It’s difficult for me to celebrate food.
When I think about my connection to food, many of my first thoughts are rooted in trauma. The constant societal pressure to be thin began a lifelong struggle with disordered eating at only 8 years old. I later developed severe chronic pain and autoimmune diseases with symptoms that are made worse by gluten, soy, and dairy. Being diagnosed as diabetic in my early 30s sent me into months of extreme food restrictions that left me ill.
Then there are adult years of being food insecure, either through a lack of money for food or a lack of help accessing food and preparing meals. The stress and humiliation of standing in the grocery store in a body coursing with pain, counting my grocery costs down to the penny — because EBT is never enough to survive on — has never left my psyche.
Eating now is a complex process wrapped in fear, burdens, and only occasional joy. I’ve often related to the phrase “the personal is political,” and my experiences with food, while deeply personal, are political. In fact, many of my issues with food are rooted in centuries of colonialist food practices that have displaced Indigenous food sources, polluted the land and water, and enforced racist, ableist, sexist, and classist hierarchies.
The Spanish invaders brought elitist, Christian food practices with them to Turtle Island, what some refer to as “North America.” (Throughout this piece, I use quotation marks around colonial names like “America” as a reminder that these are not the true names, nor the caretakers, of these lands.) To the Spanish colonizers, Indigenous foods such as corn and local wild meats were considered to be lacking in proper nutrition. Instead, Columbus brought pigs, cattle, and sheep with him in order to feed his men a proper, higher-class European diet. However, as they multiplied and consumed native plants, these invasive species created food-scarcity issues for Indigenous people and set in motion the changes to our diets and lives that many continue to struggle with.
By stealing and exterminating traditional food sources, the colonizer has killed and controlled Native people. Government-sanctioned bison slaughter throughout the 19th century forced the Plains Native nations onto reservations in order to further open the West for gold mining and the cattle industry. It’s estimated that there were 8 million bison across much of Turtle Island, but by the end of the 19th century, only 300 wild bison remained. When Army Col. Richard Dodge said, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” it was more than a threat; it was a tactic of a genocide that never ended. These genocidal food practices continued into the 20th century. During the Dust Bowl, when poverty and famine were widespread, sheep were slaughtered through the Navajo Livestock Reduction Program as a way to keep the Navajo people under colonial control.
Colonial practices governing the production of food impacted even gender roles within tribal nations. Many women traditionally oversaw their community’s food through farming techniques, such as Zuni waffle gardens. Waffle gardens, a grid-like garden similar in appearance to a waffle, are designed to work with the natural environment by collecting and retaining the limited water supply of the Southwestern part of the country. By attempting to strip away traditional Indigenous food practices, the colonizer also placed cis women and Two-Spirit people in an inferior position within their nations. As lands were stolen from Native nations, the “U.S.” government taught Native men farming practices instead of the traditional hunting and fishing, and women were relegated to housework.
This colonial legacy still impacts Indigenous communities today. Eighty percent of food on the global market, including potatoes, corn, and beans, is connected to Indigenous plants and crops. And yet health issues, food scarcity, and food insecurity are widespread across Indigenous lands and borders due to human-made climate catastrophes, pollution, and the reliance upon the colonizer for food and livelihood.
The climate crisis created record-breaking temperatures, and wildfires are wreaking havoc across parts of “South America,” raising valid fears of what future summers will be like. But the issue is particularly dire for Indigenous people. Not only are livelihoods from important food crops such as coffee suffering, but Indigenous people are also dying. A study by the Environmental Research: Health journal found that between 2014 and 2019, wildfire smoke in “South America” was responsible for 12,000 premature deaths each year, with a disproportionate impact occurring in Indigenous lands.
The impact of climate crises is acutely felt by Indigenous people around the world. I spoke with Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu), impact director at the Activate Agency in Aoteāroa (“New Zealand”), about the ways the climate crisis impacts food accessibility and health in her territories. Many Māori are dependent upon the dairy industry for jobs, but this industry also makes it difficult for them to access cultural ways of life, as traditional foods such as Kūtai (green mussels) are disappearing due to the rapidly accelerating heating of oceans — an acceleration that industries like industrial dairy farming contribute to. What’s more, many Māori are now forced to consider moving their traditional community and ceremonial gathering spaces so they’re safe from flooding due to coastal erosion.
“What does it mean to move a marae, our sacred meeting houses that have been there for generations that are often associated with burial sites?” Sherwood-O’Regan said. “Our ancestors have had a connection to that place for generations.”
The added irony of this pattern is that the colonial foods Indigenous people are now stuck with, like dairy, are making our bodies sick. Limited studies have found that Māori and Polynesian people have higher rates of lactose intolerance. This can be seen across the ocean in the “U.S.” The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse estimates that up to 75 percent of American Indians are lactose intolerant.
The Houma Nation in southern “Louisiana” faces a situation similar to that of the Māori. Many people work in the oil and gas industry because they can no longer live off the land due to pollution and rising waters; they now have to rely on the same industries responsible for their demise. And due to a lack of clean water and grocery stores, many of the Houma must eat whatever highly processed, salt-ridden, sugary drinks and food they can get at Dollar General.
On my reservation in northeastern “Oklahoma,” massive poultry farms generated 197,121 tons of litter in 2018, up from 110,996 tons in 2003. This phosphorus pollution creates algae blooms that kill the local freshwater fish. Despite numerous lawsuits and the outcry of area communities and the Cherokee Nation, the state government continues to approve new poultry operations in eastern “Oklahoma.”
The pollution in the “U.S.” is so extreme now that a recent study found freshwater fish with detectable levels of the carcinogenic PFAS in all 48 states. Eating only one of these fish was the equivalent of drinking water contaminated with PFOS (a type of PFAS) for one month. In fact, these cancer-causing PFAS/PFOS are so rampant that they’ve been found in animals on every continent but Antartica.
Circumstances are dire to the north as well. At least 5.3 million liters of toxic tailings have been spilled at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands mine in “Alberta, Canada.” Tailing ponds hold the highly toxic wastewater byproduct from the tar sands oil extraction, which is one of the most climate-polluting forms of oil on the planet. Neither the provincial nor tribal governments were notified when the first surface leak was discovered in May 2022. Native communities were finally notified in February 2023 of a second leak.
Imperial’s groundwater reports show that they knew about the leak into the groundwater as early as 2020. This pollution has led to further food insecurity for Native people, who are facing extreme food costs and a lack of access to grocery stores in the overwhelmingly rural country. Whereas the rural landscape once provided wild berries, medicinal herbs, fish, and caribou — to name a few — the local wildlife is no longer safe to eat. In “Canada,” just a quarter of First Nations adults consume wild meat from their local environments, while only around 18 percent include wild plants as part of their diets.
United Nations and university studies have found that Indigenous people live in some of the most toxic areas across the world. Couple that with our traditional reliance to live upon, and in harmony with, the natural environment through fishing, hunting, and gathering, and it’s not surprising that Indigenous people have significantly higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer compared with the general population.
I sometimes put off eating as long as I can because it’s exhausting and painful for me to deal with. I don’t have the home-health-aide help I require, and there are only so many dairy, soy, and gluten-free frozen pizzas one can eat. I find restaurants are often inaccessible for me because of stairs, long lines and waits, ableist staff, prices, or a lack of food I can eat. Delivery services like Uber Eats or DoorDash are also a nightmare, as I still encounter the lack of dietary-friendly food options, and my orders sometimes don’t arrive or are glaringly incorrect and therefore inedible.
I do attempt, and occasionally succeed at, glorious food moments, like the delicious meal I had at Café de Oriente in Madrid, Spain. The waiter took my dietary issues so seriously that she had a long conversation with the chef to work out the best menu options. And there were the Scottish eggs I cooked and devoured every morning at my Glasgow, Scotland, accommodations. When I travel, I often stay in places with kitchens. It’s more cost effective and less straining than eating out. But I also ate so much delicious food in the “U.K.” thanks to Natasha’s Law, which requires restaurants to give a complete list of ingredients for each menu item, including pointing out several common allergens. I wish we had a similar law in the “U.S.”
Since becoming a journalist, I’ve had opportunities to learn from other Indigenous people about their traditional food practices, like the clam gardens of the Coast Salish people in “British Columbia, Canada.” Nicole Morris (Halalt First Nation), founding member of the Hul’q’umi’num’ Lands and Resource Society, spoke at a 2023 Earth Day event at the National Museum of the American Indian in “Washington, D.C.,’’ about the significance of these gardens, which are rock walls built to capture clams and other sea life as the tides come in.
“When I talk about clam gardens, I was talking about it from the viewpoint of one single clam,” Morris said. “That one single clam is also eaten by our relatives of the sea. That same clam is eaten by our relatives in the woods. So when we care for these spaces, we understand that it’s not just about us. When the other relatives of the sea are nourished and the other relatives of the woods are nourished, it’s balanced because we eat from the sea and we eat from the woods.”
Indigenous people around the world see a connection among the food, the natural environment, and one another, regardless of where we call home and what that home looks like. Knowing this helps me find hope in a world that rarely serves it to me.
Jen Deerinwater (Cherokee Nation) is a freelance journalist, founding executive director of Crushing Colonialism, and has a deep love affair with cheese, despite being lactose intolerant.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Carolina Hoyos is a Two Spirit Afro-Indigenous Latine voice actor.
Editor Alice Wong is a writer, activist, and consultant based in San Francisco. She is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project and author of Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life, available now.