Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).
“Everything for sale here is dead” (198). This realization enters vividly into Kimmerer’s consciousness as she reflects on the plastic-wrapped leeks that lay lifeless in the produce section of her grocery store. She contrasts the cold, detached, and calculated existence of these leeks under siege with the vibrant, connected, and reciprocal experience of harvesting wild leeks from the woods near her home. For her, grocery store leeks feel cheap and deadened, a small piece of the plastic-wrapped market that we are so steeped in, while wild leeks are rich and alive within an interconnected ecosystem.
By way of this reflection, as well as throughout Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), Kimmerer uses her intimacy with wild and traditional foods to illustrate the vast divide between indigenous food systems and modern ones. Her work considers the dominant food system as inherently colonial, born out of the intentional destruction of traditional indigenous foodways. Characterized by the commodification of both land and food, today’s food system is dependent on the devastation of subsistence agriculture, communal land use, and gift economies that once defined indigenous foodways. Through the processes of displacement and assimilation of indigenous peoples as well as the privatization and industrialization of land, indigenous food systems have been dominated by colonial ones.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer honestly and poetically weaves together the historical and contemporary significance of food in indigenous communities, educating her readers about relationships to food that have been violently displaced and nearly destroyed by colonial forces. Yet, Kimmerer demonstrates that these connections to food and land persist through stories of wild strawberries, pecans, maple syrup, and the three sisters. Braiding Sweetgrass is a rich portrayal of her own and others’ acts of practicing traditional ways of interacting with the land, each other, and our food. Through these narratives, Kimmerer demonstrates how such acts that revive and/or maintain traditional Indigenous foodways expand the politics of the possible for the rejection of the colonial food system.
Thus, as food studies scholars, it is vital that we recognize the underlying colonial project inherent in the modern food system. The colonial project writ large is characterized by settlement, assimilation, genocide, destruction of land, and economic restructuring. Within this larger project, it is crucial that we view the colonial food system in direct contrast to the indigenous food systems of the past, present, and future. Braiding Sweetgrass shows us that our critiques of the modern food system do not push far enough if they stop at interrogations of capitalism and neoliberalism and fail to dismantle the internal colonial structures that uphold these ideologies. Additionally, our conversations around alternative food systems often center on departures from distinct elements of the modern food system—commodification, modernism, productivism, etc.—while so rarely challenging their colonial underpinnings. Upon whose land is the community garden, the intensive grazing, the organic farm? From whose knowledge system do we determine what is healthy, or what is good food? By whose teachings can we learn to imagine a system that is not an alternative food system, not a new food system, but an indigenous food system?
Our exploration of food systems and foodways cannot be considered without the inclusion of indigenous voices. Kimmerer calls our attention to the ways in which the ongoing colonial project manifests itself through food, and the ways in which this project can be actively resisted. Braiding Sweetgrass is therefore a vital lesson on the need for a decolonizing and re-indigenizing praxis in the field of food studies. Add it to your syllabi. Cite indigenous women. Bring food back to life.
Maegan Krajewski is currently a second-year Master’s student in Food Studies at Syracuse University. Her interests are in school food, urban agriculture, and decolonizing the food system. Born and raised as a settler-Canadian, her thesis research explores the current climate of Canadian school food programs. Using her hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan as a case study, she aims to understand the practices and motivations of school food providers. Through her academic work, she hopes to contribute to the movement for universal government-supported school food programming.