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Q&A with climate justic activist, Dr. Elizabeth Hoover

On Monday, February 17, Dr. Elizabeth Hoover will give a talk about indigenous food sovereignty as part of Climate Action Week. The Carletonian spoke with Dr. Hoover over email this past week in preparation of her presentation. Dr. Hoover is the author of two books, The River is In Us; Fighting Toxins in a Mohawk Community, and From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds;’ Indigenizing the Local Food Movement (forthcoming). Her work focuses on contemporary environmental justice issues in Native American communities, indigenous farming and subsistence revival movements, and community engaged research. Dr. Hoover is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Brown University.

What will your talk be about?

My talk is called “Eating Home in a Changing World; Environmental Food Justice in Native American Communities.” It discusses how in order for Native communities to achieve food justice (having access to healthy culturally appropriate food grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers, and animals) and environmental justice (the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people when it comes to the enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies), Indigenous territories need to be protected from industry, mining, petroleum as well as the unpredictable weather brought about by climate change. There is increasing convergence in many communities between environmental justice and food justice, as people work to have their environments cleaned up and to make safe food more available. Unlike in many urban environments, in rural and Indigenous communities the immediate environment is often the source of food. Both environmental justice and food justice have a place-based focus, are health related and focus on corporate dominance and system-related issues, the empowerment of community members and the development of sustainable and livable communities. Environmental justice and food justice both seek to alter power relations at the root of the social and ecological problems. In Indigenous communities, the structure of environmental injustice is often tied to notions of wrongful disruption of Indigenous food systems; much of the organizing around EJ issues in Indigenous communities is in part to protect traditional food sources.

Tribal communities are no strangers to climate change—for many tribal communities, the first major climate change resulted from events like the Trail of Tears in which Nations in the southeast like the Cherokee were marched on as part of relocation to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Dozens of tribal Nations were moved around the country to make way for the needs of settlers, often moving to climates that were totally different from those from which they had historically fed their families. For example, when Pawnee people received back some of their heirloom seeds out of Nebraska, they wouldn’t grow in Oklahoma. The tribe had to partner with settler farms now living on their homeland in Nebraska to grow out their seeds. These types of climate changes are experienced because the movement of people has subsequently been followed by the kinds of contemporary climate challenges faced globally.

Drawing on examples of contemporary Indigenous food sovereignty projects from across the US, my presentation will discuss the ways in which Native people are working to reclaim and maintain traditional foods. In some cases this has been through efforts to “rematriate” heirloom seed varieties from institutions (i.e. bring home seeds that were collected from tribes and stored in museums and seed banks) and readapt them to their current homelands. My presentation will also look at the ways in which the food sovereignty movement and anti-extractive industry movement have come together to protect land from damaging industries (like mining and pipeline projects) that will impact traditional foods.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work you are most focused on now?

I’m currently working on a book called From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds; Indigenizing the Local Food Movement, based on about a decade’s worth of involvement with Indigenous food organizations, as well as interviews I did in 40 different communities across the country as part of a 20,000-mile, four-month road trip around the country back in 2014. The first chapter focuses on the meanings and uses of the term “food sovereignty” in the context of Native American community-based farming and gardening projects. The second chapter explores how Native American community-based farming and gardening projects are defining heirloom or heritage seeds; why maintaining and growing out these seeds is seen as so important and how terms like seed sovereignty should be defined and enacted. The third chapter looks at the role of Native American chefs, who are working to promote and elevate the traditional cuisine of their people through “gastro diplomacy” (seen in contrast to “cultural appropriation” or “culinary appropriation”), in an effort to achieve “culinary justice;” and the delicate balance between making healthy traditional foods available to their community as well as serving a broader “foodie” public. The fourth chapter, reflective of the chant “You can’t drink oil, keep it in the soil” often heard at protests against pipelines, focuses on the nexus between protecting and gaining access to traditional foods and the fight against the fossil fuel and extractive industries—highlighting foods like wild rice threatened by proposed mines and pipelines in Minnesota and Wisconsin, traditional corn planted in the path of proposed pipelines in Nebraska and New York and traditional foods gathered and brought to feed water protectors fighting to defend Standing Rock’s water supply from the Dakota Access Pipeline. The fifth and final chapter examines the successes and challenges described by the different project representatives I interviewed and their suggestions for future community-based farming and gardening projects. The conclusion will look at what all of this means for an ongoing movement in a changing world and the ways in which Indigenous people across the western hemisphere (based on what I was hearing at Indigenous corn conferences in Mexico and Belize) are addressing these challenges.

I’m hoping to have this book completed and submitted to the University of Minnesota Press by the end of this spring.

In addition, I’m working on an advisory board at the Field Museum to re-do the North American hall (the Native American exhibits), this time in collaboration with Native communities. I have been working with the Meskwaki community, whose seeds were collected by the museum over a hundred years ago, to have some of those seeds returned as part of a project to try to sprout those seeds,and to develop an exhibit about the experience.

I am also working in the back of my head on a book about the pyropolitics of Indigenous social movements, and the ways in which tribes are reclaiming cultural uses of fire as part of cultural revitalization as well as improving the environment for traditional food systems.

What is the importance of working on the ground with communities? What challenges does that bring to research? To activism?

If you are doing work in the social science that is about a community or a group of people, you had better be working with and for that community. And if you’re working in the natural sciences there’s a good chance the work you’re doing can be useful in an applied way to communities who often can’t pay consultants to test soil, fish, air, water, etc.

The challenges that working with communities might bring include needing to adjust the time frame for research. It can sometimes take longer to carry out the research for a project when you need to make sure that the community is on board with the project design, and the ways in which the data is being collected, analyzed, and publicized.

Of the many issues that fall under the environmental justice umbrella, is there one that urgently deserves more attention?

  1. Pipelines slated to cross over wild rice beds and other sensitive habitats in Minnesota
  2. Mining project like the Back 40 mine in Wisconsin that would poison fish and wild rice habitat
  3. The current administration is working very hard to open up Bear’s Ears National Monument, a sacred landscape to several tribes, to mining and fracking
  4. The people of Flint still do not have clean water, and those who made the bureaucratic decisions to save money at the expense of the city’s residents have not been held accountable
  5. In British Columbia, members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation being torn out of the Unist’ot’en camp they have been maintaining to prevent a pipeline from ripping through their unceded territory

What advice do you have for the many up and coming environmentalists in college now?

Connect with communities and find out what they want and need done. Too often people look at a singular issue—i.e. the world needs more trees—without considering the impacts to tribal communities who rely on the land for food and have been managing the environment for eons. There was never an untouched wilderness in North America that settlers stumbled into that we should now work to return to. Indigenous people have always managed the land—through horticulture, or through fire, through redirecting water, or through encouraging some species of plants and pulling out others. I have been speaking with representatives from one tribe managing a land trust in California who is looking to return that land to the type of environment that the Spanish first encountered. A landscape managed by fire, which was abundant in native grass seeds and teeming with elk and deer. A well known national environmental organization refused to support them when they found out they would be cutting down douglas fir trees in order to do this landscape management, because it is their policy to encourage more trees not cut them down. But nobody eats fir trees. So listen to the needs of Native people trying to live on the land. But also don’t assume that ‘the environment’ only exists in wide open ‘untouched’ green spaces. There are environments worth working with and improving upon in myriad types of spaces.

How can one best support indigenous cuisine and food sovereignty? Additionally, in reading your research statement, I saw that you interviewed Native chefs—did you get to try anything particularly delicious?

One of the great perks of this project is all of the delicious food! You will often see pop-up dinners hosted by folks like the I-collective—a collective of Indigenous chefs who are working to educate people about Native issues and culture through food. Others like Sean Sherman and the Sioux Chef team; Yazzie the Chef, Loretta Barette Oden, Elena Terry and the Wild Bearies—there are many Native chefs out there who serve pop up dinners or who cater events. Buying and eating their food is an excellent way to support Native food sovereignty. Locally, Dream of Wild Health out of Hugo, Minn. works to teach Native youth out of the Twin Cities how to grow, harvest, process, cook and sell produce. You can often find their produce at farmers’ markets, and they have a great little cookbook. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, stop by Ohlone, Calif. for some traditional California Indian cuisine. In Minneapolis, the Gatherings Café at the Indian Center on Franklin Ave is a great place for a delicious lunch of Native food. The Toasted Sister Podcast website also has a website of Native food establishments around the country. The best way to support Indigenous cuisine is to buy from Native chefs and Native food producers.

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