Five years ago, Kirsten Kirby-Shoote booked a one-way ticket to Detroit and never looked back. An urban gardener, seed keeper, and member of the Tlingit Nation, Kirby-Shoote grew up near Portland, Oregon, and moved to Michigan to join WWOOF, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a program where workers trade farm labor for room and board. Now 28, Kirby-Shoote has woven herself into the fabric of the local food scene, establishing a network of growers and laying the foundation for a system that uplifts the Indigenous food sovereignty movement while supporting and protecting the health and spirit of their community with nutritious, culturally relevant foods.
While working with Michigan farms and groups like the Indigenous food organization I-Collective, Kirby-Shoote has developed a vision for the legacy they want to leave behind — one that’s rooted in the past, the present, and the future of Indigenous people. That work has manifested in the establishment of a seed keepers network across the country and the preservation of traditional and medicinal foods outside of capitalist profit systems. Kirby-Shoote has also made their home into a local gathering space and hosted pop-ups that raise awareness about native culture and cooking. Lately, Kirby-Shoote has spent their time cultivating land in Highland Park, including tending to a cornfield. But they have no plans to sell corn to local bakeries. To them, that food is sacred and belongs in the hands of their community.
Eater: How do you approach urban farming? And how is it different from other approaches you’ve experienced?
Kirsten Kirby-Shoote: A lot of urban agriculture — especially in Detroit and especially with nonprofit structures that are inherently toxic — is still based on capitalism: how much food are you producing, not how many people are you nourishing with the food. It’s not a numbers game for me. It’s very much about interpersonal relationships that are heightened by the ability to nourish, and not, like, “Here’s some free kale.” I believe that plants have agency and they have autonomy, and who am I to say “produce” or “meet your marks”? It’s a lot more about creating an environment where things feel at an equilibrium. I’d rather have a meadow than a hoop house in the middle of the city.
How are you cultivating Indigenous foods in the city?
I work with a lot of other seed keepers, especially in the native community. It’s a nice thing to be able to talk about seeds as our relatives; somebody has given their utmost attention and blessings to a seed before it ever reaches me. These seeds have been handed down by our ancestors, and the fact that they are here today is just a testament to how much care everyone put into them. Continuing that and not buying from big ag companies is a lot more meaningful to me and I’m sure meaningful to the soil that I place them into.
I just went on this huge trip and met up with a lot of my seed-keeper friends. Just being able to activate trade routes in that modern setting is insane to me. I’m carrying these seeds like a lit torch, and I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for future generations — generations I can’t even comprehend — because somebody else did it for me.
Indigenous cuisine has increasingly become a part of mainstream conversations around food. What do you think is driving this?
It’s strange because [Indigenous food has] always been there, and the pull for having visibility in the media and creating a wider audience is a total double-edged sword. There’s no good way to do it. It’s very hard talking to people about it, because there are parts of it that are so sacred and not shared information, and the general public — nonnatives — don’t understand that. And then in today’s society, where everything gets shared and regrammed, there’s a real lack of consideration for the sacredness around food and around growing.
But having a platform is crucial to keeping our sovereignty visible and alive in a lot of ways. I want a little Indigenous person to be like, “Oh, I can do that. That’s a real thing,” because when I got started in food, I had maybe five people to look up to. The media was a huge part of that. Typing into Google “Indigenous farmers” and “Indigenous chefs,” the results are slim. Being able to let our children’s children know that this work is valuable, keeps our people healthy, and keeps our traditions alive, I think it’s worth it.
What’s your greatest fear about communicating with traditional media?
Sharing too much — sharing something and then exploitation, because that is historically what happened to our land and our water and pretty much everything. Once settler colonialism came in, our life and our ways were treated as a resource. When people pin something as a resource, it removes the connection you feel. When water becomes a resource, it’s no longer alive. There’s no longer a relationship with the water; it’s treated as a commodity, and I don’t want Indigenous food to be commodified.
When did you know you wanted to work in food justice?
After my father passed away from a preventable disease, wanting to change the food system became a very concrete idea in my head. A large component of the pop-ups and any gathering I do is educational in nature and tied to wanting to protect the land, the water, and the plant relatives. So by having that platform and cooking for people, I don’t want any of it to be lost on people that this food is our past and it’s our present and it’s our future.
What do you hope to accomplish over the next year?
I’d like to create a food access point for Indigenous folks in the city to be able to access traditional food and medicine. It’s like a food bank but not a food bank, because I used to go to those when I was younger. I want to turn the definition of having food access. I want it to be a source of pride for people to stop by and just grab as much wild rice or corn as they need and not have it be associated with guilt in any way. The systems in place right now don’t allow that because of capitalism, but if you look toward plant relatives and how much they care and provide and then kind of transpose that into human-to-human interaction, there’s this huge amount of depth there. I think doing that and being able to feed people that food and provide that for the community is what I want to really hone in on this year.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do similar work?
Even if there doesn’t appear to be a path, or if it’s not as clear-cut as some other paths in life, we have the ability to clear paths and take our own route. Whether it’s something you’ve seen somebody else do or something you feel nobody else has done, pursue that path and know that the ancestors are guiding us every step of the way, so you’re never alone in that path making.
How can readers support your work?
I’m so bad at allocating work or asking for money, but I think I’m going to have some sort of crowdfunding going on soon to buy chest freezers and some other equipment, like the grinder for cornmeal and some packaging. But also I recommend researching the Indigenous people of the area you occupy and realizing that space and land is somebody else’s; do that work yourself of going to these websites and run them some coins. I-Collective is a really good resource for that. Our job is to inform the public of Indigenous farming and culinary practices.
Rosa María Zamarrón is a Detroit-based documentary and portrait photographer.