When I originally started graduate school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I had no idea that I would end up studying under a scholar activist such as John Mohawk. He would rather have referred to himself as a simple farmer who taught some college courses. I had been working on my college degrees for many years, always supplementing myself with good, hard, outdoor labor all summer. I was worried that would not continue once I entered graduate school. In some essence I was right; but in a very fortunate way, I was also wrong.
I had just finished my first full year of graduate studies at UB. I looked around for outdoor summer work because I love working in the sun. A conversation happened with John's wife, Yvonne, about helping John on a farming project. I could do the physical labor. I often think back to it now with a grin. I didn't realize this help would alter the trajectory of life.
John needed some help plowing and prepping his field for Iroquois White corn. So I readily agreed. It was in the middle of the Pinewoods community at Cattaraugus, Seneca Nation. I brought my dog, Boomer, out to chase gophers and play with rocks. John would periodically come out with some ice-cold water, and we'd chat for a few minutes.
When I lived in Rochester, N.Y., I had become one of the corn soup cooks for socials and other such events with the Rochester Native community. I knew what went into soup making and loved it myself. John had heard about this, and was intrigued by it.
So, on one of the water breaks, he asked me what I ate a lot of as a grad student. I replied honestly and quickly: pasta, the only thing a growing boy needs. He asked me why? It was simple logic: it was easy to cook, tasted pretty good, and it was what I could afford - at least, that was my argument and I was sticking to it. He just laughed.
On the next water break, he asked if I had ever considered making corn soup instead. I'm someone who enjoyed making soup for people, and the taste of it, but I told him that I simply could not afford to spend the whole weekend washing and cleaning the corn in order to make some soup - especially not with his reading lists and assignments. Again, he just laughed. He asked me as he got back in his truck, did I ever get hungry after about 45 minutes after eating a large portion of pasta? This of course was the bait; I took it hook, line and sinker. I replied yes, as a matter of fact. He drove back to the cabin, grinning.
On the third water break of the day, he asked if I would use more corn if I didn't have to wash it. I remember replying that of course I would, but where would I get some? Thus began my long association and friendship with John over the years on the Iroquois White Corn Project. I had worked up through the ranks, from labor for the project to actually helping John manage and run the project's operations. I have thought about many of our conversations on where this global economy is today, and where the world and human beings were heading since many were losing the connectivity and resourcefulness to produce our own foods and cook them. It had become much easier to hit the drive-thru. He once told me that we, as part of a global society, were on a collision course with our own fate if we did not return to our ceremonies and understanding of what it meant to grow and harvest something, not simply run to the corner store to buy it.
The whole premise is valid if you look at what is happening around the world. The global society is experiencing food riots in parts of Africa and Asia. Sam's Club and Costco are limiting the number of 20-pound rice bags their customers can purchase at one time. Surely we've all seen dramatic rises in price for everything from milk to meat. Yet, I can almost hear John saying that we are on the cusp of a farming revolution that isn't just about being organic or green. Rather, it is about returning to healthy, sustainable, more flavorful foods that we appreciate more because we are not only growing it, but building community through shared meals.
We must begin to change our mindsets toward agriculture and food. The slow food movement began as a movement to reconnect people over community meals. The Iroquois White Corn Project is part of a metaphorical ark to preserve heirloom seeds and food. It is not only the best tasting, but it's ultimately healthier for us and the environment if we do not use the oil-based pesticides and herbicides so prevalent in farming today.
It is said that rapidly escalating food prices are threatening 100 million people worldwide with hunger. John and others have long maintained that small, local farms are the most productive on Earth, and are the solution to some of the issues on the rise among poor and developing countries. By improving our local farms, we increase biodiversity, restore balance and carryout the original instructions contained in many indigenous creation narratives worldwide.
At the newly minted Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, something was said about John that has resonated with me: much of his life's work was at first about survivability as indigenous nations. This of course evolved into sustainability with projects such as Pinewoods, Daybreak and many others. But he was really about the revitalization of not only our culture and language, but of our foods. John often said to audiences we spoke to that it was our foods that made us who we are and without it, we'd surely succumb to a devastating end. Ultimately, this is about food sovereignty. As Haudenosaunee people, we have always maintained our sovereignty. But how many are eating corn soups, beans or squash?
The way to practice food sovereignty is not only to eat it at social events occasionally, but grow it, harvest it, share it and thus carry on our original instructions as we were meant to. As John and I sampled foods all over the country, he would often lament that it was a tough job, but someone had to do it - so he volunteered to bring his own spoon.
Kevin J. White, Ph.D., Akwesasne Mohawk, is an instructor at SUNY Oswego in the Native American and American studies programs and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He has been involved with the Pinewoods Community Farming Inc. Iroquois White Corn Project since 1999 with John Mohawk. He can be reached at email@example.com.