Resurgent Relationships to What We Eat
November 5, 2015
by erynne m. gilpin
Kitaskînaw î pî kiskinohamâkoya: The Land Gives Us Our Knowledge. This is the title of a film that my Uncle Ted sent me from his home territory in Opaskwayak/the Pás, Manitoba. Our knowledge is what informs our relationships to self, to others, to Spirit, and back to the Land.
I began to think about the concept of relationships through a critical lens in the first years of my undergrad in the Social Justice and Peace Studies Program at King’s University College in London, Ontario. One of the first readings I did was on the history of sugar in the United States and Canada. I remember feeling absolutely baffled by the impact that food production has had on the socio-economics of everyday life. The more I read, the more I realized that my everyday food choices not only directly impacted the lives of others, but also provided an accessible venue to practice my own relational values. Kitaskînaw î pî kiskinohamâkoya. As an eighteen-year-old learning about systemic and institutional racism, violence, and imbalance, I had found a tool with which I could exercise a small act of creative resistance: food.
It was around this time that I read the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer explores the ethics and consequences of large scale meat industry from his perspective as a parent; he focuses his inquiry on his ability to make loving and conscious decisions about the food he offers his own children. As I learned about the global food industry, I reflected upon the ways I exercised accountability to the land, my body, and my family. I realized that my intentions around how I eat are directly connected to how I relate to the world around me.
I’ve practised a plant-based diet for eight years, but more importantly have engaged introspectively with friends and family in a deeper dialogue about the culture of eating animals. Of course, when folks notice that I opt for the veggie option over the meat, I am asked “are you a vegetarian?” I usually hesitate to respond with “yes,” knowing that conventional notions of vegetarianism are peppered with images of granola culture, questionable nude celebrity PETA advertisements, and tofu, none of which I personally identify with. I don’t necessarily view my own practice of (not) eating animals as something static, but rather a living process informed by my relationships with the world around me. Western society is intent on establishing neat binaries which exclude the possibility of convergence, whether it be about food choices, gender, politics, race, or religion. Many of us are many things, and, like the natural world around us, are always flowing in and out of relationships with our environments. Let’s complicate this a bit.
Even plant-based diets can contribute to monumental ecological destruction and economic inequality. Modern large scale almond, soy, and corn mono-crop production are some of the leading contributors to ongoing violence against the land and her natural cycles. Large-scale plant and animal production is the problem, not meat itself.
What are the relationships involved with what we eat? How do relationships make us accountable?
How do these relationships shape our own personal values?
How do these relationships impact the ways in which we experience spiritual well-being?
Do these relationships matter?
These questions led me to food politics. I initially decided to practice a plant-based diet because I wanted to address ecological destruction with my own body; however, these decisions quickly extended into the ways that I both meditated upon and manifested my own spiritual and cultural values. How does the rich knowledge of my ancestors influence my values? How does the way I relate to the world around me, including what I eat, impact the lives to come?
Food is Relationships
Relationships can provide the framework for how we govern our food choices. Reminding myself to ask questions about the food I am consuming makes me a critical and awakened participant in the process of eating, consuming, and perpetuating culture. When I ask where my food comes from, and what relationships surround it, I can reflect upon the processes of extraction and production—or how it is cut and killed—before it ends up on the plate in front of me. Instead of establishing strict guidelines that tell me what I can and can not eat, I utilize a framework of relationships in order to cultivate a sense of mindfulness about the connections I form with my food.
There is nothing quite like the production and cultivation of your own food source, which I had the incredible honour to learn when volunteering with the Tsartlip First Nation Garden project on Vancouver Island. The Garden Project supports many families and individuals who cultivate nutritious, organic, and healthy food for themselves. It re-establishes meaningful relationships with the land and preserves ancestral knowledge passed down through generations. The relationships I had with the produce gifted to me from the gardens are very different than with the veggies and fruits I buy at the supermarket. I know exactly where they were grown, and the amount of energy taken for them to travel from land to my plate. I think of those whose hands assisted their growth. When centred on notions of consciousness and relationships, a conception of accountability can guide our food politics.
Many of us find it difficult to navigate through a fast-paced, consumer society, driven by what Cherokee scholar Jeff Corntassel calls “a politics of distraction.” We find it difficult to achieve a mindful state of clarity in our day to day lives. When I talk about conscious relationships, I imagine relationships of consent, choice, clarity, and intention. Think about the relationships in our lives, whether they be with family, friends, partners, or colleagues. In order for them to be mutually life-giving for everyone involved, there must first be a practice of respect and trust. When applied to eating animals, we are called to envision relationships amongst all relations. Miyo-Wichetowin.
Internationally renowned Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke often talks about resurgent relationships with non-human relatives. Through her traditional stories and teachings, she says that the way we relate to one another should not be different from the way we relate to our corn, bean, and of course animal relatives. When we are conscious of our intentions in how we enter into relationships, we can be fully alive and autonomous in ways that celebrate our own being. This doesn’t exclude how we enter into relationships with the plant, medicine, and animal Nations. Let us contend that one can not authentically address food politics without acknowledging the values that determine how we interact with our selves, others, and what we consume. Grounded in the belief that conscious relationships should be the core of how, what, and why we eat what we eat, how can we engage with relational protocol within food politics?
Relationship To the Land
We come from the land, and in turn the land teaches us the possibilities of how we relate to one another. Exploring the Michif (Cree-Métis) language books my Great Uncle Ted sends to me in the mail, I have learned that the notion of relationship is an action or verb. Wahkitowin, or the act of being in kinship, is something that is determined by the relations involved. Relationship as action requires consciousness, compassion, and creativity. Imagine a food politics that upholds relational accountability and regenerative responsibility to one another and to all relations.
I remember when my dad returned home from his mother’s community (Opaskwayak/The Pás) from a moose hunt with his cousins. It was the stories he told to us about his time in the bush which established our relationship to and with moswâ. The moswâ (moose), kinosew (fish), wâposo (rabbit), and paskwâwimostos (bison) are integral relationships from my own family’s culture. Stories inspire connection. Stories ignite reflection. Stories establish relationships. When I eat the moose, I eat their stories. I don’t know the stories of meat bought in a store or restaurant. I don’t have a relationship with that life. When I returned to my grandmother’s territory last summer, we spent hours fishing on the Saskatchewan River. My Uncle Ted taught me different ways to prepare and clean the kinosew. My aunty showed me how to cook in a way that preserves sweetness. We ate together in a circle. In his work Eating the Landscape, Enrique Salmón reflects on “eating as a political act” where we are “eating the memories and knowledge associated with [certain] foods— [which] becomes a form of mimetic regeneration.” Whose stories, cultures, ceremonies, and teachings do we eat in our everyday lives? What cultures do we consume in the ways that we eat animals? And what reflections and ceremonies could we bring in to make those daily meals more thoughtful and relational?
Respect within relations
When I am invited into others’ homes, I choose to always show respect, give thanks, and eat the food offered to me. In this way, relationships to what we eat do not follow strict guidelines but instead become fluid, based on a sense of honour and respect, grounded in tradition. This also ties into how we can explore our eating choices beyond simplistic binaries such as vegetarianism or eating meat. In these situations, relationships with others are more precious than my own personal needs, values, or choices. As a visitor on Lekwungen and Wasanec territories, I have tasted the sweetest and most beautiful salmon. I learn stories about the salmon and can understand my own relationship and therefore responsibility to it.
In his work, Research Is Ceremony Sean Wilson states that “an Indigenous paradigm comes from the fundamental belief that knowledge is relational. Knowledge is shared with all creation.” Relational protocol is a central value amongst many Indigenous cultures, which revere the lives of animals as sacred teachers and sovereign beings.
Reciprocity is integral, as most often many cultures believe that the animals themselves decide when and how to offer their life for the lives of their human relatives. Cultures and traditional knowledges that acknowledge the interconnectivity amongst relations require a specific set of protocols in order to uphold these values. Of course, these protocols change from culture to culture, language to language, and place to place, but they govern the ways in which peoples all over the world manifest relationships based on principles of reciprocity, respect, and honour. When we have relationships, we have responsibility. When we have intentions, we have mindfulness. When we have respect, we have compassion.
In order to explore notions of health, wellness, and the environment, we must first meditate on our own personal values and the way that they govern our relationships with ourselves, others, spirit, and the land. By asking critical questions about why we eat the way we do, we can come to understand our relationship with the land, animals, and the cultures to which we belong and perpetuate. By intentionally observing what we are eating and how, we can become more mindful eaters, making more informed decisions about how we choose to nourish our bodies. Furthermore, mindful eating teaches lessons of respect, accountability, and honour in a personal way.
Food is a doorway to cultural enlightenment, meaningful connection, relational accountability, and delicious ceremony. It is a meaningful praxis of decolonization as connection, and creates a space where important questions can be explored. Ultimately our relationship with our food establishes the conditions that guarantee regenerative life and knowledge for our future generations. We are what we eat, so let us reflect consciously about what we become with each bite. As Kahlil Gibrand describes:
“when you crush an apple with your teeth, say to it in your heart,
Your seeds shall live in my body,
And the buds of your tomorrow shall blossom in my heart,
And your fragrance shall be my breath,
And together we shall rejoice through all the seasons.”
Plants, animals, and humans alike come from the land and Kitaskînaw î pî kiskinohamâkoya. Therefore, let us allow this knowledge to transform the ways in which we relate to the world around us: a resurgence of reciprocity, of dignity, of thanksgiving, and of connection. The wisdom we need to move forward was planted by our ancestors. In returning to the land we can harvest this knowledge and allow it to guide us into what we are and are becoming.
In-text images: Peruzzo and erynne m. gilpin
“Eating Animals” is from our FOOD/LAND Issue (fall 2015)