It is not easy to publish a book on complex systems where the natural and the human are intimately related. Indigenous Food Systems, Concepts, Cases and Conversations succeeded in compiling basic concepts, case studies and group reflections about the complexity of Indigenous food approached from several points of views and voices, where the human and the natural are not separate entities. The book focused on First Nations food systems within the political boundaries of today’s Canada, although the editors, who were also contributors, admitted that other Indigenous groups food systems also deserve careful attention and celebration. Food in the Indigenous worldview is not understood as separate from other aspects of life and is therefore full of meaning bonded to Indigenous identities. Across the three sections and fifteen chapters, the book presents detailed and carefully curated descriptions of everyday life, along with the struggles and joys of procuring, preparing and consuming food in Indigenous ways. Food is understood as nourishment for the body and soul, and a bond in a never-ending partnership between humans and nature. The twenty-six experts featured described and discussed Indigenous Food Systems for a variety of characterizations, from cultural identity, food sovereignty, food security, cross-generational teaching and learning, as well as climate change and sustainable practices.
Priscilla Settee and Shailesh Shukla have done a beautiful job in not only introducing Indigenous Food Systems in an academic format, but also in bridging formal research with reflection and conversation. The book can serve as an introduction to novice scholars to the many social and ecological realities affecting food accessibility and practices in an Indigenous context that is in continuous negotiation and under pressures from political and economic structural legacies and cultural hierarchies of colonial and post-colonial Canada. At the same time, seasoned scholars from many disciplines can find rigorous treatment of this important subject. The book compiled interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research grappling with difficult topics while using a critical eye. Yet, imbedded in its formal tone is a sense of optimism towards problem-solving and moving forward. The book sets an invitation to engage in self-reflection and to question inequality of access and privilege to the many aspects of food including the ability to engage in cultural practice. The authors highlight how food-procuring practices like hunting, foraging and harvesting are opportunities to embody resilience and resistance. Although the text is rich and provided detailed descriptions, it made use of relatively few illustrations and lacked on topographic details in the maps, which to the view of a non-expert or non-Indigenous reader presented a small challenge in visualizing connections with the Land.
Food is one of the main drivers to attain and maintain health and well-being, as recognized by the World Health Organization since 2003, however Indigenous Food Systems are not only about food in a strictly biochemical way, but about the continuity of life in its widest sense. The book presented an extensive list of case studies connecting food with every other aspect of Indigenous existence. As a non-Indigenous person, the book granted this writer the opportunity to expand conceptualizations of sovereignty and sacredness, which in my individual Western-informed worldview of food, do not play the degree of relevance as within Indigenous Systems of knowing and doing. It was particularly transformative to reflect on the notion of responsibility towards food as a part of Creation. An important takeaway was the scholarship on the role of women and Elders as keepers, nurturers and teachers of meanings underpinning food. Another important impression was to finish the book with a sense of concern towards the disproportionate occurrence of diabetes and heart disease among Indigenous communities, outcomes resulting from having easier access to Western “junk food” (high calory-low nutrient food stuffs) than to nutritious or socially relevant foods. Also of note, as reported in several chapters, are the efforts by Indigenous knowledge keepers and leaders to promoting Country Foods in younger Indigenous peoples living in cities and other non-Indigenous or remote settings, a testament to the desire of self-determination in the contemporary world.
Although the book followed a textbook format, the language was clear and well-articulated, making it accessible to a wide audience. The ideas were conveyed in carefully redacted ways and were supported by a glossary, such that the reader can build understanding, albeit an introductory one, of Indigenous Food Systems. While non-Indigenous readers may need a bridge to understanding complexity in food systems in general, Roland Barthes (p. 121) was cited to assist in this endeavour: “Food is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behavior.” Asfia Gulrukh Kamal and the Ithinto Mechisowin Program Committee, the authors in chapter seven expanded the bridge and explained that in contrast to capitalistic ways of doing, Indigenous Peoples understand food as a mediator to sustain Land-based relationships and collective thought. In today’s world, as we face multiple wicked problems like climate change and biodiversity loss, and where we humans try to cope with time, space and data compression, scholarly works like this book provide a privileged opportunity to learn about Indigenous Food Systems and other ways of being.
About the Author
holds an M.Sc. in human health and nutritional sciences with academic and industrial experience in natural health products and nutrition education. She is a doctoral candidate at the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, University of Guelph. Her current research sits at the convergence of plant conservation, culture, and technology. Her focus is on the interactions between visons of nature and conservation interventions, and the role played by technology as an agent of change. She believes that plants are people too.