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American Indians and the Slow Food Movement

Pale blue Araucana chicken eggs in Chile, 500-year-old raisin varieties in Afghanistan and Wenchi volcanic honey in Ethiopia, are just a few examples of the indigenous and artisanal products Slow Food International unites around the world.

Slow Food is a grassroots, eco-gastronomic nonprofit organization; founded in 1986 in Italy to protest the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish steps of Rome, it’s now a global movement. Slow Food is dedicated to strengthening the relationship between the world of food producers and consumers. It strives to transform food policy, production practices and market forces to ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.

The organization is a reaction to the current industrialized food industry and global economy, which are threatening communities, native foods and environments around the world.

Winona LaDuke, founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which was the recipient of the International Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity in 2003 said, “Indigenous people are center to Slow Food International,” because the foods they are talking about have long histories, the very foods Slow Food wants to protect.

The majority of products in the Slow Food USAArk of Taste, a catalogue of more than 200 foods in danger of extinction, were first used by Native Americans, whose cultures historically have a biologically diverse diet.

Today, genetically modified crops, biopiracy, environmental degradation and the growing distance of tribal members from traditional food production and consumption threaten many of these indigenous food products.

Manoonim, or wild rice, in the oral history of the Anishinaabeg in Minnesota is a gift from the Creator, and is a centerpiece of the nutrition and sustenance of their community. For generations, each September people set out in canoes to harvest the wild rice, an aquatic grass from the remote lakes of northern Minnesota. Today, the high quality wild rice, which dates back to prehistory, has to compete on the market with cultivated wild rice grown in Californian man-made paddies.

An even bigger potential threat is that of genetically modified wild rice entering the ecosystem. LaDuke, a Slow Food representative, said GMO’s, genetically modified organisms, pose the biggest threat to food sovereignty for Native Americans across the continent.

According to the Center for Food Safety, “The use of genetic engineering in agriculture could lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.”

Jennifer Hill-Kelly, environmental quality director with the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, Inc. echoed this sentiment, saying her biggest concern for the tribe’s life sustenance, which is white flint corn, is the drift from genetically modified corns.

“The Heirloom White Flint Corn plays a very important role in our culture, and is even referenced in our Creation story,” said Ted Skenandore, agricultural supervisor with the Oneida Tribe. “It is one of our life sustainers that we call the Three Sisters. This consists of corn, beans, and squash. It is also the corn that was brought to Valley Forge to feed George Washington’s troops when the U.S. government could not get food or other supplies to their Army. The Oneida’s brought them the corn from our village to keep them alive through the winter.”

The white flint corn is an open pollinated species which, to this day, is hand-harvested by members of the Oneida community. He is also concerned about big companies such as Monsanto, which is trying to patent seeds.

“In my mind Monsanto should be the one that was sued over the contamination by pollination to other farmer’s crops and making the seed go sterile; this forces the farmer to buy the seed that is usually able to naturally reproduce.

“Another threat is the next generation coming up does not have that connection with the land, and do not know where their food actually comes from. No farmers – no food,” Skenandore said. Although he was talking about his own tribe, this concern is voiced across the nation.

“Our own communities don’t know how much danger they are in,” LaDuke said.

Native people are no longer entirely able to ensure their own food security. On her reservation more than $8 million is spent annually on tribal food purchases off the reservation by households and tribal food programs. On the Zuni Reservation, only about one-tenth of the population has a garden or field where they grow their own food.

David Pecusa, from the Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona, pointed to the gap between elders and youth as a threat to the continuation of Hopi dry farming.

In October 2008, Slow Food hosted an international conference of food communities around the world called Terra Madre in Italy. Spokespeople from various North American tribes attended. The conference offered a chance to meet people from all over the world with similar struggles.

Pecusa said he met Mayans in Guatemala who are safeguarding heirloom seeds, a struggle similar to his own. He was also inspired by the stories of indigenous people of Brazil and how they were trying to use their indigenous ingredients in ice cream, a bridge perhaps, between the young and old.

“This movement we have been talking about it and trying to protect it for a long time, it’s encouraging to see the rest of the world wake up and start caring about food,” Hill-Kelly said.

Questions were also raised during the conference.

“The Slow Food movement is talking about feeding the world, and I’m focused on trying to feed ourselves; Zuni for Zuni farmers,” said Jim Enote, of the Zuni in New Mexico, who are marginally subsistence farmers.

The Hopi are also traditionally subsistent farmers who do not sell their products. “Subsistence farmers means we produce our food in a sacred manner in order to feed our families, relatives and those in need first and then if there’s abundance we can give that out for ceremonies but very rarely is that sold as a cash commodity,” said Lilian Hill, Hopi Slow Food representative.

“It’s not just about selling it (white flint corn),” Hill-Kelly said. “It’s part of our identity.”

“Basic question: Is subsistence versus agriculture as a means to economic development?” Enote asked. He thinks ultimately that is an individual farmers choice and that clarity will come only at a local level.