Professor Elizabeth Hoover on Food Sovereignty, Mines and Pipelines

Interview by Paul DeMain
- News From Indian Country -

Elizabeth Hoover: Okay. My name is Elizabeth Hoover. I’m of Mohawk and Mi’kmaq ancestry from upstate New York. My regular job is as an assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University, where I teach classes about Native food movements and environmental health, and general issues across Indian country.

“Right now I am at Stanford University in the Humanity Center, I am writing a book called, From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement, which is based on interviews that I did in 40 different Native farming and gardening projects all across Indian country.”

Hoover: So looking at some of these issues around how people are defining food sovereignty, how people are defining seed sovereignty, and heirloom seeds. The different fights around pipelines and mines that are impacting people’s ability to aim for food sovereignty in their communities, and the role of Native chefs in hoping to popularize some of these foods that people are growing.

“So, that’s what I’m currently working on. I come to this conference every year because I love it. There’s always great people here who are inspiring, and I like to kind of hear what everybody else is up to and get caught up on people’s projects.”

Terry Janis of the Niibii Center for Institute for the Rights of Nature and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hoover, on the right discuss how educational institutions both aid and hinder sovereignty movement in Indian Country at the 16th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference held on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in northern Minnesota.Photo by D.Kakkak

Paul DeMain: Tell us what the connection is between foods sovereignty and the battles against pipelines and mines and other destructive projects.

Hoover: So when I traveled around and I asked people to define food sovereignty for me. A big part of what they were focused on were culturally relevant foods that fed people spiritually as well as nourishing the body. Foods that connected people to their families and their ancestors and that required these of either planting or gathering and processing those foods, and eating those foods together. These foods are connected to ceremonies, they’re connected to language, they’re connected to people’s names.

“It was about sustainability, being able to harvest foods sustain-ably from the land or plant and grown food, and gather it in a sustainable way so that it will be there for people’s children in perpetuity, and to be able to become more economically dependent and feed yourself based on your ability to be able to produce food.

“And so for any of that to happen, you have to have a clean environment so something like wild rice requires very pristine water, very pristine soils. If you have a pipeline that travels over a water way and leaks, because that’s what they generally do, that will destroy that rice bed. Or if you have a mine, whose flow into water ways, that destroys those rice beds.

“If they’re placing under people’s fields, that leaking oil can impact people’s crops. It impacts people’s health and so, it’s very difficult to be food sovereign if you can’t eat out of the environment that you are living on.”

Paul DeMain: A couple of years ago, we had this big event at Standing Rock over a pipeline. A lot of people said that, that was their awaking, what do you say in response to that? What happened at Standing Rock and people opening up to this whole idea of sustainability, local economies, what are you seeing?

Hoover: So, when I went to Standing Rock, it was because I was interested to see how are people being fed? So you have thousands of people converging on a space, and you had all these volunteer kitchens, and all these amazing donations, and you had some chefs that went specifically, trying to make sure the people had access to healthy traditional food. So, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, we raised some money, we got some wild rice and Dan Cornelius drove that down in a Subaru, and we handed out these big bags of that rice to those kitchens so people could have that healthy food.

“People like Brian Yazee went and made sure to get healthy, traditional foods fed to people and there was just thousands of people eating all of these meals, and some of the chefs that I talked to said that these kitchens were really important spaces because there was all this cultural exchange happening.

“So you had thousands, and thousands, and thousands of non-Native people that came there as allies and support, and they were really learning a lot about Native culture, through being in those kitchens, through learning different protocols, and cultural ways of being around food and interacting with people around food. And people took those lessons home, and they took things that they learned there about Native people home and into their own kitchens and their own practices.

Hoover presenting at the 2017 Food Soverignty Symposium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“And after Standing Rock was over, some of the conversations that I was hearing from people who wanted to start their own camps in other places was that it was donations that really fed that whole movement. There were trucks and trucks worth of food that people were bringing in and people were sending everything from food off their own farms, to food that they had gathered through donations, but how far into the future can we rely on donations?

“So what people have started to think about more is, I think, producing food, and making sure that the movement has access to food, and the communities have access to this healthy food, and the only way you can ensure that, is by growing it yourself and by regaining that knowledge of how to grow and gather food.

So for me and my interest and obsession with food, that was probably the main thing that I took away from the time that I spent there, cooking and trying to make sure people got their vegetables and ate three square meals a day.

Paul DeMain: When you think about Standing Rock and everything that happened out there, what’s the emotion that it evokes? Anger? Anxiety? Aghast? What was it that moves you, in regards to what happened at Standing Rock?

Hoover: It was a lot. I mean, a lot of what continues to move me is the love that I developed for the people that I met there, and continue to meet up with there. People developed families, almost, groups of people that they’re really close to and connected to as part of that fight. So there’s that anger over the injustice and just being bewildered.

“I took a lot of photos of young men with shields and guns, looking terrified at this group of unarmed people, and some day I would love to be able to go talk to them, and find out, what were you told that made you so scared of all these people that were there, completely unarmed with anything but prayer and hope and sheer determination.

“So it’s kind of bewilderment, bafflement, that the people who are still on that same water supply would fight so hard to allow this mess to go through. You know, it’s sort of recognizing that system is set up in it’s currant form to allow this type of thing to happen for the purpose of the economy, which serves very few, but serves them well.

“So it’s anger that this is the system that we’re currently under but also love for the people that worked so hard in being there and continue to push hard. You know, people came away a little sad, a little faded, needing to rest and regather.”

“So what people have started to think about more is, I think, producing food, and making sure that the movement has access to food, and the communities have access to this healthy food, and the only way you can ensure that, is by growing it yourself and by regaining that knowledge of how to grow and gather food.”

Paul DeMain: They went home. What have they done since they went home?

Hoover:    Some people have started kind of smaller movement in their own town. People, I know, that went back to California, worked on water issues and tried to educate people about in their own space, there not being enough water. And people went to other camps, and people went to Bayou Bridge, people are here fighting Line Three. People on the east coast were fighting some pipelines being put in there. Some people tried to take these lessons to other spaces and say, “No, we’re going to keep pushing back against this giant, broader infrastructure.”

Paul DeMain: I have one last question. Someone is going to look at this a hundred years from now in an archive, and they’re seeing what’s going on at that time period with these battles and with this stuff going on that’s kind of uplifting on the indigenous side of finding all these things, actually reviving things that are ancient in a lot of cases, what’s your message to the seventh generation a hundred years from now?

Hoover: Well, it’s an apology at what they’ve inherited at this point. You know they’re dealing with the messes that we all contributed to, but a recognition that we’re trying and we’re going to continue trying, and you know, those who are seven generations from now, are descended from those of us who survived this mess.

“So when the election happened for this currant administration, I was teaching an intro to ethnic studies class of 85 students, mostly students of color, students of various and assorted backgrounds, and they just melted. People were sobbing in my class and they just lost it. They had no hope. People whose parents were undocumented, who are afraid, Native students, people who were of other gender identities and sexual identities, and I said, “Look, if you’re sitting in this classroom right now, you have survived worse presidents, okay?”

“So the first president, George Washington sent General Sullivan to lay waste to their settlements for Haudenosaunee people, and intentionally burned millions of bushels of corn, and acres and acres of fields, destroyed people’s food systems as a way of trying to make people weak, and they’re still Haudenosaunee communities and people are still planting their heirloom seeds, and that didn’t work. It took people down, it knocked them to their knees for a little bit but there’s still all these beautiful heirloom seeds. So people survived that president.

“And then you had President Andrew Jackson, who even though the Supreme Court said, “No, you can’t relocate all these people,” he said, “Let them enforce it,” and forced thousands of people, Cherokee people, Choctaws, Seminole, Creek, from the southeast out to Oklahoma, and thousands died ... Forced all these people out of the way, so people survived Andrew Jackson. There are nations in Oklahoma, there’s nations in the southeast.

You know, the great emancipator, Abe Lincoln, was responsible for the hanging deaths of all of those Dakota men. Dakota people survived that, there are still Dakota communities, and so if you’re sitting in this classroom right now, it’s because you’ve come from resilient genes, you’ve survived all of these presidents and even worst leaders in other countries that people’s relatives came from.

“And so the seven generations from now, you’re here because you survived this presidency as well, your ancestors, and continue to survive and so, you’re resiliency is beautiful and important.”

Paul DeMain: And there is hope?

Hoover: And there’s hope, yeah!

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