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Dawn Spears opened a paper grocery bag and pulled out a dried ear of corn. She gently opened the papery shell to reveal the kernels that were almost luminous—like pale, golden pearls.
“Now that’s a nice ear of corn,” Spears said.
It was Narragansett flint corn, which has been grown by her tribe for hundreds of years.
Corn is culturally important to many indigenous people, said Spears, who runs Ashawaug Farm in Ashaway, Rhode Island. But when she and her husband grew an entire field a few years ago, it was still a surprisingly emotional experience.
“I never expected this corn to be such a powerful medicine as it turned out to be. But if you stand next to that corn and feel that energy coming out of it, that energy comes to you,” she said. “It’s like looking out into this field and seeing our ancestors. They’re our family, you know?”
During the months I researched this food project, I heard experts talk about food in terms of nutrients, cost, water use, and carbon footprint—all important things. I have heard far fewer people describe plants as relatives or allies, or tell what trees tell us, or ask what we owe the earth.
But the mainstream conversation around food is beginning to shift, as the climate crisis brings more attention to traditional indigenous farming practices that conserve water, land and biodiversity. The most recent UN Climate Report noted that North America is likely to see increased climate disruptions and a decline in food production, and that some of the best solutions rely on indigenous knowledge.
“Every time I hear the new trend of what’s happening, I’m thinking, ‘Well, we’re already doing this,'” Spears said.
The mainstream food system has disrupted our relationship with what we eat and the planet in general. So, I turned to local local food growers with expertise in both for advice on how to bring them back together.
But before we get to them, let’s look at how we got to this point.
A (very) brief history: New England, colonization, and food
One of the weapons of genocide is the destruction of people’s food. This includes withholding people from their food, removing them from their food, or force-feeding them unfamiliar food. European colonizers did all these things to the indigenous people of North America: they killed millions of bison, burned cornfields, moved people to unknown lands, and put children in culture-erasing boarding schools where many ate white bread and drank milk cow for the first time.
Here’s a lesser-known example of how this happened in New England.
When European colonizers arrived in the region, one group they encountered were the Nipmuc. The Nipmuc were an agricultural people, but many of their farming methods were unknown to Europeans—actively maintaining deer trails and wild blueberry bushes, for example, or letting fields rest occasionally to regenerate. the earth.
The Nipmuc also fished the Quinobequin (now known as the Charles River) and the spring fish runs were especially important. According to historian Carla Cevasco, local tribes depended on fish for protein and used them to fertilize the thin rocky soil.
In 1738, colonists in Watertown built a dam on the river—one of many built in the region for power mills—which blocked the path of migrating fish. “Although Massachusetts law required Watertown Dam operators to allow fish to pass by building a fish ladder in the Charles River, corrupt local officials looked the other way,” Cevasco wrote. Colonizers also cleared forests for fuel and timber and filled swamps for land. The Nipmuc’s food supply dwindled; very hungry
“This is a devastating process … and we still see this as an ongoing struggle,” Kristen Wyman said at a trustees symposium in March. Wyman is a member of the Nipmuc tribe and active in the movement for indigenous food sovereignty—the right of people to have culturally significant food, and also access to the land and water that provides it. She is now advocating for the removal of the Charles River dam in South Natick and sees dam removal in general as important restoration work. “We’re still going to fight to get our fish” even if the dam goes down, she said. But science suggests that habitat can begin to be at least partially restored within hours of a dam being removed.
The indigenous food sovereignty movement is active across the Northeast, with people like Spears and Wyman growing traditional crops, saving seeds and restoring rivers. If you want to take a deeper dive, start with the book Native Food Sovereignty in the United States and check out the work of Color Land Trust’s Northeast Farmers and Soul Fire Farm.
This work matters to everyone. Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke writes about how traditional varieties of corn — bred over thousands of years to survive wildly different conditions — are proving resilient to the extreme weather that is becoming more common with climate change. “Soil and seeds help us navigate the future,” she wrote. “If we are not able to feed ourselves, we will not survive.”
THE BIG PRESENTATION:
If we feel more connected to what we eat, we can make better food choices for the planet.
How to reconnect with food
Since this newsletter focuses on eating, I asked local food experts for suggestions on how everyone can reconnect with their food. Here’s what they said:
Try to eat seasonally.
Eating local foods in season connects you to the regional climate.
“Our bodies don’t need everything all the time,” said Danielle Hill Greendeer, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. “You need root vegetables during the winter to stay with the soil. They grow in the soil – this is not even a metaphor. And then, in the spring, that’s when the thaw begins; you need those sugars and fruits first. Earth already has it all figured out for us.”
Not sure what is “in season”? Join the club! The folks at Foodprint have an easily searchable seasonal food guide where you can see what foods are ripe for harvest near you
Grow some food.
“To get rid of the convenience of our food system, you have to grow something,” Greendeer said. And not just light herbs, she said, but actual food, like tomatoes or carrots. Greendeer — which grows traditional, copper-colored King Philip corn — says it’s not just about nutrition; it’s about helping a seed grow from a sprout to a stem and then to a fruit. “You have to understand the process, how long it takes,” she says. “You have to have that first-hand experience with growth.”
Spears grows food without pesticides, using seashells and compost to enrich the soil. “We do not fight the land. We don’t try to change it and change it,” she said. “We have to find a way to find the balance where that land is still happy and comfortable with us being there.”
Take only what you need.
Extractive practices — such as growing crops until the soil is depleted or withdrawing water until rivers are depleted — are throwing the Earth out of balance, according to Spears. “I think that’s climate change, right? It’s Mother Earth letting us know we’re not treating her right.”
The same is true 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 excess,” Spears says, “I would advocate giving it to those who can’t get it.”