Native American Food Sovereignty: An Interview with Filmmaker Sanjay Rawal

Sanjay Rawal is a James Beard Award winning filmmaker who spent 15 years working on global human rights campaigns. His films include FOOD CHAINS about the battle of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world and 3100: Run and Become about ultra-marathoners who value running as a spiritual exercise. Arty Mangan of Bioneers talked to Sanjay about his latest film Gather, the story of reclaiming food sovereignty in three North American Indigenous communities.  

ARTY: Your film Gather tells the stories of how young Yurok leaders, a Lakota high school scientist, and a White Mountain Apache chef are reclaiming indigenous foodways. What drew you to these particular people and their stories?

SANJAY: My first film, Food Chain, was on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the farmworkers who pick tomatoes in Southern Florida. As it happens, Spanish wasn’t the first language for any of them. They’re displaced migrant workers from indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guatemala. 

After that film a funder reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to make a movie on Native American food sovereignty. The topic of native representation in media is a serious one, and I felt as a non-Native, even though I come from a country that has a horrific colonial past under the British, I didn’t have the frame of reference to address the topic. But the funder assured me that I would be working with one of their partners, the First Nations Development Institute and A-dae Romero-Briones who provided the indigeneity oversight that most, if not all, non-Natives in this space don’t have. That’s why there are a lot of tropes and mistakes that non-Natives make on these types of films. 

The film looks at the effects of colonization and genocide on the Native American food system. Being in the form of visual media rather than a book, I’m limited by the access I have to visual media. I couldn’t look at East Coast tribes that experienced genocide in the 1860sand 1870s before there were photographs. So, I looked at tribal nations west of the Mississippi. By the time the US government began moving west of the Mississippi, it had consolidated its military might and focused on Native American extermination to a degree that it hadn’t before as an institution. There were probably no more heavily affected areas, as a whole, than the plains and the Apacheria [the area inhabited by Apache people] in the Southwest. 

Sanjay Rawal

California Native history is not taught. The fact that California is seen as a progressive bastion shrouds the reality that there is a wild west spirit still in many areas of California. Many areas of California were settled by people from the confederacy, and those traditions of manifest destiny, colonial Christianity, and white supremacy created a kind of perfect genocidal storm that’s still affecting California Natives today in a way that progressive California is very much unaware of. That reality took us up to the Yurok and neighboring Hupa Nations. 

ARTY: Years ago, I attended a farming event at the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. Before things started, a group of about 10 folks circled up for a conversation. Half of us were white, half were Native farmers, and out of the blue, one of the Native farmers said, “My parents always taught me that white people lie,” which of course is too often true. My question to you is how did you, as an outsider, gain trust of these folks to be able to capture their stories?

SANJAY: In all honesty, it was primarily because the characters in the film had either worked closely with the First Nations Development Institute or had known intimately of their work. There are 574 federally recognized tribes and hundreds more that haven’t gotten that political stamp of approval but are very much Native. It would have taken me years to develop relationships with any single Native tribe that’s featured in the film, but it was their trust in the folks from the First Nations Development Institute that opened the door. 

I had a great crew of partners on the film, all of whom had worked as outsiders in indigenous communities before. Our tactic number 1 was to stay out of the way. What that meant was really treating our characters as the experts as they are. We didn’t even interview Native academics unless they were actually from the tribes we were speaking of, lived in those communities, or worked with our characters. We realized very quickly that the film had to be completely in the voices of our characters with nobody external to any of those stories, Native or not. So, I think that approach saved us from making 95% of the mistakes non-natives usually make. 

That said, we made sure First Nations was very much part of the editing process. They pointed out a couple of things that I’m embarrassed about that were included in hindsight that were just such obvious mistakes from a non-native perspective. It was really their oversight that made the film kind of ring true for Indian Country.

ARTY: As the folks in the film revive and carry on traditional ways as part of a collective community healing, their work is also a way for them to heal personally from past traumas, addictions, incarceration or living in a food desert. 

Gathering wild plants on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona

SANJAY: I can only speak peripherally to the effects of food sovereignty and food systems on healing from colonial trauma. I just don’t have the frame of reference for the historical trauma. What I observed for indigenous cultures all around the world, and really if we look back into our own family trees, human beings weren’t really nomadic. We had exceptionally close relationships with the immediate environment and understood that the immediate environment was absolutely essential to our survival. We developed not just an intimate knowledge of the plant life and the animal life in those ancestral areas, but we also developed a sense of gratitude and thus a whole series of spiritual practices to express that gratitude and to express the sacredness of the knowledge of survival.

Indigenous communities in North America still have those spiritual connections to a good degree, even though a lot of that was almost destroyed. That spiritual connection forms a foundation for what we consider food sovereignty. 

 When people, who are suffering from historical trauma of the devastation of capitalism on their communities, are reintroduced to their traditional foods by Nephi Craig from White Mountain Apache, and Twila Cassadore from San Carlos Apache, it wasn’t just here’s a squash, here’s some sage, it was an introduction or reintroduction to the lifestyle that their ancestors experienced pre-contact. That was a time when they were free from the yoke of continued occupation and colonization. 

It’s not enough just to learn how to identify a squash, you end up learning how to love it by learning the songs and learning all of the spiritual traditions that their ancestors practiced around those foodways and lifestyles. Introducing people to traditional foods, essentially, is a first step to reintroducing them to their identity. That sense of self-discovery, as we know, is the key to happiness for anybody, whether they’re in the immediate grasp of suffering or whether they’re more in the space of just trying to develop themselves free from trauma.

ARTY: When I was formulating these questions, I tried to be careful to not ask you to be in a position to speak for anybody but yourself. 

SANJAY: Folks involved with the film know that I always overstep, so they have a lot of forgiveness.

ARTY: Okay. Nephi Craig, the White Mountain Apache chef said in the film, “The food system has been colonized.” He also said that alcoholism, diabetes, homicides and suicides are the physical manifestations of colonialism, and that fighting for Native foodways is a human right. Can you talk about how you see Nephi Craig overcoming colonialism?

Nephri Craig

SANJAY: I think when Nephi is speaking about decolonization, he’s really speaking about economic justice and the right a person has to eat the way they want to eat. Indian Country is under an arcane system of governance. They’re governed effectively by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is under the Department of the Interior. There is a devastating set of policies that make it very difficult for Natives to farm, make it difficult to hunt, and make it very difficult to serve kids in schools traditional foods. When Nephi talks about decolonization, it’s about understanding the freedom that someone can experience when they’re able to gather and grow and hunt their own food and to cook that food and experience the change in identity that comes from connecting to your past.

I’m making it sound complex, but for Nephi I think it’s simple. Cook the food of our ancestors and then figure out how everybody in the tribal community has access to that food. There’s policy ramifications; there’s local economy ramifications; there’s ramifications around subsidies. Each of those limitations will vary from tribe to tribe. 

ARTY: Food sovereignty, the central theme of the film, is the paramount quest for the people in the film. When you met all of these great folks to tell their stories, what did you personally learn about food sovereignty?

SANJAY: Twila Cassadore started a project called the Western Apache Diet Project with a non-Native colleague named Seth Pilsk. They began by interviewing elders who were born in the 1920s. Their first memories were probably in the late 1920s. They asked them if they could remember what was in the pantries of their grandparents. If they were in those kitchens in the late 1920s, or 1930s, and their grandparents were 80, 90 years old, that means that they were coming of age in the 1850s, 1860s, pre-reservation. Their food system hadn’t been really devastated by contact with non-Natives yet. And so they began putting together lists of ingredients in the Apache language, and kind of cobbling together how those ingredients might be prepared. 

 My theory is that all of us at some stage 300, 500, 1,000 years ago, were pretty much rooted to particular communities, with the exception of certain ethnicities like Ashkenazi Jews who just kept getting kicked out of places generation after generation. For example, my mom’s side of the family has been in a particular place in South India for thousands of years. If you’re not acclimatized to the food in your immediate environment, you die. You can’t pass on your genes. If you’re born above the Arctic Circle and you can’t survive on a high fat diet, forget it. 

Sammy Gensaw

So conversely, it would make sense to say that our ancestral genetics are very highly specialized to particular foods in particular environments. When Twila began looking at those ingredients and began serving them to people, there was an immediate health effect, not just physical, but kind of a psychological health effect as well. Those foods, in a sense, spoke to the genetic makeup of her people.

I went back and asked my mom, who’s now in her mid-80s, if she could remember what was in the pantry of her grandmother who lived in the village. My mom listed ingredients that were pretty much unintelligible when it comes to modern East Indian cuisine. In fact, none of those ingredients seemed familiar at all to me. At the same time, they’re the most familiar ingredients to my genetics that I could ever come across. But the supply chain system of agricultural economics basically took those ingredients out of the marketplace and replaced the really tough red rices with mass-produced white Basmati rice and substituted coconut oil, which was the fat in the South, with ghee and butter and other things that could be developed on farms and shipped around the country in India. 

I realized there’s a food sovereignty aspect in every family. Ingredients and preparations don’t just connect you with your ancestors, but might hypothetically connect you with a deeper set of genetic knowledge and genetic memory.

ARTY: That reminds me of an experience that I had at that same farm conference at Gila River. At one point, everyone was sitting around roasting corn on an open fire. That traditional food triggered a memory of one of the O’odham elders. When he was a kid, he’d ride out into the desert on a horse with his friends and they would carry flatbread, bailing wire and matches. When the sun went down, they would catch flying insects, put them on the bailing wire, make a fire and pop-roast them, and eat them on the flatbread. That was their dinner. So, I have to ask you about the pack rat hunt scene. It’s a very visceral scene. I imagine a lot of people who watched that had a very strong reaction. Why was it important for you to put that in the film?

Twila Cassadore and her niece hunting pack rats

SANJAY: My weird academic fascination has always been with supply chains, and looking at the destruction of genetic variety and the destruction of genetic choice because of the economics of agriculture. None of us in the United States who shop at supermarkets eat any sort of diet that’s specific to our own genetics. Even at farmers’ markets, you pretty much get the same types of cherry tomatoes, mescaline lettuce, tubers, etc., in California as you would in the summer season at Union Square in Manhattan. It’s always been really interesting to me how many people’s global diets just morphed into the Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s diet once they moved to North America. Any control over local food systems is completely usurped by the power of these large supermarkets. 

I live in New York City, and I eat a diet where pretty much nothing that I eat or buy at the stores was ever traditionally grown in New York City. I think most New Yorkers have no idea what the food system would have been like pre-New York City. Most likely it was heavy on shellfish, heavy on fowl, heavy on a lot of proteins and plants that would now seem or taste strange. What fascinates me is to understand how media, television normalcy dictates what we think is appropriate and what we think is inappropriate to eat.

When I first learned about Twila’s work trying to reintroduce pack rat as a protein source, it formed a microcosm of my own interest. The Spanish conquistadors, when they first started moving up from Mexico into what’s now Arizona in the 1500s and 1600s, were basically coming from gigantic European cities where rats were an anathema. When they saw Apaches roasting and eating rats, they were mortified. Through the process of Western education and conversion, they created a huge stigma around this source of protein, which is completely relevant, completely sustainable, completely clean according to the timelines when Apaches would traditionally hunt them. It was the first example I could think of in North America where an important food source was pushed out because of this European mode of thinking.

When Twila was trying to revive it, there was a stigma that the Apaches who were introduced to it had to overcome as Westernized Americans. Twila’s process of 1) taking people out into the desert, 2) teaching them how to hunt in this very unique way, and 3) feeding it to them (she cooked it in incredibly tasty ways; I had it in a tamale), and 4) how reclaiming this food was reclaiming their power over the food system, that to me was the meaning of the film.

There’s no ingredient that we came across in the film that typified that more than this little creature. Even though Americans destroyed the buffalo, there’s always been a mythic symbolism of the buffalo. But rats, from the Western standpoint, are not seen as romantic.

ARTY: That’s for sure. Speaking of buffalo, there’s a scene where Elsie DuBray, the young Lakota high school scientist standing in the field with her father, says, “I love the sound of the buffalo.” Talk about her journey. She is a bridge person blending her dual passions of traditional knowledge and science.

SANJAY: Elsie is now a junior at Stanford University. As anybody who was filmed in high school would reflect years later, she looks back at her confidence in wanting to combine Western science with Native American traditional knowledge with a little bit of, in her words, embarrassment. She actually spent the first two years of her university career staying as far away from science as possible, and trying to root herself in–what I understand as the true basis for Native science– a deepening connection to her people in a spiritual sense. She’s learning the Lakota language and immersing herself in Native American studies. As Dr. Gregory Cajete of Santa Ana Pueblo has written, it’s through the spiritual lens that first allowed a Native scientist to observe an environment with the correct perspective. Elsie recognized that, and I believe she’s pursuing that foundational element of Native science and Native ecology earnestly before she enters back into the field of molecular biology. 

ARTY: In another scene, at the mouth of the Klamath River, Samuel, the young Yurok man, is with a younger boy who had experienced some trauma. They see a group of seals laying on the other shore, and Samuel says to the boy, “The seals are our people too. Say hello to them. Acknowledge them.”  What does that scene mean to you?

SANJAY: Sammy, much more than any of our characters, typifies the youth in Indian Country. No one in his immediate group really has the academic potential of Elsie. They didn’t have the kind of ambition and talent of Nephi Craig who was able to cook in some great kitchens. They’re going to live on their tribal land for the rest of their lives whether it’s their choice or not. They’re seeing their people gradually disappear both culturally and civically. They have a tremendous burden of having to contemplate survival as teenagers and as young 20 year olds. They didn’t have access to any real economic or academic resources. They had to use their dedication and their determination at every step of the way. They literally started from scratch.

Now four or five years into their official project work, they’re building gardens all over the Yurok Nation to redevelop self-sustenance, particularly when COVID decimated food systems and food supplies in that far-off section of California. They’ve realized a deep integral appreciation of their environment in its entirety. They were witnessing it disappear, not just the salmon but the plant life, the other aquatic life, and because of that, people’s connections to the river and the outdoors. They began to understand that without the frame of reference with nature as a relative, that kind of appreciation wouldn’t develop.

So, I think when Sammy speaks to that young boy, Uriah, about understanding their place on their land, it really rings true in Uriah’s ears that they aren’t the apex inhabitants of their tribal land. I think this is a theme across Indian Country. They have been given the role by the Creator of being stewards of the land, and that requires hunting and environmental management, but at the root of it all is an understanding that every creature, big or small, in your environment is your relative and should be approached with love and gratitude. I think that’s the root of Sammy’s own environmental ethos. 

That’s one of the reasons why the Yurok, the Hupa, the Karuk have been so successful at their campaign to remove the four dams on the Klamath River. But Sammy’s speech to the young Uriah is the nucleus to that ethos and environmental consciousness.

ARTY: The struggle has, at times, been violent as shown in archival footage where there was police brutality on the river in the 1970s and ‘80s against the local Native people who wanted to maintain their fishing rights.

SANJAY: There’s a whole series of issues in Indian Country that are the same as the issues of Black Lives Matter. It’s important to note that the economy on North America, or Turtle Island, from the early 1600s through the late 1800s was agricultural. Unlike the Spaniards who were looking for gold, Anglo-Europeans understood the value of North America was the topsoil. They very quickly formed a series of plantations up and down the East Coast, mainly in the Southeast, to grow cash crops. That was the way Mother England was going to benefit economically off of its investment in the 13 colonies.

Rather quickly, the American farmer’s monocropping exhausted the fertility of the soil, and they wanted to move west. The Royal Decree of 1763 by the British military forbade American farmers from crossing the Appalachian Mountains. American farmers needed the British military support because they were literally in search of native farmland to steal. To dispossess that land, they needed to kill Natives. They were in need of military support to protect them from Native incursions attempting to retake that land. That was the economic driver for the Revolution War. 

The history of agriculture in North America has always been a history of violence. When settlers were encouraged to go west of the Mississippi, they were going onto land that had been promised to Natives for time immemorial in perpetuity [although California had 18 treaties that were never ratified]. So everywhere we see a farm, everywhere we see a ranch, everywhere we see the farming economy, it’s literally built on genocide.

That’s not to say that anybody living today has responsibility for what their ancestors did. But that historical trauma is on both sides. Natives just recognize that there’s trauma in their lives from that genocide. People on the other side don’t recognize that trauma, or if they do recognize it, they refuse to deal with it. We’re in a time when Natives are still being policed for their traditional ways of hunting, for their traditional ways of fishing, or gathering traditionally on land. There has been an increased set of ramifications during COVID, and an increased set of policing policies to penalize Natives for use of their land. 

This is back to that initial example. African American bodies are policed; their ability to gain economically is policed by institutions consciously or unconsciously. For Natives, the primary objective of the American economy has always been to separate them from their land. There’s a whole host of policies from the way Fish & Wildlife police Natives to the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs polices Native access to land and resources that continue to perpetuate a genocide. 

That’s what folks like Sammy and his cohort, the Ancestral Guard, are dealing with day-by-day. There have been a number of Native youth that were fined during COVID for hunting more than their licenses allowed them to. But in essence, they were hunting and fishing to feed elders who couldn’t physically leave their house because of lockdown, who couldn’t safely go hunting on their own. It wasn’t like the Yurok were trying to decimate populations of elk or salmon, they were just trying to feed themselves in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. They were hit with penalties that could result in losing their gun licenses, which these young teenagers and 20 year olds would never be able to hunt again for the rest of their lives. That would separate them from their land, and that’s the end game.

ARTY: Colonization and oppression continue still. 

SANJAY: In very concrete, very measured, very institutionalized ways.

ARTY: The totem species of the Lakota is the buffalo, and for the Yurok it’s the salmon, which obviously are living entities of the world. I would suggest that the icons of modern society are the iPhone, the car, and the computer, which obviously are machines. Samuel, the young Yurok leader, towards the end of the film says, “The Industrial Revolution is over now. If we want to survive, if we want to carry on living on the Earth, we need to be part of the restorative revolution.” He also said that if salmon disappear, the Yurok will follow. Elsie’s father Fred DuBray, the Lakota buffalo rancher, said, “By destroying the buffalo, they tried to destroy the Lakota.” These are deep expressions of the relationship that these indigenous people have with the natural world. What do you think industrial society is losing by its disconnection to the natural world?

SANJAY: That’s a great question. Industrial society and capitalism in essence are based on one principle, extraction. Extracting goods from one place and then shipping them, in some cases thousands of miles, to another place to combine those products– whether they’re petroleum products, minerals, food or water–with other inputs to create something that has value in the market. Extractive capitalism creates a tremendous amount of inequality. That inequality isn’t just economic. We know, from thousands of studies, that the elite don’t suffer from environmental issues. They haven’t suffered to the same degree from the pandemic as lower classes of people have. 

At some point, there’s going to be a proverbial tipping point where life is just not sustainable for the non-elites. Before that happens, as Sammy suggests, we need to reframe our relationship with Mother Earth and begin to practice things that restore rather than extract. 

I think what Sammy’s trying to say is that we can’t have the same level of consumption as we’ve had in the last 100 years. There needs to be a whole-scale shift in philosophy. He and his people have referred to that as the restorative revolution, as the bedrock principle of environmental justice.

ARTY: The film opens with a quote from Crazy Horse who lived in the 1800s: “The Red Nation will rise again and be a blessing for a sick world.” How do you think your film reflects on that prophecy?

SANJAY: That’s a personal wish. I wish that one day the Native ethos will permeate larger Western society. As an outsider, I see that as essential to survival. But the expansion of that philosophy isn’t going to happen unless Indian Country is allowed to redevelop itself on its own terms. There’s wishful thinking of having Native practices and Native approaches permeate all of Western industry, but, in the past, that has led to cultural appropriation and a dilution of the power of those philosophies and approaches.

The purpose of the movie was to make something that Indian Country could use as a tool. As a filmmaking team, we have been shocked by the interest of non-Natives in this film. One of the reasons why I think the film ended up being good was because we made it for Native audiences. We didn’t over-explain; we didn’t have to explain to Natives what genocide was; we didn’t have to go through colonial history; we didn’t have to really explain trauma; we just dove right into that topic. The idea was to prioritize Indian Country first, and Indian Country for its own sake. Let the individual communities grow and prosper and strengthen on their own terms. If there are partnerships to be made with the non-native world that further tribal nations, great, but if those tribal nations don’t want to have contact, don’t want to share with outside communities, that’s their choice.

The quote reflects my hope that one day Indian Country will be strong enough and will be back on its own feet to such a degree that their practice and their approach, their descendants can have a more powerful role in leadership in all of our industries. We’re beginning to see that with Deb Holland of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, nominated for the Secretary of the Department of Interior. Her position as the overseer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs [a branch of the US Department of Interior] would be quite monumental. The more Natives that we have in those positions of leadership, from politics to the economy, the stronger our own chance is of survival.

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