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Preservation of culture and food

November 24, 2010

Frozen-over-moon—gash ka mo ghee zus—is the name of this month’s full moon for the Anishinaabekwe culture, according to Winona LaDuke in a talk at Hamline College last Thursday.  The name of each full moon evokes the time of year in which it is set, reminding observers of the natural balance that comes along with the moon.  (I must admit, I’d love to venture up north during Blueberry Moon in the summertime.)  With prescience she spoke; to my amazement, just two days later, on the actual night of the full moon, freezing rain left our city literally frozen over in a sheet of ice.

Winona LaDuke, a social activist of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Northern Minnesota, is passionate about the preservation of culture, agriculture and food traditions. LaDuke talked about food justice, highlighting key roles that agriculture and food play in the protection of culture and diversity.  Winona LaDuke is currently working on an Indigenous Corn Restoration Project to protect native corn species.  Notably, the Pink Lady Flower Corn is a dazzling magenta, and the Pawnee Eagle Corn appears to have a small eagle on each and every golden kernel.  The two other major cultural economies that LaDuke is working to protect in Northern Minnesota are wild rice from genetic modifying and industrialization, and fresh maple syrup from over-tapping and against the incursion of high fructose corn syrup in the marketplace.

As it turned out, the issues of cuisine and agriculture were salient in world politics this past week, too. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an important player in world heritage protection, deemed French and Mexican cuisines noteworthy and meriting protection.   UNESCO has been a major protector of cultural heritage sites and monuments for over three decades, and recently began to add so-called ‘intangible’ human traditions in 2003, such as dance, music, architecture, and arts.  This is the first time that cultural practices surrounding food have been recognized.

It is uplifting that food and cuisines are being protected.  Especially amid growing trends of obesity and a concurrent lack of thought towards food preparation in many parts of the world, it is reassuring that gastronomy and the culture of food production are being recognized.   However, I doubt that LaDuke’s concerns of cultural preservation would be assuaged by this acknowledgement, and neither are mine.  In recognizing certain food cultures, we may jeopardize others, especially those that are lesser-known and without substantial power.

LaDuke’s passion to protect the cultural diversity of her people is contingent on the remembrance of stories that accompany the land and traditions of the people.  The Great Lakes Indigenous Farming Conference will feature a seed ‘library’ rather than a seed ‘bank’; the former includes the stories that accompany the crops rather than simply giving them away. While the merits of including gastronomy on UNESCOs human traditions list are clear, we must recognize the diverse roots that have been sowed when creating a cuisine, and the narratives that go along the way.

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