personal essay

It’s a Good Month to Be Indigenous

published Nov 29, 2021
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It’s November! That means it’s Native American Heritage Month in the United States. It is the month where Native Americans are recognized and celebrated nationally for our beautiful cultures and for our immeasurable contributions to this nation and to the world.  However, for us Native peoples, November (and Native Heritage Month) on its own cannot contain the pride and joy we feel for our histories, our peoples, and our relationships to the lands and the places of our ancestors. For us, every day, every month, and every year is a good day to be Indigenous, to honor our peoples. 

We celebrate collectively as Native peoples, while simultaneously recognizing and reaffirming that we are not a monolith. We are many peoples with diverse cultures and experiences. A peoples whose understandings of self, peoplehood, and community are rooted in ancestral knowledge, our connections to the lands of our ancestors, and the inevitability of our sovereign Indigenous future. We also acknowledge that Native American Heritage Month is the celebration of Native peoples throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, beyond political and geographic borders. So as we observe Native American Heritage Month in the States, we do so with the knowledge that this is but one month to be proud to be Native American while simultaneously celebrating Indigeneity globally. 

We further understand that Native American Heritage Month could not be fully realized without the recognition of the authentic work Native and Indigenous peoples have been, and are doing, to stay connected or reconnect to the ways of our peoples. Even as we have been dispossessed of our homelands and fragmented from our communities and cultures, many of us are returning home, to our traditional practices and ways of existing pre-contact. Whether we live on “the Rez”  (the reservation) or in the city, whether we are traditional or non-traditional, whether we are one ethnicity or multiple ethnicities, many of us are defying the odds against us as a reminder that we are still here! 

One of the many ways we are fortifying connections to our peoples and to our traditional ways is through food and foodways. Whether on the lands of our ancestors or as guests on other relatives’ homelands, we are restoring the relationship we have to food traditions and honoring the ancestral methods of obtaining food, be that through hunting, gathering, foraging, or farming. In addition, we are recognizing the importance of food sovereignty and food justice as a means and a practice of liberation. 

It is relatives like Ramon Shiloh (he/him), amongst many, who are leading the way and providing an example of how to return to cultures through food. He is an award-winning author, artist, and multicultural chef of Black, Filipino, Creek, and Cherokee descent. He is the current Executive Chef at Alma/Urban Native Philosophy Kitchen in Tacoma, Washington. He ultimately believes that it is through First Nations’ foods that we can honor the plethora of Native identities. “The goal at Urban Native Philosophy Kitchen is to partner with rotating local, regional, and national Native chefs to build empowering stories that reflect their food-way systems, philosophies,  address challenges, and discuss the need to share our Indigenous food knowledge in this ever-changing world.” 

Growing up in the Bay Area/Central California, Shiloh learned from an early age the importance of food and food as activism. “I was fortunate to live in a region that gave birth to the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. And with my mother heavily into Native Activism, community potluck functions,” he continues, “ceremony gatherings was an annual way of life in Salinas, Morgan Hill, Hollister, and Gilroy, California.” 

Throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by activists like John Trudell; Floyd (Red Crow) Westerman; comedian Charlie Hill; medicine man Leonard Crow Dog; andPrincipal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller; in addition to migrant farmworkers. “The influence of these incredible mentors,” he says, “shaped my worldview and taught me how to bridge the urban native gap from social commentary to the food on our plates.” So he grew to understand that food was political. “As a Native radio broadcaster, educator, and sought-after storyteller, my mother surrounded me with Native perspectives and spiritual belief systems; this was simply our way of life.” After his mother’s passing in 1992, Shiloh picked up the baton and dedicated his life to art and social activism in Native communities, where he remains dedicated to this day.  

It is his belief that food sovereignty is a means by which we can reclaim our local food systems, combat hunger, enhance community health, and create food policies for economic development. Food sovereignty, he asserts, goes beyond what we eat. It is also how we collect and access our food. “Every time we obtain our food from the capitalist mode of food production, we are quietly reinforcing the social power structures that created these restrictions on Native peoples. These restrictions on traditional diets have led to epidemics of health disparities within Native American populations as they see their traditional foods and diets becoming replaced by processed foods, which are the byproduct of a capitalist agricultural model.” Shiloh wants something different for Native peoples. He wants us to experience freedom and life through our food.  

Native American Heritage is about relatives like Shiloh and others who are envisioning and  dreaming up a world outside of systems of oppression and dispossession. Relatives who are practicing acts of refusal with Native peoples at the heart of their work and who are honoring the traditional while embracing what makes us dynamic as Native peoples. “My intention is to take a humanitarian approach by looking at the centrality of food in Native communities as a way to help strengthen us spiritually and emotionally after a tumultuous time of environmental, political, and racial divides,” he says. 

As an Afro-Indigenous woman who grew up primarily within African American culture, I learned the importance of “Black food” as a means of translating our culture and celebrating our people. As a practice of existing outside our oppression. As a mechanism of joy and pleasure, something we haven’t always been afforded as people experiencing the burden of subjugation. I understood and continue to understand that no holiday, rite of passage, family gathering, or community organizing occasion was or is complete without staples such as cornbread, greens, potato salad (without raisins because Black folks will revoke your Black card if you add raisins to potato salad), barbecue, yams, sweet potato pie, and of course regional dishes and delicacies.

Now, as a reconnecting Afro-Indigenous woman (meaning I didn’t always have access to Native community or have the opportunity to practice or participate in the traditions of my peoples but have now made the effort to reclaim my inheritance and identity), I’m on a journey to learn the ways of my people, including the role food plays in our everyday lives and the ways in which gathering, preparing, and eating traditional and contemporary foods informs our understanding of who we are as Mvskokvlke and our place in the Mvskoke past, present, and future. So every time I take a bite of Osafke (sofkey-grits) or Vce-rofke (hominy) I’m practicing ceremony, defying the attempted genocide of my people, and preparing the way for our descendants.

It is also on my reconnecting journey that I’m discovering that some of the foods I once understood to be uniquely Black/African American are in fact either Native food traditions or a combination of Black and Native food brilliance, a recipe of sorts. Foods that represent times of solidarity, when Native and Africans (and their descendants) invested in community and shared knowledge with one another as a means of survival, and even kinship. It is a reminder that mine and other Afro-Indigenous/Black Native relatives’ lives and existence are often the result of Black and Native peoples investing in kinship. A stark reminder that Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty have been inextricably linked since the initiation of the projects of settler colonialism and chattel slavery in the “Americas” and the Caribbean.

Shiloh’s work, along with so many other Native relatives who are resisting and rebuilding through Indigenous foodways, encourages me to keep going. To plant, to gather, to cook, and to taste my way home. He reminds me that our unique Indigenous food traditions and cultural practices are literal and figurative breadcrumbs leading us back to our peoples, our ancestral lands, and our traditional lifeways. He reinforces that we are still here and that all is not lost or stolen. That what we have is enough to envision, build upon, practice, and restore what has always been inherently ours. Ultimately, it is a reminder that we are Indigenous and every day is a good day to be Indigenous and to eat Indigenous foods! 

Happy Native Heritage Month to all my relatives. I see you!

You can find out more about Ramon Shiloh and his work by visiting Alma/Urban Native Philosophy Kitchen’s website. You can also find him on Instagram and Facebook @ramonshiloh.