin wasn’t ready. Yet, with time and knowledge, the island became liveable again. We made an outdoor kitchen, and spent 80 percent of our time outside and 20 percent inside.

Van Ierland: When the pandemic hit and our grocery stores had no chicken, limited beef and hardly any fresh produce, I got a little nervous. My panic eased knowing that we hunted and had meat stored, as well as the salmon I spent last fall canning. I have grown my own food gardens in the past, just like my late mother did, and my aunties do, but had yet to build a garden at my current home. I used my quarantine time to make it a priority and planted the largest vegetable garden I’ve ever had. We try to use materials we have on hand for our projects and we’re able to mill our own wood, plane it and construct our garden boxes. I focused on expanding several berry patches and put in a fruit orchard.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Van Ierland.

How have these practices benefitted you and your kinship system?:

RedCorn: We have traded and bartered more and wasted less. My home is far from perfect in regards to food waste and recycling, but gardening naturally gives us a way to compost, to feed our hens, to turn over a bed of leaves into a nice, rich soil. I find myself making time to learn more about each person I meet in regards to how they learned what they learned, how they prepare food for their families, and what the barriers to holistic living in a cultural sense are in their circles.

Desjarlais: We are at a point of thriving on the land now, not just surviving. It took a lot of work, a lot of dedication. It was a process of learning and unlearning, of decolonizing a lot and wanting to be connected to the Land. The Land finally accepts you, and that’s when you really see the thriving. We created our own village, rather than looking for a village elsewhere.

Van Ierland: I have been piecing together so many parts of my culture that were lost and incorporated them back into my daily life. A reclaiming of self when I was once so ashamed. Looking back at the days when I was unhealthy, lost and avoiding traumas, I could have not imagined this life I have right now. My husband and I grew up differently, but our practice of food sovereignty and sustainable living bring us together. Our favourite things to do are similar: outdoor recreation, fishing, hunting and working with the land. It is a sweet life.

What other skills are needed to commit to the revitalization of Indigenous systems in all areas of our lives?

RedCorn: I want my kids to grow up in a safe home, neighbourhood, community and tribe. I will continue to work on that, and understand that my own traumas and the epigenetic traumas that have occurred to my relatives and ancestors are heavy. I need our men in our communities to also acknowledge and do the work that will create those safe communities. When we plant corn, we acknowledge and pray over every seed. We have ancient practices that acknowledge that we truly can live in harmony with all creatures in our ecologies. I think this journey for me and my family is reconnecting to the planting practices and medicinal spiritual ways that we can. Some of us do that incrementally, and some of us take big bites—but we are all in this season of spiritual and cultural revitalization together.

Van Ierland: Honouring your past, including your traumas. Ignoring who you are and where you came from will never lead you to where you deserve to be. Forgiveness is a huge part of successfully revitalizing the Indigenous systems in your own life: forgiving yourself and your loved ones who did not know how to love because they were taught abuse. I am still working on my own grief, and that may take forever, and I’m okay with that. Baby steps: My first garden I ever planted I accidentally only grew enough for a salad or two. Now I have enough to share. Looking back at it all, revitalizing is accumulative. I am generally quiet about my journey reclaiming my ancestral wisdom and self but I am proud. Be proud!