May 25, 2014
A bunch of us were sitting around in a circle this week talking about food sovereignty. A lot of the talk was about legal rights and obligations, but one person had something different to say. He was a big man, at least fifty and maybe older. It’s often hard to tell with someone whose daily toil makes them strong and fit. His name tag said Robert Shimek of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Callaway, Minnesota. I hope that he won’t object to my naming him in here in the blog, because I didn’t think to follow up with him personally when our circle broke up, but I found his story be especially compelling and insightful. I’d like to think that he would want me to give him full credit for it.
Robert started out by saying that he is just now seeing the early signs of spring up north where he comes from. It’s not the full green there that it is in Detroit where we were meeting. And yet, he’s saying that he looked around at early morning and noticed the root crops, the shallots and wild onions. He may have mentioned chicory (edible in the early spring, but not so much in summertime), but I may be making that up. He said that if he would go down to the river and catch a nice fish to go with them, he could make himself a pretty nice feast at this time of the year, despite what would otherwise appear to be pretty slim pickings.
From here he went on to notice that every one of these foods has a story among his people. Some foods are linking to particular animals. And there is generally some story about how these foods were discovered or how they are provided. Sometimes the story conveys lore about when it should be eaten and how it is supposed to be prepared. Robert’s overall point is that food sovereignty means that one’s foods come equipped and accompanied by all these different levels of meaning. One couldn’t really claim to realize any true sense of food sovereignty without knowing the stories that are supposed to go along with each food.
In his tribal language even the very names of these foods is rich with meaning. Indeed, sometimes the story tells us how that particular food got its name. Robert said that he is sure there must be some connection between mushrooms and muskrat because of the etymological similarity of their names in his language. He pronounced both of these names, but I won’t even attempt to reproduce a phoneme here. He keeps asking, yet no one has been able to tell him the story that would connect these meanings for him. Food sovereignty means that one eats these foods so rich with multiple levels of meaning, so assuring food sovereignty takes much more than just insuring someone’s legal rights or treaty obligations. It means knowing the stories, and being sure that they are handed down from one generation to the next.
As it happens, I had also been e-mailing back and forth with my MSU colleague Gretel Van Wieren about a project she is developing to explore how people in fields like history, poetry, literature and linguistics could help in promoting food ethics. I think Robert told us.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University