A taste of Indigenous food politics: MEDIA INDIGENA 123
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July 13, 2018
Note: Portions of this transcript have been edited for clarity and/or flow.
Rick Harp, Host: Welcome to MEDIA INDIGENA, The Summer Edition. I’m Rick Harp.
On this week’s collected, connected conversations, we dig into the subject of food. It’s a veritable buffet of some of our most filling discussions: from access to traditional foods to clashes of culture over Settler-versus-Indigenous diets.
Our first course takes us back to July 2016, when I spoke to Madeleine Redfern, Mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut, about her territory’s struggle with food insecurity and Nutrition North, the federal food subsidy program ostensibly meant to alleviate it.
Harp: Mayor Redfern, welcome to MEDIA INDIGENA.
Mayor Madeleine Redfern: Thank you, Rick.
Harp: Now, to help our listeners put the Nutrition North Program into context, I was hoping you could first walk us through the factors you feel have led northern peoples to become so food insecure in the first place.
Redfern: Well, that’s very complicated and complex. Part of my work in the past was on the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, and what we learned from that review, or that inquiry, is that the Canadian government’s approach to developing or administering and managing the Arctic has been to do the least amount as possible, poor planning, and, at the end of the day, not very good implementation of policies or programs. And we’re still living the legacy of those past decisions, but we’re also doing very similar approaches now. We’re not learning.
Harp: Now, according to its website, Nutrition North Canada is a subsidy program that “works with stores across the north and food suppliers in southern Canada to ensure northerners have better access to perishable and nutritious food. The program subsidizes food items shipped by air to an eligible community as well as country or traditional food, commercially processed in the north.”
Now, relative to the need, how would rate the performance of Nutrition North?
Redfern: Well, there are definite mixed feelings about the success of the program. It does make food more affordable than without the subsidy. There’s been quite a bit of complaints that the shopping list of eligible foods is very long. There’s been some suggestion that a smaller number of goods receiving a higher subsidy would make those food items more affordable, but also that some of the items that are being subsidized seem to be very southern focused. There’s quite a lot of northerners who have said that there isn’t enough recognition or value on traditional or country foods, and the nutritious value as a result. Our local food economy is one of the most nutritious, and ideally should be very accessible, and is not getting enough support.
So, whether it’s caribou, muskox, fish, whale, seals, you know… a hunter in our community usually feeds up to 7 families. But too many of our hunters simply can’t afford to even get out on the land because the equipment is so expensive, as well as the gas and the oil and ammunition, and other goods associated with hunting.
So, when it says that the program subsidizes commercially-processed traditional foods, it cuts out all the hunters in our community. We only have commercial food processing of country foods in the three regional centres: that’s Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, and Cambridge Bay. Yet there’s 25 communities. So, it’s a big problem.
Harp: I understand under the previous subsidy, that included subsidies to hunters as well. Is that correct?
Redfern: The previous Food Mail program did. It also subsidized the cost of transporting equipment that would be used for hunting. Ideally, there needs to be better coordination between the federal government, territorial government, and the Inuit organizations. We need to look at beyond just the Nutrition North Program; that’s one component of being able to assist our people in getting food. The fact is, that more and more people are food insecure, 17 years after the creation of this territory, or 23 years after signing the land claim agreement. And so, we really do need to look at how we use our limited resources to help those who need it the most.
I would love to see every school in Nunavut have a breakfast or a lunch program. I mean, literally, when you know that 7 out of 10 Inuit pre-school children are food insecure, and that those not getting the nutrition that you need in those early development years, it’s not only detrimental to that child then, but it has life-long negative effects.
Harp: Now, in talking about the Nutrition North program, many have raised flags, including the Auditor General back in 2014, about the transparency and accountability of Nutrition North subsidies. In a nutshell, what are those concerns about?
Redfern: Well, initially, people were concerned that the subsidy wasn’t being passed on. As a result, the Nutrition North program worked with the retailers to develop software programs at the tills or in their system that now demonstrate that the saving is being passed on. So when I look at my grocery receipt, you can see how much eggs are, and what the subsidy is.
So that level of transparency is good; however, it cost quite a lot of money to implement that program, money much needed, actually, to offset the cost of food.
Harp: Now, another factor that I’ve heard identified is that Nutrition North is a market-based model, a competition-based program. And obviously in bigger, urban cities there are lots of stores competing for people’s dollar when it comes to food and other goods. What’s the state of competition amongst stores in the hamlets and communities of Nunavut?
Redfern: Well, in most of our communities, there will be two stores, either the Northern or the Arctic Co-operatives. Some communities, there’s only one store. And so, you don’t even have the competition of two.
We’ve also heard that the much smaller, individual-owned, mom-and-pop stores have struggled to get on the Nutrition North subsidy retail list. I think one of the biggest criticisms of the Nutrition North program, at least in the early days when it was introduced, is that there hadn’t been enough good policy analysis and program development to look at, how does the federal government maximize the subsidy to our benefit?
It’s important that, in this consultation phase, that all those factors, or analysis that should have been done early on, is done properly now, but not done either in isolation. We really do need to look at what were the good things under the Food Mail program, what are the good things under the Nutrition North program, but also what are the problems, what have been the unintended consequences. And maybe also, as I said, to look at how we more broadly deal with the issue of poverty and food insecurity beyond just subsidized food.
Harp: Now, in researching this topic, I’ve become alert to what goes on in Greenland, which is not only the world’s biggest island, at 2.1 million square kilometers, basically Alaska and California combined, at 56,500 inhabitants, it’s got the world’s lowest number of people per square kilometre.
And there’s a state-owned company in Greenland called KNI, which supplies all of Greenland with groceries, consumer goods, and fuels. And according to its website, kni.gl, “Some parts of [its] activities cannot be carried out on commercial and market terms. Consequently, a service contract has been entered into with the Government of Greenland for payment of these tasks for society … [where] KNI has assumed an obligation to operate shops in villages and small towns where retail and wholesale services cannot be maintained on a profitable basis.”
What’s preventing something like that from being tried in Nunavut and beyond?
Redfern: That’s a very good observation. The challenge that I find is that, for the most part, Canada takes a very different approach to its Arctic policies, program design, or implementation. The reality is that Denmark has a more socialist approach, and not just with respect to this area, which is food, but also with respect to infrastructure.
Harp: Just for our listeners who don’t understand the relationship between Denmark and Greenland, can you quickly explain that?
Redfern: Well, Greenland is a colony of Denmark, and in the last decade or so has achieved what they have called home rule, a certain amount of political independence. Denmark still plays a crucial role but a certain amount of recognition and deference is given to Greenlanders.
It’s very hard to necessarily compare the two systems. As I said, Denmark tends to have a more socialist approach. And, yes, they do pay higher taxes, but they also have provided greater subsidies and support to Greenland than possibly Canada has to its three northern territories.
Harp: Just to follow up on that point a little bit, from what I understand, KNI will pursue a competitive model where competition exists. As we discussed, the population of a lot of northern communities effectively only allows at best an oligopoly, or one or two stores. Why would the government of Canada persist with a model utterly grounded in competition?
Redfern: Well, it is something that is researching and understanding and analyzing. It’s not the usual approach that our government has taken. It would actually be quite radical to consider the Greenlandic Danish model, but if it works it’s something that is worth reviewing and considering. We have a tendency in Canada to simply do the way that our society or marketplace has dictated, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the right approach.
I’ve often suggested that the Canadian government or our territorial governments look to our other Arctic nations for potential other models or program reviews because there’s actually way more similarities and potential benefits from a model or a program that has worked out for the Arctic than something that simply doesn’t exist in southern Canada, and doesn’t need to exist in southern Canada.
Harp: From what I’ve been able to gather, Nutrition North is understood to be at best a short-term fix, and I guess even the government can see that there’s tinkering right now, subject to consultation. But, as others have noted, ultimately we need to get at the root causes of food insecurity, and not just deal with its symptoms. In your opinion, what needs to concretely change for that to happen in order for a more made-in-Nunavut solution?
Redfern: We really do need to recognize that the solution to food insecurity in the north is to develop local capacity, and for our communities to have access to our resources so that we can develop them. I mean, only in even the last week or so, there’s been some national and local coverage of the fact that Nunavut does not receive anywhere near the majority of its quotas for fish or shrimp. Which is shocking given the high levels of poverty and food insecurity. A significant number of those new fishing quotas were developed and assigned to southern Atlantic interests even before the creation of our territory. And then, the next double whammy was, when attempting to get some of our own fish and shrimp quota, was being told by the federal government well, you don’t have sufficiently stable or developed fisheries to warrant any quota.
But the only way that you can actually develop a fishery industry is to have access to that quota; even if at the beginning you have to sell it, or to enter into partnership with other entities, so that we have the ability to get people trained, and to buy those boats, or to lease them, and all the associated infrastructure gear—ultimately, to develop a sustainable and vibrant economy. One could ascertain that possibly it’s the federal government giving access to our resources to southern jurisdictions, either for political reasons or economic reasons. You’d really have to do a further analysis to that, but we believe that the principle of adjacency in fisheries meant that we would receive 90 per cent plus of our fish resources, as by practice elsewhere in southern Canada, whether in the Atlantic or in the Pacific regions.
That’s why we were so thankful at one point to have our Nunavut MP be the Fisheries and Oceans minister. We thought we might finally have an Indigenous minister that recognized that there are more than the Atlantic and Pacific regions that have the fisheries. Our fisheries are relatively new, and we need to be able to develop that area of the economy for our benefit, and for the benefit of Canada.
It seems a bit circular and somewhat counter-intuitive that our fisheries quota is given to southern interests while at the same time, the federal government is pumping money into Nutrition North program for food subsidies.
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Harp: Do so-called ‘country foods’ work in the city? That’s one of the questions we digest in this next discussion from October 2017, when the Kūkŭm Kitchen, an Indigenous-owned restaurant in Toronto, found out the hard way that its menu was not exactly to everyone’s taste.
Harp: They have what for most Torontonians, probably most people south of 60, would be an exotic food item. And what is that?
Kim TallBear: Seal.
Harp: Seal. Yes. Have you ever had seal?
TallBear: I don’t think so, even though I’ve been to that Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver, but they’ve got… yeah, I don’t think so. I’ve had whale, though, in Japan, and that’s a similar type of controversy.
TallBear: The seal looks a lot like whale; very, very dark, like almost purply-black meat.
Harp: Oh, you’re looking at a picture of it?
TallBear: I’m looking at a picture, yeah, on the Kūkŭm Kitchen review that was done in the Toronto Star.
Harp: Right. Actually, they got a great review in the Star, but I guess we should let listeners know what the beef is with the seal.
TallBear: So, they have seal on the menu and there’s a petition by—and you see this a lot, like from PETA and other animal rights groups—but there’s a petition to go after Kūkŭm Kitchen to take seal meat off their menu. And then there’s also a counter-petition to educate anti-seal activists about anti-Indigenous behaviour and colonialism, Support Kūkŭm Kitchen
And then a whole sort of discussion about how food has been used as a weapon against Indigenous people, going all the way back to John A. Macdonald. Quite good. Quite a good little educational piece.
And I mean, this has been kind of a raging debate, anyway, in Canada, right? Tanya Tagaq has been kind of at the middle of this conversation, as well, on Twitter, sort of pushing back against animal rights activists who have been… I think as this petition or some of the other literature around it notes, inaccurately comparing Inuit seal hunts to the commercial hunt that happens in the east of Canada.
So I thought that, well, that’s a very interesting conversation to have and I don’t know where the restaurant comes down in that either in terms of what their source is, their source of meat.
Harp: Now, according to the menu, which lists seal tartar, “The seal meat served at Kūkŭm Kitchen is lawfully hunted from Northern Quebec.” It’s not from, as far as I can tell, an Inuit source unless some of the sealers that this company, called SeaDNA, uses are Inuk sealers.
TallBear:Or do they use different kinds of hunting practices, too? We don’t kind of know that, right?
Harp: Well, the implication from the restaurant’s chef, Joseph Shawana, who himself is not Inuit, he implies that the meat is ethically sourced. So that was a little confusing for me, though, I have to admit. It’s not super explicitly clear that Inuit are involved in the harvest of these seal, which are harp seal—interesting coincidence—but [chuckles] in any case, not ringed seal, which is more common to Nunavut.
In any case, Inuk singer Tanya Tagaq, she had this to say on Twitter about this controversy. She said, “It’s racist as fuck to protest the consumption of seal meat in one Indigenous-owned Toronto restaurant when there are hamburgers served EVERYWHERE.”
Harp: And she put ‘everywhere’ in all caps. [chuckles] That seems like a fair point: if we believe that the seal are harvested as humanely as possible, other kinds of meat are, you know, regulated in a way that these seals are, so they’re harvested humanely, why pick on this one particular place?
TallBear: Yeah, I mean, why can’t seal be harvested humanely as well? I mean, it’s always, it does, a lot of this always come back to the sort of meat industrial complex, right? And the fact that the majority of the meat that’s for sale commercially in the US and Canada is probably not ethically sourced, right?
There’s the cute factor, though, right, with seal, and I was looking at the petition comments. Somebody was saying, “Oh this is like eating dog.” Well some cultures do eat dogs [chuckles] so I thought was a really interesting comment.
Taté Walker: You just made me hungry, Kim. Ceremony soup!
TallBear: Yeah, pig—[laughs] pigs and cows aren’t cute, or chickens aren’t cute, right? You know, so there is a very kind of Western mind that’s looking at, that’s sort of passing judgement about what should be eaten and not be eaten. And so it’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about, you know, what’s an ethical way to kill?, ‘cause none of us gets to live without killing. We all eat, right? And so, and even those who don’t eat meat, they eat plants, and there’s a whole lot of new scientific evidence, which is no surprise to Indigenous people, that plants speak to one another, they communicate, they feel pain, you know? They have ways of communicating.
So nobody gets to live without killing. It’s sort of, whose cultural ideas and ethics about what is ethical to eat and what’s not ethical to eat, how one should kill, what your obligations are to the other beings that you eat. You know, it’s always according to a… to a non-Indigenous sensibility, right, that we have to sort of be accountable. And so what’s the Indigenous ethical framework that we should be using to look at, you know, what we eat and how we kill it?
Walker: I think we get into, as you were saying, this morality conflict of whose morals is in power, really?
I mean, in the United States, we have these super farms that are… I mean, almost single-handedly destroying the land. I mean, almost worse than resource extraction. For instance, on cattle operations that have millions of heads of cattle, there’s no way to bring some of the lands back from the destruction those animals create. Pig farms and the waste that gets into the water systems, I mean it’s devastating. And just… and the regulations are not there. I mean, you can have these just massive mega-farms producing meat, and how moral is that?
But talking about using food as a weapon, I mean that’s… I thought that was pretty powerful because, I mean I flash back to how the United States government used buffalo against Lakota people or Plains people in general. An entire way of life built upon one animal, really, and take that out of the chain, and, I mean, you had quicker destruction of our identity than, you know, war did. I mean roles, and familial roles, and you know, not just food sources but, I mean, everything, from how we lived to how we travelled. And the waterways, now? That’s political. You know, land destruction we talked about. But even bodies and health, right? Like diabetes, just even how you look, right, and like, ‘obesity, ugh!’ Indigenous communities suffer the worst rates of both diabetes and obesity, and I mean that’s… that’s super political. That’s purposeful, even. Just, I don’t know, why is that? And when you look deeper into it, it’s because we’re not allowed to access, often, to our Indigenous food sources.
So I have a friend who is Ojibwe and she is in Colorado Springs, so she is urban native, lives smack dab in the middle of downtown, but she runs and operates her own farm. Harvests her own chickens, turkeys, all kinds of animals. I mean, she goes into the mountains and kills elk and deer, and it’s amazing. This woman is just so full of knowledge, grows her own produce. One of the things she does is allows, say, local colleges and classes, like local health classes and future dietitians to come over and just check out her operation, because she can show you, you know, the health benefits of being able to harvest your own food, whether that’s meat or plants, whatever it is, and show not just the benefits to her but to the land, to the animals themselves. And it’s… it’s just a powerful thing to see.
But I was able to sit in on one of these presentations she gave, and it’s a class of all white students, right, and they were just shocked [chuckles] and disgusted when her eleven-year-old daughter was able to show them how she harvested a rabbit. And, I mean, it’s a beautiful thing because there’s so much love in this harvesting that happens. I mean, they have raised these animals and these plants from seed and from babies, and you know whatever, and have loved and played with them and take care of them and worry about them, and find them when they run away, and…. And so in the process of using, whether be it animal or plant for food, there is almost a mini ceremony that happens. There’s prayer, there’s good intention that goes into it.
And they were part of it—so this class was part of it, but it was the fact that there was a rabbit, wriggling and cute and cuddly and furry, and man those white students were just up in arms. “How dare she! This is child abuse! This is animal abuse! Oh my gosh!” And totally failed to recognise that this woman was providing her daughter, her Indigenous daughter, with the skills necessary to survive without the need of commercial food processing, which I think is just so powerful!
Harp: So, you know, talking about all of this reminds me of this horrible story involving a boy in Alaska from the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell, on the north-west edge of the state. He was sixteen. He helped, or led, the killing of a whale that ended up feeding his entire village. It was a 57-foot bowhead whale, and he was praised by other hunters and sort of kind of a rite of passage. And so his family, feeling this pride—this is according to the Daily Mail—they shared photos on social media of the carcass as it was being carved up and distributed, right? That’s often what happens.
Well, an environmental activist, Paul Watson, shared this, and then as a result, this 16-year-old received death threats calling him a killer, and they were just going after him turning it into something traumatising for him. So, there again, just a real culture gap in understanding the importance of the direct relationship between Indigenous people and their natural food sources.
You talked earlier, Kim, about, you know, the dichotomy between―that was posited between Indigenous people and science. Do you see that same kind of dichotomization going on here?
TallBear: Oh, in terms of food and how we eat? Yeah. I’m actually teaching a course, an undergraduate course, right now called ‘Indigenous Nature-Cultures.’ And that word, ‘nature-culture’ is the best we can do in English, I think, to bring nature and culture back together. There is a very strong idea that runs throughout settler thinking, which I know is kind of an academic word, or that runs throughout kind of Euro-North American thinking, and that’s—and it’s something that’s both common to science and Christianity—and that is that there’s a hierarchy of life.
And scientists tend to think they’ve divorced themselves from Christianity in fact much more than they have, and that hierarchy of life always puts humans at the top, and of course, white males at the top, because racism is within that hierarchy of life, right? So people of colour and women have tended to be depicted as closer to animals, as less evolved, right, as less rational. And animals, of course, non-human animals, are conceived of as less rational. And so there’s the aspect of intelligence as well that kind of helps rank beings in this hierarchy of life.
And so if you look at the rhetoric around seals, right, well, seals are, they’re viewed as intelligent. They’re viewed as having feelings. And so the more that we can attribute characteristics that humans value to non-human animals, the higher up on the hierarchy of life they go, and therefore you’re not supposed to eat them. Right? You’re not supposed to kill them. And so there is kind of a sense in which Euro-American thinking, it’s okay with denigrating and abusing and killing in quite vicious ways—look at its food industrial complex—animals that it thinks are stupid. You know, that it thinks are automatons, don’t have feelings, don’t pass culture and knowledge to their offspring.
Whereas if you look in Indigenous cultures—I mean this is something I study and I teach my students—there’s a sense that animals are not stupid; in fact, that they are smart. There are ways that humans and animals can communicate. And so yeah, I think there’s a really different way in Indigenous cultures of looking at our relationships with animals. And nonetheless, if you’re living, you know, out in the bush, you know, historically, and you’re surviving a lot on meat, you don’t get to get away with saying, “Well I’m not going to eat that animal because it’s cute or I think it’s intelligent.”
If you think that all animals are more intelligent than white people tend to think they are, you’re put in a much more complicated ethical position in which you have to come up with ways to respect your prey, you know? And you know that you too can be prey for another animal, right? I do feel like Indigenous peoples have much more complicated ethical systems for dealing with their relations with non-human animals, and that includes how we eat them and how we kill them.
You know, I’ve said to people before, I think it’s… it, we’re hard pressed to say there could be an Indigenous veganism. Now, maybe there can if you’ve got Indigenous peoples with another kind of value framework, but I… a lot of times this sort of rhetoric of veganism as well that prompts some of these, like the anti-seal hunting activists, there’s a big overlap with vegan activism as well. And veganism in the West is also sharing with scientists and with Christianity that notion of there being a hierarchy of life that I just don’t think resonates in Indigenous thought.
Harp: You know, I know it’s a different type of situation—we’re talking about a commercial establishment based in the south selling meat harvested from the east as opposed to from the north, and so that it may or may not have been, you know, harvested by Indigenous people—but still. The connections are there in terms of how we relate to our food and our food sources.
Walker: And I think the larger issue that sort of ties it all in is that the more we have access to Indigenous foods whether or not we… I mean, it would be great if we knew the source, I’ll just say that. But the more we have, say, Kūkŭm Kitchen or even say, Sean Sherman the Sioux Chef, right, here in the States, the more we have access to restaurants that are doing well, I think. I mean, I was reading some of the reviews for Kūkŭm Kitchen, and they’re… they look amazing, and the photos of the food, I mean, I’ve just been hungry this whole conversation. I’ll just say that.
But the Sioux Chef has seen some great success because part of his plan is education. And he’s not just educating native people, although that’s his, you know, end-game is to put, you know, is to put food systems, like reclaiming food systems, right, back on Indigenous communities, which is fabulous, ending that dependency on commodity foods. And that’s just brilliant.
But the other brilliant piece is that non-natives have access to these food systems and these foods, and the more that it’s normalised into the, you know, the general populace, I think the better chances we’ll have of being able to have, like my friend in Colorado Springs, able to harvest our own foods without being judged dramatically.
I mean, yeah, that kid, the 16-year-old you were talking about, Rick? I mean, that’s my friend’s daughter. You know, she has [chuckles] pictures of her 11-year-old and even younger with like, blood on her, right, from when she was getting her food prepared. And to the common observer it’s this, like, gory picture of death. But when you put native women around the picture, you’re like, “Oh, how cute! She’s learning her ways! This is great and beautiful and powerful.” And it’s just this huge difference in this divide of what our values are. I mean, we’re talking survival and the continuation of our culture and knowledge of the land and how to use it.
Harp: Now, as you might expect, we got some listener feedback after that episode, some of which I served up to Kim and Taté.
Harp: Alright, so this first one comes from Matt and the original was about 2,100 words, so I kind of had to edit it down for the purposes of sharing it. So I hope I do it justice.
When I let him know that I was hoping to, to include it on the show, he said, “I hope nothing came across as offensive. I try my best to be constructive, but I don’t always know how it comes across so please forgive me if anything was out of line.” Okay? So here is—
TallBear: It was 2100 words?
TallBear: Woah. Okay.
Harp: Yes it was. So [chuckles] so here we go:
“My name is Matt Noble. I’m a vegan animal protection activist from Toronto. I have a few thoughts related to your panel discussion about Kūkŭm Kitchen and the petition to stop the sale of seal meat there. Obviously, this petition was racist and the person who started it likely doesn’t have much knowledge about the Indigenous experience in Canada.
One of the points made by Kim was that there is some kind of Western mind that’s passing judgement about what should be eaten and should not be eaten. But this is actually the exact opposite of what veganism espouses. Veganism is about respect and compassion, and not causing unnecessary harm to others regardless of the species. I think veganism and Indigenous culture probably share a lot of the same beliefs. Did you know that meat production even at the most local level still requires more fossil fuels than the production and shipping of the same amount, calorically, of beans or lentils or fruits and veggies grown and shipped from hundreds of kilometres away?
Even still, as a vegan, I try to eat as local as possible, but obviously many fruits don’t grow here, and veggies can’t in the winter. Really, I should move south but so much of my life is in Toronto. This makes it hard for me to eat healthy food and live by my values, unfortunately, and it makes me very sad at times. My idea is that to live without having to kill or use fossil fuels, humans have to live close to the equator, or at least in a pretty warm climate. The idea of Indigenous people having sovereignty and access to the land where they could hunt if they wanted to is not the same conversation as what is the same sustainable diet for a white person in the city, but they are both important conversations.
I’m always fascinated by the fact that hunting is actually a form of white privilege whereas conversely it is an inherent part of Indigenous culture. Indigenous people should have their land and should be autonomous and be able to make up their own rules around hunting. But on the international scale, meat consumption is not sustainable.
There was a part of the panel where Taté was describing a woman whose daughter killed a rabbit to show a group of white students how it was done. She goes on to talk about all the beauty and love that goes into raising the animals, with a plan to eventually kill them. This is not a unique view. White farmers say the same thing all the time. They say they love their animals, and then they kill them. Killing an animal has nothing to do with love. If someone really loved someone, of any species, they would risk their own wellbeing to protect them.”
And that was Matt. So Kim, er, because he mentioned you first, do you want to address him?
TallBear: Sure. He’s subscribing to the hierarchy of life that I talked about which is a very Western point of view, where you have humans at the top who either exploit animals or steward them because we’re at the top, and we have the right to determine every other species’ life path.
The idea that you get to live without killing? Nobody gets to live without killing. Because he would starve to death if he lived without killing. He’s ascribing plants to a place of non-sentience. If you’re thinking in terms of a cycle of life, you know—and also plants eat us. Our bodies go back to the earth, so there is this kind of exchange of energy. It’s actually material.
You can talk about this in spiritual or you can talk about it in material terms and being an Indigenous person who is a fan of science, I tend to talk about those two things simultaneously. I mean, I get that the contemporary industrial food complex is really exploitative. But, you know, that’s not the only critique that this person is making. They’re actually saying that they can live without killing, and that’s just not the case.
And when you’re coming from a culture that views everything as related, you do come to this very uncomfortable place having inhabited a Euro-American kind of value framework that was forced on us through forced conversions to Christianity, realising that we, we all have to kill to live. We eat our relatives, as well as take care of them. You know, and if you’re relatives not only with other human beings but with the animals and plants of the earth, you realise that all of these relations, in some sense, must sustain one another. That’s an Indigenous worldview. I hear in his vegan explanation a complete dismissal of the lifeways of plants. I don’t know how else to say that.
Harp: You feel there’s a moral equivalence between killing plants and killing animals, and he’s not seeing that. Whereas he claims…?
TallBear: Uhm, I… I don’t like the word ‘moral.’ I think we’re all related. We require energy transfer into our bodies from other living beings, whether they are plant or animal, as white people describe them. In our languages it’s not mammals versus plants. It’s not species, right? It’s relations, it’s persons, it’s nations. I’m reading—in fact, I’m assigning a fantastic book to my students right now.
Harp: What is it? What is it?!
TallBear: It’s by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and she’s a Potawatomi ethnobotanist who teaches at SUNY, State University of New York, in Fabius New York. So she has this book, which is literally the most beautiful academic book I have ever read, and it’s very accessible to non-academics. It’s called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.
And so, I just, my students and I just read this chapter called ‘The Maple Nation,’ and this gives you an example of this kind of thinking where she talks about maple trees and what they provide to people, you know, the sap and all of that? And she talks about climate change and the way in which the maple trees are moving northward. They’re moving into what is now Canada. They’re probably going to leave New York because of climate change. And, you know, you see ecozones moving north. And she talks about what they provide humans, right? They provide wood, they provide maple syrup. She talks about the fiddlehead ferns in the area, she talks about what the bugs provide, she talks about caring for the bugs, caring for the pond around her house so it can host ducks and all of these other kinds of lifeforms.
And she talks, she really writes in a way where she demonstrates all the relations of all the beings in that area, be they what white people or Western mind would call, you know, animals versus plants. But she’s thinking about them as persons or nations, and she… it’s just, it’s really a really, she conveys this kind of Indigenous notion, I think, that crosses many Indigenous peoples, about all of these persons, be they human or non-human, who must sustain one another.
And the fact that this vegan, and a lot of vegans, think they get to live without killing, what does that say, actually, about their respect for plants? What does it say about how their view—it’s not about a hierarchy. We need them. You know, we need them. And you would starve to death if you weren’t consuming the bodies of those beings, right? I’m not willing to put them into a hierarchy like a Western thinker is. I’m just not.
You know, because we are all related. Both materially and we’re related material. I don’t just mean that in some kind of spiritual, Indigenous way. You know, we have the same minerals in our bodies, right? We’re related to the rocks and the stars in the same way. So, anyway, I’m getting a little bit off, but…
Harp: Hey, I’m enjoying it.
Walker: I know! I’m, like, I could listen to you forever.
Harp: Now, Taté, he referred to a story, an anecdote, that you had told. How can you show love to something you kill? That seemed to be the implicit question, or the explicit question. So what’s your response to what he had to say about your anecdote?
Walker: I think his comparison, because he goes on to say, like, “Oh that’s the same excuse white farmers use when they’re talking about their animals that they kill too,” which is not what my point was at all about that anecdote. My point in bringing up my friend was to say that we have very intentional movements to reclaim our Indigenous knowledge when it comes to food. Food is political; it always has been. It has been a form of oppression since forever. I mean, I don’t know if Matt just sort of glazed over the parts where we talked about how there was systemic effort to exterminate buffalo specifically to get Native folks out of a gold-producing area, a region of the United States. When I say that one of my best friends is teaching her daughter traditional ways to harvest food, which includes harvesting animals, and in a very traditional way—I mean I think I mentioned in my anecdote that, I mean, it’s not that just you love them! I mean, and what is love, right? But I mean there is purposeful prayer, there is intention, there’s offerings made. I mean, there’s a definite balance that, unless you’re part of that knowledge-base, you just can’t understand. So I’m not really trying to explain myself to someone like Matt, because he’s just not going to get it. I deal with folks like Matt, other vegans too, that are very oppressive whether they intend to be or not when it comes to their policies, I guess, on food.
You know, there’s definitely a privilege that is involved with choosing how and what you can eat that a lot of marginalized communities just don’t have. My reservation, and I’m sure Kim’s reservation in South Dakota, we’re very similar: there are no grocery stores that serve fresh fruits and vegetables. I mean, we’ve got a gas station in Eagle Butte that I think the closest thing to some healthy foods is, you know, some super old bananas (which make great banana bread, by the way). But I mean, like, there’s a lot of, you know, barriers that exist to adopting a vegan lifestyle whether that’s something you want to do or not. And that’s the whole point, right? There’s choice in there.
But again, my anecdote wasn’t even about love, it was just saying that there are folks that are really trying to reclaim something that was systemically stolen from us, stripped from us, and there is beauty in that for sure. I mean, this little girl is going to be [laughs] she is so independent. She is so able to, to provide for herself, and not just in a consumptory, food-based way. I mean, she’s able to provide for herself in a spiritual way that connects her viscerally, physically, with the world around her. And ah, nah, someone like Matt is not going to take that away from us. And Matt might be an amazing person, I’m sure he is. I mean he was trying to be constructive in his criticism, thanks so much for that. But I would love to know what folks like Matt do for marginalized communities? I mean I too often come across vegans who are more willing to love an animal than they are to love their neighbour who is a human being suffering from police brutality, or sexual abuse and assault, or any kind of other trauma.
Harp: Now, Matt does say in his letter (not the excerpt that I read) that he likes to think of himself as an Indigenous ally. He took part in the Toronto ‘NODAPL’ march this summer, he has been involved in other blockades. He just finished a book called Unsettling Canada by the late Art Manuel. He actually is minoring in Indigenous Studies, according to his email. So that’s the answer to your question. You were wondering if he… what’s he like in other realms.
Walker: Yeah. I don’t know him personally so I can’t judge him, so I’m hoping because he doesn’t know me personally, he can’t judge me either. So that’s what it comes down to.
Harp: Do both of you know an Indigenous vegan in your circle of acquaintances or friends?
TallBear: I do, yeah.
Walker: I do.
Harp: How do they come at this?
TallBear: You know, I have to ask my friend, actually, because a lot of what—you know we just chat informally over Facebook about it because he posts some good recipes and I think as I told you both off-air, I used to date a vegan when I lived in Texas, so I actually took it as a challenge.
I disagreed with him profoundly on the principles of what he was doing because he’s a super-capitalist, too. Like, capitalism is deadly. So you can love animals and you know not kill them but then be a super-capitalist? Like, okay. [laughs]
TallBear: But anyway, I took it as a challenge to learn how to, you know—because it’s not easy to cook good vegan food. Like, a lot of it is really horrible. And I pride myself on being a decent cook.
So anyway, that’s what I talk to my Facebook friend about because he posts some really great vegan recipes, and I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to try that!” You know? But we haven’t talked about the politics of it as much because my sense is, he kind of does it for health reasons. Which, there are good reasons to be a vegan for health reasons especially if you’re coming from Indigenous communities where you’ve seen these, you know, epidemic rates of diabetes and things like that, and you’ve seen it in your family, and you see the harm that it does.
So I don’t begrudge people taking that on as an individual thing. What I don’t want to see is when white people, i.e. vegans, are fighting with other white people, i.e. exploitative food industrial complex people, and they bring Indigenous people into it and they both have their universal idea about what’s the best way to be, but they’re both these kind of Euro-American, ideological positions informed by Euro-American and European philosophies that have been imposed on us in multiple ways for half a millennia. They can have their fight with each other but don’t turn around and say, “Well my lefty universal position is better than your right-winger universal position and by the way, you know, Indigenous people should fall in line.” I just, they should have their fights with each other and leave us out of it.
TallBear: [laughs] Anyway…
Harp: [laughs] There was one other email I just want to share, and I think, it’s shorter to begin with, so it’s less abridged, and this is from Katie. And Katie just asks, “Just don’t rip me too badly, please?” And then she put a smiley face, so…
“I’m a settler who grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s my people’s fault that the seal hunt has become the poster-child of horribleness for organisations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Sea Shepherd Society to exploit, and for whatever it’s worth I am sorry for that.
Nevertheless, I support both the commercial and Indigenous seal hunts. As I understand it there are vets who monitor the commercial hunts annually to ensure there isn’t cruelty of the kind caught on camera in the 1990s.
I’m also a vegetarian. I know how hypocritical and awful people can be in the name of their vegetarianism and veganism, but while I loathe people who use their dietary choices to make other people feel bad, I did feel like the overall representation of vegetarianism on the podcast was a bit unfair.
I apologise if this comes across as, ‘Not all vegetarians!’ I hear and agree with the criticisms you, Taté and Kim have of those racist vegetarians and meat-eaters who turn on ethical meat-eating practices that have existed for 10,000-plus years without pushing back on the mass production of meat that is so harmful to all involved. I just want to say that it doesn’t make vegetarianism, on its own, an illegitimate dietary choice or one chosen only by self-involved hypocrites.”
Harp: Thank you, Katie. Anything you’d like to react to there, Taté?
Walker: I don’t think any have said vegans are terrible people. In fact, I’ve pretty much made it a point not to oppress people or make fun of them for their diet.
Harp: Some of us date them!
TallBear: [laughs] And make fun at the same time! [laughs]
Walker: Like I said, food is political. I personally love all kinds of food.
I never want to tell someone, “Don’t be offended by that,” because if you’re offended by it… I mean, okay. That’s your deal. But we weren’t targeting people who… so I don’t believe our podcast or discussion was targeting folks like Katie, at all, or targeting anyone in particular. It was targeting folks who are actively oppressing Indigenous people and communities and ways of life when they say things like, “Boycott this restaurant because they’re hunting seal! Boo, boo boo!”
But at the same time they’re not boycotting places like McDonalds, right? Like we… we were pretty [laughs] direct in terms of who our discussion was about. So that Katie felt, I mean, defensive? I don’t know that that was our audience there. So, I mean, I appreciate that she listens and I appreciate that, you know, that she understands our topic, but that’s… I mean, I don’t know what more we can say there. So… it’s not about you, Katie! I promise you that.
Harp: I have nothing to add to that because I completely concur.
Harp: It is a legitimate dietary choice and you’re not all self-involved hypocrites.
Walker: [laughs] No! Not at all.
And you mentioned, you know, do you know anybody? I have tons of friends that don’t eat meat. In fact, interestingly—interestingly—my friend that I reference in the anecdote that Matt took offence to, she is a vegetarian when it comes to eating things that she doesn’t raise herself. So when’s she’s not butchering meat she’s a vegetarian.
She, she doesn’t… we take her out to restaurants and I’m thinking, “Man, she’s going to love this buffalo steak from Tocabe,” which is in Denver, amazing place, and she totally says, “Nope, I’m just going to get something green.” I’m like, “What?! What kind of Indian are you?”
Walker: But no, I mean, there’s an active and valid choice there that means nothing to me when it comes to the friendship we have. Like, if I’m going to make judgements about someone’s food, who am I? Like that’s… and that’s the point, right? Like, can we please stop with this politicisation of food and diet.
Speaking with me in April 2018 were Kim TallBear and Candis Callison, Associate Professor at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Harp: Alright Candis, seeing as it was you who proposed that we discuss this story, I wanted to share this excerpt with you up front to see if it kind of distils what your interest was in the piece:
“Today, as archaeologists shift their interpretation of the past to better reflect Indigenous worldviews, biologists too are shedding new light on whale behaviour and biology that seems to confirm the traits Indigenous peoples have attributed to whales for more than one thousand years.”
And the article actually said ‘Indigenous people’ but I decided to pluralise it, as we always should. Is that a good choice to get us started?
Candis Callison: Yeah, it’s great. I mean this article is really interesting because it actually begins with a dream, right? It’s a whaling captain who is in Anchorage and has this dream about a hunt that’s going on like a thousand kilometres north in Barrow, which has now been renamed with an Iñupiat word which I’m not sure I can do justice to pronouncing.
So this whaling captain is in Anchorage; he’s having a dream about a whale calf and, you know, his dream ends up being predictive about how the whale calf’s mother was killed and who made the kill and who was in the umiak, the whaling boat and, you know, where the meat was actually stored. And from that, right, from that dream, he then, you know, later on you find out in the article, he actually came up with a new standard for how they should whale, or when they should whale, in order to respect the relationship between whale mothers and calves, right? So it’s this really beautiful story.
But it’s also about scientists who are suddenly paying attention to these kinds of evidence, right, this way of relating with whales, this way of being in connection with them but also, you know, to use some of Kim’s work, like, “to be in good relations,” right? What it means to be in good relations with your non-human relatives.
And in this case, right, it is the connection that Iñupiat—which is what Inuit people in Alaska call themselves, right—so the Iñupiat people, you know, have these very close connections with whales. It’s what their culture revolves around. And so these stories, right, even recent ones about dreams, they reflect kind of this deep close relationship and the ways in which Indigenous knowledge is suddenly becoming important, but again, also being confirmed by scientists and by biologists who are suddenly saying, “Oh, it’s not just kind of all this weird Indigenous mystical stuff.” We actually have learned a lot about whales by paying attention to Iñupiat stories.
Harp: So Kim this seems like we’re covering very similar territory to our first topic. I’m wondering what you took away from this particular piece in Hakai Magazine?
TallBear: Well, I thought this was actually really beautifully written. It was an Indigenous author that wrote it. Or no?
Callison: No, I don’t think so.
TallBear: No? Really, it was very well done. I mean, it pays, I think, balanced attention to the sort of, you know, archaeological voices and to Indigenous voices. There was another passage from this article that also really stood out for me in the way that Indigenous people were interacting with whales as persons.
Now, they don’t, I don’t think they use the word “persons” in this article, but this paragraph illustrates it. “While Westerners domesticated and eventually industrialised the animals we eat, and thus came to view them as dumb as inferior, Arctic cultures saw whale-hunting as a match between equals. Bipedal humans with rudimentary technology faced off against animals as much as one thousand times their size that were emotional, thoughtful, and influenced by the same social expectations that govern human communities. In fact, whales were thought to live in an underwater society paralleling that above the sea.”
Callison: Yeah, it’s a powerful passage, actually. I really appreciated that. I mean, I don’t know what the stories are like as you go across North America—I’m really kind of situated on the West Coast and, you know, especially in the North West Coast—but there are lots of stories in Indigenous cultures here about going and learning from the whale society, you know, or the frog society, or these moments where humans really needed to learn from the better social structures that our non-human relatives have. In fact, that’s why we wear these crests on our button blankets here is, you know, to honour not only our non-human relatives but also to recognise that we have learned much from the ways that they organise their societies.
TallBear: Well I’m just looking, there was—I’m going to think out loud here—there’s another passage in this Hakai Magazine article that talks about Western scientific values not prohibiting anything that smacks of anthropomorphism, and it’s one of the reasons that they were not interested in maybe in Indigenous stories that talked about whales in human terms. But they’re just fine with the human-animal divide and invoking that to, you know, dehumanize Indigenous people and Black people. I mean, historically they don’t mind doing that. So they don’t want animals elevated to the status of humans, but they’re okay with de-elevating some humans to the status of animals, and that seems kind of hypocritical or contradictory or something.
Harp: Well, you know, it’s funny: as we discuss this story, as I get a sense of why this particular piece was meaningful to you both, I find myself sliding into the ‘real world’ of a situation in Toronto where—maybe both of you heard about this restaurant? It kind of prides itself on preparing and cooking what we might call non-conventional fare like deer and other so-called ‘game’ animals, and it was targeted by a group of vegan protestors. And so what the owner of the restaurant did was cut up a deer leg right in the window of, [chuckles] as a kind of counter-response to what he no doubt felt was a provocation by the protestors.
So, and I’m just thinking, I wonder what that group of people would think of an article like this, where this idea that—one passage that for me too was the idea of the whales giving themselves up to people who were worthy of their sacrifice. And that just seems like a whole other paradigm that is just not comprehensible to the folks far, far away from an arctic climate yelling on the other side of the glass at a Toronto restaurant.
Callison: There’s a really interesting part of the article where it talks about this but it’s a really interesting parallel to that protest as well. I just taught with “Angry Inuk,” which I highly recommend.
Harp: ‘Angry Inuk’?
Callison: ‘Angry Inuk.’ It’s a fantastic film by an Inuk director, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. I’m actually going to show it to my kids as well, and it’s all about the sort of Inuit experience with the anti-sealing ban both back in the 1980s and, you know, more recently, but it’s also about how seals are so much a part of their culture, and how Inuit people are part of a global economy and if you, even if you make exceptions for Indigenous sealing practices, you’re still penalising communities who are selling sealskin on a, you know, on the global market, right?
So it’s a really, you know, complex film that makes a lot of great arguments about, you know, Inuit connections to a global economy but also to, you know, a long-standing relationship with seals and this ocean and with each other. And it’s important in that it recognises this way in which our food and subsistence cultures are also about relationships, right. And I, with young children now, I’ve really had to talk through a lot of this because the dominant narrative in mainstream culture is all about, you know, saving animals, right, and [laughs] this kind of saviour mentality. Or, you know, it’s about it, “Oh the poor cute animals.”
And I was thinking back to another, older film, Starting Fire with Gunpowder, which is about the beginning of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and how when they did children’s shows they were really careful about not making the animals that are part of their food culture too cute, right, because this is, you know, we are in relationship with these animals and infantilizing them doesn’t help them and, in fact, it, you know, denigrates them of the ways in which they are a part of our cultures and the way in which we think about our relationship with them.
You know, I think it’s really interesting, at the end of the article that we’ve been discussing about whales, right, the whaling captain, he says, “You know, I believe in God but I actually want to come back as a whale because I want to feed my community for a lifetime.” Right? Which was a really, really different way of thinking about our connection and what a food source, you know, means within a broader cultural framework for understanding our relationships. And just also, you know, this idea that whales gave themselves to communities to feed them. You know, that’s not just in whaling culture, right? We have stories in Tahltan culture about caribou doing the same thing.
Harp: I’m just trying to imagine, you know, Mickey Mouse eating Pluto. It just… it just wouldn’t happen.
Harp: But that’s interesting [chuckles]. You talk about the anthropo—
Callison: Well, but now you’re in a conversation about domestication, right?
Callison: Which this article just throws away.
Harp: And is Goofy a dog? Can anyone resolve this?
Callison: [laughs] Well, you think about it, like mainstream culture divides animals into pets and, you know, industrial food sources.
Callison: We don’t… we don’t do that.
Harp: But yeah, I mean it harkens back to that earlier point about resisting the anthropomorphisation (he tried to say gracefully) of animals and how it is resisted in the cartoons, but it’s also resisted in the science. It’s all just an interesting conflagration there, of thoughts about our relationship and our conception of animals.
Tallbear: Mhm. We keep coming back to this too, because there’s a whole lot of, there’s an argument going on, on Native Twitter this morning too. There’s some Native Twitter people arguing with some vegans again, but I stayed out of it [laughs].
Harp: There’s that role-modelling of restraint again.
Walker: I was like: Oh, I don’t have time for this, this morning, to go down this well. [laughs]
Harp: Well we hope you enjoyed this conversational cornucopia, served with just a dollop of controversy and a dash of Settler hypocrisy [chuckles].
Next week’s episode, we’ll be talking to members of the brand new Yellowhead Institute, said to be Canada’s first Indigenous-run think-tank. Make sure to join us as we go in-depth with Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak about their institute’s debut report, Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Rights Framework: A Critical Analysis.
That’s it for now for MEDIA INDIGENA, episode 123, the third in our Summer Series. Thanks again to everyone who appeared on this week’s show.
This podcast was edited and produced by Stephanie Wood and me, Rick Harp. Take care everyone; that’s for listening. Ekosi.
The Creative Commons music in this podcast includes the song, ‘Endeavour,’ by Jahzzar. Learn more at http://freemusicarchive.org.
Transcription costs for this episode were generously underwritten by a philosophy professor (who wishes to remain anonymous) as part of an upper year seminar on food politics.