Introduction and Literature Review

4 Traditional Food Systems

Stevie D. Jonathan

The majority of research on traditional food access and local food systems has taken place in northern and more remote locations (Lambden et al., 2006). Hoover (2017) cites Whyte’s (2015) definition of Indigenous food systems as “specific collective capacities of particular Indigenous peoples to cultivate and tend, produce, distribute, and consume their own foods, recirculate refuse, and acquire trusted foods and ingredients from other populations” (p.7). Additionally, our relationships to food systems and the cultural restoration that is necessitated by relationship building is imperative for Indigenous food sovereignty (Hoover, 2017). Gordon et al. (2018) defines traditional foods as pre-Contact food sources available on Turtle Island (North America). Traditional foods are more biologically diverse and more nutrient dense (Gagné et al., 2012). Food is profoundly meaningful and symbolizes the reciprocal caring relationship that Indigenous Peoples hold with the natural world; the Earth is our mother, who provides all that is needed. There is a wealth of teachings for translating food security and sovereignty into practices that help the knowledge and worldview of Indigenous peoples (Delormier & Marquis, 2019). For example, Haudenosaunee peoples value our sustenance as integral to our way of life, as evidenced in the Ohén:ton Karihwatéhkwen (the Words that Come Before All Else), the Creation Story, and the Great Law. Within the Great Law, all formal meetings and ceremony is to be confirmed by a feast; thus, food upholds our governance structure (Hill, 2017).

Prior to the American Revolutionary War, land was held communally, with everyone expected to work together for shared benefit. Villages were rotated every ten to twenty years in order to ensure biodiversity, renewal, and sustainability of resources (Delormier et al., 2017; Hill, 2017). Corn and other crops were communal, with a portion reserved for ceremony and collective use. Individually held crops existed but these did not override communal work in the larger fields (Cornelius, 1999). Beyond the clearing, at the boundary known as “the wood’s edge”, was the forest encompassing the village’s hunting, fishing, and foraging grounds. These yielded a wide variety of foods, stemming from access to multiple territories. The forests were shared with other villages equally. Under the Great Law’s principle of ‘the dish with one spoon’, hunting and gathering food in forests within the territory of another confederacy nation was allowed (Delormier et al., 2017; Hill, 2017).

Following Contact, the clearing and the woods, as well as the extended family longhouses and their social structures, began to change. Farming continued as a family undertaking, as people no longer lived in extended family longhouses and the majority had since moved towards stick-and-frame, single family homes (Hill, 2017). Haudenosaunee agricultural knowledge and practices were well developed, with the majority of foods coming from the garden. All other available food sources would have been gathered or hunted during the appropriate season. Gardening methods were advanced with the Three Sisters mound being a prime example (Mt. Pleasant, 2006; Mt. Pleasant & Burt, 2010). In this structure, the corn supports the climbing bean vines that add nitrogen to the soil, which is needed so the corn can thrive. The squash leaves protect the ground from pests and maintain moisture for all root systems in the mound. The mound system enriches the soil for years to come. The Three Sisters support each other and demonstrate the individual relationships we need to maintain a strong society (Delormier et al., 2017; Milburn, 2004). Additionally, the Three Sisters work together biologically. The corn and beans together promote niacin absorption, especially when prepared according to traditional food practices, using hardwood ashes (Milburn, 2004). In addition to advanced gardening methods, the Haudenosaunee also had storage techniques capable of sustaining villages over the winter months. Food surpluses were shared and traded. Early settlers relied on the Haudenosaunee for food and sustaining technologies. The food systems of the Haudenosaunee were directly targeted in military campaigns, as a strategy to control Haudenosaunee people (Delormier et al., 2017; Parker, 1910). Haudenosaunee peoples have a rich knowledge of food systems, but the question remains as to what that practice looks like in Six Nations of the Grand River today.


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Exploring Indigenous Foods & Food Sovereignty Copyright © by Stevie D. Jonathan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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