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Don Spears opened a paper grocery bag and pulled out an ear of dried corn. The paper shell gently opened to reveal semi-luminous beads – like pale gold pearls.
“Now that’s a beautiful ear of corn,” Spears said.
The narragansett corn was flint, which had been grown by its tribe for hundreds of years.
Corn is culturally important to many Aboriginal people, said Spears, who runs the Ashwaug Ranch in Ashway, Rhode Island. But when she and her husband grew a full field a few years ago, it was still an amazing emotional experience.
“I never expected this atom to be as powerful as a medicine as it turned out. But if you stand next to that atom and feel the energy that comes from it, that energy comes directly to you,” she said. “It’s like looking into this field and seeing our ancestors. They are our family, you know?”
Over the months I’ve researched this food project, I’ve heard experts talk about food in terms of nutrients, cost, water use, carbon footprints – all of which matter. I’ve heard far fewer people describe plants as kin or allies, or point out what trees tell us, or ask what we owe to the soil.
But the dominant conversation about food is beginning to shift, as the climate crisis brings more attention to traditional indigenous farming practices that conserve water, soil and biodiversity. The latest UN climate report indicated that North America will likely see increased climate disruption and reduced food production, and that some of the best solutions depend on indigenous knowledge.
“Every time I hear the new direction of what’s going on, I think, ‘Well, we’re already doing that,'” Spears said.
The mainstream diet has broken our relationship with what we eat and the planet in general. So, I turned to local indigenous food growers with experience in both for advice on how to fix them together again.
But before we go to them, let’s see how we got to this point.
A (very) brief history: New England, colonialism and food
One of the weapons of genocide is the destruction of people’s food. This includes preventing people from eating their food, turning them away from their food, or forcing them to feed them unfamiliar food. European colonizers did all these things to the indigenous people of North America: they killed millions of bison, burned cornfields, transported people to unfamiliar land, and put children in boarding schools erasing the culture where they ate lots of white bread and drank cow’s milk for the first time.
Here’s a lesser known example of how this can happen in New England.
When European colonists arrived in the area, one of the groups they encountered was the Nipmuc. The Nipmuc were agricultural people, but many of their farming methods were unfamiliar to Europeans—for example, actively maintaining deer trails and wild cranberry bushes, or letting fields occasionally rest to replenish the soil.
The Nipmuc also fished the Quinobequin (now known as the Charles River) and the spring fish trails were particularly important. According to historian Carla Sevasco, local tribes relied on fish for protein and used them to fertilize the thin, rocky soil.
In 1738, colonists at Watertown built a dam on the river—one of many dams built in the area to power the mills—blocking the path of migrating fish. “Although Massachusetts law required the operators of Watertown Dam to allow fish to pass through the construction of a fish ladder on the Charles River, corrupt local officials looked the other way,” Sevasko wrote. Colonists also razed forests for fuel and timber and filled swamps for land. Nipmuc’s food supply dwindled; Much hungry.
“This is a devastating process … and we continue to see this as an ongoing struggle,” Kristen Wyman said at a trustee seminar in March. Wayman is a member of the Nipmuk tribe and is active in the movement for Aboriginal food sovereignty – the right of people to culturally appropriate food, as well as the right to access the land and water that it provides. She now advocates for the removal of the Charles River dam in South Natick and sees dam removal in general as an important restorative work. “We are still struggling to get our fish” even if the dam falls, she said. But science suggests that habitat can begin to recover at least partially within hours after the dam is removed.
The Aboriginal food sovereignty movement is active throughout the Northeast, where people like Spears and Weiman grow traditional crops, preserve seeds, and restore rivers. If you want to dive deeper, start with Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States, and check out the work of Northeastern Farmers of Color Land Trust and Soul Fire Farm.
This work is important to everyone. Indigenous activist Winona Laddock writes about how traditional varieties of corn — bred over thousands of years to survive under very different conditions — have proven resilient in the face of harsh weather to become more common with climate change. “Soil and seeds help us navigate the future,” she wrote. “If we can’t feed ourselves, we won’t live.”
The big ticket:
If we feel more connected to what we eat, we can make better food choices for our planet.
How to reconnect with food
Since this newsletter focuses on eating, I asked Aboriginal food experts for suggestions on how to reconnect everyone with their food. This is what they said:
Try to eat seasonally.
Eating local food in season connects you to the regional climate.
“Our body doesn’t need everything all the time,” said Danielle Hill Grinder, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. “You need root vegetables over the winter to stay in the ground. They grow in the ground—and that’s not just a metaphor. And then, in the spring, when they start to thaw; you need those sugars and the first fruits. The Earth has really figured it all out for us.”
Not sure what’s “in season”? Join the club! The folks at Foodprint have an easily searchable seasonal food guide where you can see which foods are ripe for harvest near you
Grow some food.
“To get out of our comfort diet, you have to grow something,” Grinder said. And she said it’s not just an easy herb, but a real food, like tomatoes or carrots. It’s not just about feeding yourself, says Grinder—who grows traditional, copper-colored King Philip corn; It is about helping the seed to transform from a bud to a stalk and then a fruit. “You need to understand the process, and how long it takes,” she says. “You need to have that first-hand experience of growing up.”
Spears grow food without pesticides, using shells and compost to enrich the soil. We do not fight the land. “We are not trying to change it and change it,” she said. “We have to find a way to find a balance where that land is still happy and comfortable for us to be there.”
Take only what you need.
According to Spears, extractive practices—such as growing crops until the soil is exhausted or drawing water until rivers are exhausted—alter the Earth’s balance. “I think that’s climate change, right? It’s Mother Earth to let us know we’re not treating it right.”
The same thing happens at home when you end up with a pile of zucchini from the garden or accidentally buy more food than you need. “If you have a surplus, I would advocate giving it to those who can’t have it,” Spears says.