First Nations people in British Columbia (BC) have long known that food is more than just nourishment. Since time immemorial, traditional foods have provided First Nations with not just sustenance for the body but a pathway to wholistic wellness. Colonialism, however, disrupted this pathway, leading to lower health outcomes for First Nations peoples in BC.
That was the message by Dr. Charlotte Coté, professor in the department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, during her keynote address at the First Nations Health & Wellness Summit, April 4-6 in Vancouver. During her presentation, Dr. Coté urged the audience to “decolonize and re-Indigenize" their diet and food systems.
Dr. Coté, a member of the Tseshaht First Nation on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, cites her own community's efforts to meet these goals by planting a community garden on the grounds of a former residential school. Highlighting the spiritual connection between the land and the people, she talked about how the parcel of land was once barren, reflecting the pain and trauma that took place there. Once the community garden was planted, the harvest was bountiful, as if the land knew the community was healing itself and going back to its proverbial roots.
According to Dr. Coté, the current Western diet is based on the industrialization of food. In this system, food is no longer about nutrition, but about selling a commodity. This contrasts with the traditional First Nations diet, particularly in Tseshaht Nation where the traditional diet is nutritious and diverse.
“The food industry doesn't pay attention to health and the health industry pays no attention to food," said Dr. Coté.
The current state of First Nations food insecurity is only one of the many traumas inflicted by the residential school system. Students were forced to endure a diet that was not only alien to their upbringing, but also unhealthy. This led to entire communities losing their connection with their land, food and culture.
The loss of food sovereignty was more than just a psychological and emotional blow; it had physical impacts that caused poorer health outcomes for First Nations peoples. But restoring and re-Indigenizing food systems restores the sense of reciprocity and respect for the land and ecosystem that was stolen by colonization. It gives the community both nourishment and spiritual comfort as well as a traditional identity that is so closely tied to the land and water.
Consequently, the movement to re-Indigenize food systems is more than just about food and nutrition. It touches on the concept of wholistic wellness as re-Indigenizing diets also means restoring and strengthening community health and wellness – increasing cultural and political autonomy. The conscious decision to harvest and eat traditional foods is an act against colonialism itself.
The First Nations Health & Wellness Summit was a three-day event from April 4-6 to share knowledge and wisdom on community driven practices for wholistic wellness.