by Claire Barnes 19C, Religion and Philosophy
Fox Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow
Last September, I stepped into a conference hall in northern Italy. The space—lined with concrete floors and industrial, steel beams—was converted into a warm environment to discuss food with a community of 10,000 global delegates. The International Slow Food Movement invited farmers, academics, consumers, and anyone who cared deeply about food to the conference, Terra Madre: Food for Change. There, my study of food, religion, and Indigenous Peoples coalesced as I sat in awe of a group called The Sioux Chef.
The Sioux Chef is a group of Native chefs from North America who work to reclaim traditional ingredients and ways of cooking. The group holds educational sessions and workshops for Native food entrepreneurs. Sean Sherman, the founder of the organization, was at the conference promoting his newly published cookbook The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen. I have based my thesis broadly on my experience at Terra Madre, where I ate a meal by Sherman and his team.
At the conference, two themes emerged from the lectures and workshops I attended with Indigenous food producers and activists: time is important and food is sacred. I embarked on a project to explore the complex manifestation of time and sacredness in Indigenous food movements in the United States, using the Sioux Chef as a case study.
I chose to focus on the Indigenous food sovereignty movement as food sovereignty has been documented by food scholars as an important epistemic shift and alternative to food security. The Sioux Chef is often considered a food movement that adheres to and interacts with Indigenous food sovereignty tenets (abbreviated as IFS).
In 1996, the food sovereignty movement was founded by an international, peasant group called La Via Campesina. The movement promotes the autonomy of the producer and allows the producer to define the parameters of their food system—rather than transnational corporations and governments. The Indigenous food sovereignty movement in the United States emerged out of global rhetoric on food sovereignty and applies the principles of the larger movement to local, Native struggles over food.
In the first section of my thesis, I delve into Indigenous scholarship and foreground my work with scholars from the region. I engage with Native authors such as Vine Deloria Jr., John Mohawk, and Dawn Morrison. These scholars discuss land right issues within Native communities while pulling on specific case studies to discuss land, time, and sacredness. In their work, these scholars articulate a vision of sacredness that is tied to the health of the Earth and relations with it.
Indigenous food sovereignty, as it is defined by the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, also positions the Earth, land, and seeds as sacred. Sherman, in his cookbook, does the same. Indigenous food movements approach food as a decolonial tool—one which can be reclaimed and used to fight the colonization of foodways which often extracts and ignores the sacredness of the land.
One of my main contributions to the study of Indigenous food sovereignty and sacredness is this: while both IFS movements and The Sioux Chef understand the sacredness of the land as fact, The Sioux Chef does not publicly foreground terminology related to sacredness as the main tenant of their work. Rather, The Sioux Chef connects food to themes of medicine and cultural restoration (semantically). In order to draw these conclusions, I utilized my experience at Terra Madre and 11 interviews posted by The Sioux Chef on their website.
My findings on time are the most interesting, and I will continue to work on the intersection of time and food studies beyond Emory. IFS movements and The Sioux Chef approach time in dynamic and complex ways. Time is important/limited, as the climate changes and land becomes less inhabitable, as well as intergenerational/cyclical. The Sioux Chef particularly understands time as generative—food is a way to connect between generations. While colonization has impacted food production and access, the work of The Sioux Chef paves a positive path forward for the future of Indigenous foods.
I would like to note that there is not one, homogenized version of Indigenous time or sacredness. I am not indigenous, and so I call on Indigenous authors from the United States in an exploratory fashion. I call on several Indigenous authors from North America to validate the spectrum of Native perspectives, while also acknowledging the commonalities between their scholarship, IFS movements, and The Sioux Chef (one of which, as I have discussed, is the sacredness of the Earth).
As I come to the conclusion of my project, I am reminded of several things. One, it is important to be self-critical at every stage of your work. Two, interdisciplinary work is difficult yet rewarding. In food studies, there are few authors who have contributed to scholarship specifically on IFS and time/sacredness, and even less so in religious studies. At the Fox Center, I have been able to conclude my thesis with a community of scholars who help me stay critical and position my work within the unique space of interdisciplinary scholarship.
Claire Barnes is a senior majoring in Religion and Philosophy with a minor in Sustainability. Her honors thesis explores how Indigenous food sovereignty (IFS) movements understand sacredness and time, using a group called The Sioux Chef as a case study. She relies heavily on 20th century and contemporary indigenous scholarship, citing authors such as Vine Deloria Jr., Glen Coulthard, and John Mohawk. Her thesis is also informed by observational data from Terra Madre—an international Slow Food Conference that Claire attended in September 2018. Sourcing from Indigenous scholarship and observational data, Claire argues that while sacredness is a primary tenet for IFS and The Sioux Chef, both groups foreground medicine and cultural restoration rhetorically over conversations on sacredness.