Food sovereignty is a subject that might seem a bit boring to some, but its importance comes to life in a powerful way in the sweeping documentary film “Gather.”
Since the film’s premiere in June, it quickly gained a following and picked up rave reviews from critics across the country.
The film explores the collapse of of Indigenous food systems and the implications for addiction, disease and the survival of Native culture itself.
Viewers follow a cast of characters from tribes across the country that share personal struggles and ultimately a message of hope today’s tribes and future generations.
The film’s opening features Twila Cassadore of the San Carlos Apache Nation in Arizona. She’s a master forager and harvester who introduces Native youth and reintroduces adults to the land, food and traditional ways of healing.
“For me it’s about reconnecting people to who they are and it starts off small, like planting that little seed,” she says.
Cassadore argues that the reconnection with nature – and thus unplugging from modern life and technology even for a short time – has a host of benefits.
“You open a whole part of your mind to something else,” she said.
It helped her to find the courage to speak out and heal after living with a long-held secret of sexual abuse from the boyfriend of a babysitter when she was very young, followed by addiction.
Colonized food system
Food sovereignty’s embrace of culture and tradition is the way Nephi Craig of the White Mountain Apache Nation in Arizona was able to turn his life around after addition and incarceration.
He’s not only an accomplished chef, but also a historian and activist who educates people about the effects of colonialism and the importance of Native food.
“If you want to attack a people and wipe them out – attack their food,” Craig says to a room of young farmers. “Our food system has been colonized.”
As acres upon acres of land were taken, the relationship with traditional foods became more and more diminished.
“Colonial violence has never gone away,” Craig says. “So when you see statistics on alcoholism, diabetes, homicides and suicides on reservations – those are the physical manifestations of colonialism.”
He’s hopeful that a recovery from the historical trauma can be achieved through supporting Indigenous healing and self-determination through food sovereignty.
‘Buffalo were everything’
At the Cheyenne River on the Lakota Nation in South Dakota, filmmakers introduce Fred DuBray and his daughter Elsie.
DuBray is trying to bring buffalo back and he’s having some success. He says it has implications for the health of the land and the culture.
DuBray’s ranch has 400 buffalo while the tribe has 800. In contrast, tens of millions used to roam the Plains states.
“We had a self sufficient economy and it was all centered around the buffalo herd. The buffalo were everything,” DuBray says, from teepees made from hides to its use as a primary food source.
“The government recognized that and that’s why they decided – if we can destroy the buffalo we can bring these people to their knees. And so that’s what they set out to do.” DuBray says.
More than 60 million American buffalo were slaughtered in order to starve out the Plains Indians into submission.
The commodity food that would come from the government was unhealthy and lacked nutrition – canned chicken, dried milk and so on. It was a precursor to a scourge of nutrition related diseases in Indian Country.
“The physical realities were hard, but the mental and spiritual part is even worse,” DuBray said. “Buffalo are basically in the same spot we are. We were almost wiped out too.”
Samuel Gensaw III of the Yurok Nation in Northern California fishes for salmon with his friends on the Klamath River, just as his ancestors have done for thousands of years.
Life revolves around the relationship with salmon.
“We believe that once these salmon disappear, our people follow,” Gensaw says.
The salmon are endangered from years of environmental degradation and from dams. Problems began in the 1840s when settlers traveled to California looking for gold. They ignored treaties, took what they wanted and shot Indians on site.
The Yurok people have tried to have the dams removed. A bad salmon run, Gensaw says, is directly connected to increases in drug abuse and suicides.
“When you come home empty handed there’s a sadness that starts to set in,” he says. “It’s depression.”
Gensaw now directs the group Ancestral Guard – an organization that advocates for the health of rivers in Northern California and across the globe.
Craig is in a partnership with farmer Clayton Harvey who runs, Ndée Bikíyaa, The People’s Farm.
The two grow and use Native vegetables in dishes at Craig’s Café Gozhóó, the Apache word for beauty, harmony, love and happiness.
The café is located in a former gas station on the reservation – one that contributed to problems with diabetes and other health issues for the tribe as people were often forced to shop for food there.
“When you have food sovereignty you’re free to be self-reliant, to grow your own food, to choose the foods you want to eat, choose the foods you want to put in school systems,” Craig says.
He says reservations across the country are still far away from being food sovereign, but he’s proof of progress.
Meanwhile, DuBray’s daughter Elsie is an aspiring scientist who has embraced her tribe’s traditions. She set out to prove that eating grass-fed buffalo is healthier than eating grain-fed beef. She’s proving the effectiveness of Indigenous traditions with modern day science.
The project earned her a first place finish in her high school’s science fair. She currently attends Stanford University.
More information about the Indigenous food sovereignty movement is at nativefoodsystems.org. Go to gather.film for ways to view the documentary.