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Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Building a Relationship-Oriented Approach to Research

in 2024/Crop Production/Current Issue/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2024

Effects of Organic Amendments on Soil Health Indicators in an Indigenous Farm in the Northern Peace River Region of Canada

By Tiffany Traverse

[Editor’s note: This research was presented at the First International Forum on Agroecosystem Living Labs, October 4-6, 2023, Montréal, QC, Canada, and is shared here with gratitude. This article was prepared with the support of Tiffany Traverse for the BC Organic Grower—the full research team is credited at the end of this article, with thanks.] 

Indigenous knowledge is cumulative, holistic, dynamic, and inclusive of all variants of knowledge, including, but not limited to, science, cosmology, spirituality, language, politics, and law. It is relationship-oriented, place-based, intergenerational, and validated by lived experience and time.

The historical, cultural and socio-economic context of Indigenous agriculture is different from the context of conventional agriculture. Some Indigenous farmers practice closed loop organic farming by recycling nutrients within their system. The belief of “everything is connected” is the key concept that “soil and soul” are connected, and thus should be honored to sustain the life in continuum. 

Figure 5b – Core Producer and Small Plot Sites. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

Closed loop farming guarantees carbon returns to a local system. The benefits of closed loop farming include:

  • Increased soil carbon sequestration; 
  • Increased biodiversity; 
  • Increased nutrient availability; and 
  • Reduced pest and disease issues.

Maintaining soil health and fertility development is the key for sustainability of agriculture and food security. Indigenous communities have been practicing farming based on traditional skill and knowledge since time immemorial. With an aim to allow Indigenous communities to integrate western science into their Indigenous knowledge, a study on evaluating the soil health and quality was carried out at Fourth Sister Farm in Progress, BC. Effects of five different type of farmyard manure (FYM), namely, bovine, swine, equine, poultry, and vermi-compost on soil health indicators, were tested in a two-year pilot project from 2021-2023. 

In addition to better understanding the effects of the five different manure types on soil health, the study also sought to develop a greater understanding of Indigenous community research priorities related to Indigenous agriculture, which can support the co-creation of larger strategic research collaborations.

Second year oat crop. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

Material and Methods

The study followed a decolonial approach to research, from consultation, co-development, and execution by the Indigenous farmer. This included plot size, seed and seeding techniques, traditional/manual, and phenology, resulting in food and seed.

The crop investigated in the first year was Fava bean (Vicia faba), and the second-year crop was oats (Avena sativa). Soil samples were collected before seeding of crops for baseline data on soil health and nutrients. Next, five FYM treatments and one control plot were replicated four times following complete random block design. Rhizosphere sampling was carried out during the peak growing season (mid-July/August), and final soil sampling was collected immediately after the harvesting in September in each year. Soils were tested for key soil health parameters: soil organic carbon (SOC), total nitrogen (TN), aggregate stability, microbial biomass, bacterial/fungal diversity, and biomass in the rhizosphere. 

Harvesting first year broad bean crop for analysis. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

The results of soil tests revealed the following:

  • Soil health parameters did not differ by FYM type by the end of two growing seasons (P > 0.05);
  • Bacterial relative abundance was not impacted by manure application type;
  • Fungal richness only responds with vermi-compost; 
  • Aggregates were more stable in vermi-compost treated soils; and
  • Richness may have increased between years, but sample analysis methods may be confounding the results.
Phenological changes and moon phases during the growing season. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

Overall, the study found no impact of different FYM treatments on the following soil health indicators: aggregate stability, SOC, mineralizable carbon, microbial biomass carbon (MBC), and root colonization. There was little impact of manure on fungal community structure after only one season. 

More time is required to see community shifts and change in soil health indicators. 

Figure 2a depicting soil carbon and nitrogen levels after two growing seasons. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.
Figure 4 shows the relative abundance of micro-organisms in various manures. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.
Figure 2b, depticting soil carbon and nitrogen levels after two growing seasons. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

Fourth Sister Farm is collaborating with the Peace Region Living Lab. Agricultural Climate Solutions-Living Lab is a producer-led innovation project supported by research to store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Peace region Living lab is a AAFC funded five-year project (2022-2027) with the goal to “Enhancing Agroecosystem Services in the Peace River Region.” 

This research was conducted by: Erin Hall (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Tiffany Traverse (Fourth Sister Farm, Progress, British Columbia), Patrick Neuberger (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Monika Gorzelak (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), Bharat Shrestha (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Beaverlodge Research Farm, Beaverlodge, Alberta).

Acknowledgements: Greg Semach; Denis Belisle; Sarah Preston; Andrea Brown; Sam Nahli; Noabur Rahman; Stewart Garson;  Irene Murray

This initiative was funded by the Indigenous Science Partnership Program (IASPP) of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Featured image: Shelling beans. Credit: Tiffany Traverse.

Creating a Movement to Decolonize Agriculture

in 2023/Indigenous Food Systems/Spring/Summer 2023

By Natasha Anderson-Brass

Boozhoo/Aaniin. My name is Natasha Anderson-Brass. My traditional name is Ozaawaa Giizhigo Ikwe (Yellow Sky Woman). I am Saulteaux from the Key First Nation and Ukrainian on my father’s side, and French Canadian on my mother’s side. I am an auntie, cousin, sister, friend, food grower, and artist. I give thanks to all my ancestors, teachers, mentors, aunties, uncles, elders, and friends who have and continue to guide and support me. I am the owner/operator of Minwaadizi Farm. Minwaadizi is a small-scale certified organic market farm and community space, located on the unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation.

I started Minwaadizi in 2022 because of my passion for growing local organic foods for my community, as well as my desire to create opportunities for other Indigenous peoples to connect with and care for the land because there is, by design, a lack of Indigenous people represented in the agricultural system. Historic government policies affected (and continue to affect) Indigenous peoples’ access to farmland, tools, and markets. For example, the Indian Act (1876) prohibited First Nations homesteading and restricted the sale of First Nations agricultural products. According to a 2016 Census, less than 3% of the agricultural population identifies as Indigenous.(1) In order to have an equitable food system for all, we need more Indigenous people stewarding land in ways that make sense culturally for them.

Natasha Anderson-Brass. Credit: Lime Soda Photography.

My entry into farming was not an easy one. I didn’t grow up with generational wealth. My father was taken from his birth family at three years old as part of the 60s Scoop.(2) The consequence of this being that I didn’t have a connection to my Indigenous culture or family ties until my early 30s. Like many others, I faced challenges in my life and relationships because of the traumas I have experienced and the intentional disconnect to my Indigenous ancestry because of colonization. It took me a long time to know who I am, what I want out of this life, and how I could be of service to my community. The effects of colonization still linger on in me today, and I have to work hard to overcome my own inner trickster voice of fear, shame, judgement, and doubt. At the same time as facing barriers to achieving my dreams, I was also afforded many privileges and I feel it is important to recognize those as well. Having lighter skin, being able to get a university education, being raised by both my biological parents, having the financial stability to take unpaid or low paying farm jobs to learn the skills I needed, and having a connection with my Indigenous culture, even if later in life, just to name a few.

I think Minwaadizi came into being as a result of the barriers and privileges I have faced. I want it to be easier for other Indigenous people to pursue their dream of growing food for community. I also know that community is key and that anyone who joins me at Minwaadizi will be a teacher for me as well. Indigenous people must be given the space and opportunities to realize our potential, because we have so many talents and such important knowledge that needs to be shared. I believe that caring for the land, growing nourishing foods, and practicing culture are powerful ways to heal from the effects of colonization. My hope is that Minwaadizi can grow to provide spaces for other Indigenous peoples who want to learn about growing food while practicing Indigenous ways of connection to themselves, the land, their community and the Great Mystery of life. I want Minwaadizi to be a place of reciprocal learning and sharing and a place of healing through putting energy and intention into caring for the land.

Natasha Anderson-Brass in the field. Credit: Minwaadizi Farm.

I am very grateful to be where I am today, but the biggest and perhaps not surprising challenge facing Minwaadizi is long-term sustainable access to land. For reasons I mentioned above, I do not “own” or have title to the land where I grow food. I have a one-year lease, so the future of my farm business is uncertain. In addition, the land where I farm is unceded territory, meaning Indigenous sovereignty has never been extinguished. This means I am occupying stolen land. I am constantly asking myself what I can do to be reciprocal in my relationships to the land and the people who are its original stewards? (I write “are” intentionally because Indigenous people are often referred to in the past tense, as in we once existed but now do not. We are still very much here in the present and should be referred to as such!) I am just beginning to build meaningful relationships in the community here, and hope I can continue to learn and grow in a good way.

You may be facing some of these same questions yourself, and wondering what you can do to decolonize agriculture. I think that in order to decolonize agriculture, we need to support Indigenous-led businesses and organizations who are on the ground doing the work to decolonize, and support Indigenous peoples to realize their dreams. There are so many programs and workshops to support the non-Indigenous population with “Reconciliation;” we need more endeavours by and for Indigenous people to support our own healing journey.

At the same time, we need to look inward and decolonize ourselves and our relationships with each other. I listen to my aunties and elders and do my best to follow their teachings. I have and will continue to explore my past traumas and work to heal them. I encourage you to do the same. Find out who your ancestors are and talk to them, sit with your aunties, uncles, elders, and youth, and really listen to them. Ask the hard questions and be deeply honest with yourself about your impact on the world. Get creative and explore art or whatever connects you to spirit. We (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) have all been persuaded by the illusion of disconnection that is perpetuated by colonization and our colonial mindset. Indigenous peoples continue to be targeted and harmed by ongoing colonization. We all need to step up, right now, and take responsibility for ourselves, each other, and Mother Earth if we want to create a better world. If we can connect to our inner spirit and begin to heal from within it will create a ripple effect.

To quote the remarkable Sherri Mitchell, Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset (She Who Brings the Light):

“Every living being has its own vibrational tone. When these tones are combined, they form the voice of creation. If we learn to listen closely, we can begin to hear that voice and allow it to guide our steps through life.”

– From Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change by Sherri Mitchell, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

You matter. The world needs your medicine.

Miigwetch for reading my words, Natasha Anderson-Brass.

Natasha Anderson-Brass farms at Minwaadizi Farm on the traditional unceded territory of the K’ómoks First Nation. Follow her journey on Instagram: @minwaadizi_farm

Featured image: Semaa (tobacco) plants growing strong at Minwaadizi Farm Credit: Minwaadizi Farm.

1 Statistics Canada. (2016). Census of Population. statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/96-325-x/2019001/ article/00001-eng.htm
2 Meera Baswan and Sena Yenilmez. (2022). “The Sixties Scoop”. The Indigenous Foundation. theindigenousfoundation.org/articles/the-sixties-scoop

Harvesting Wisdom: Protecting our Life-Source

in 2021/Climate Change/Fall 2021/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Organic Community

By Abra Brynne

Farmers fulfill a complex set of roles. You grow and raise food that nourishes others—some of whom you may meet and some you will not. You are also entrepreneurs with a vested and real interest in seeing your business survive and, better yet, thrive. When you add organics into this mix, it necessarily introduces additional complexity.

There are those who choose to become certified organic because it is a smart business decision based on what the farm produces and market opportunities. But, as someone who has been an active volunteer in the BC organic community since the mid-1990’s, I am well aware that there are many who farm organically because you truly understand yourselves as stewards of the land you have the privilege to work. It is for this reason that you preserve riparian areas, bushy areas, and trees on the land even if it restricts the land available for cultivation. And many adopt practices to minimize disturbing the soil structures and the lives teeming under the surface, embracing no till practices without falling into the chemical trap that often accompanies no till.

The fact is, organic farmers have long been fully committed practitioners of climate-friendly agriculture for decades before such a term was coined. When I look back over the years of my involvement with Organic BC, alongside the many passionate, knowledgeable and caring volunteers with the organization, myriad examples come to mind that justify this statement:

  • The cyclical and fierce debates on the standards review committee over the inclusion of manure from conventional sources into compost;
  • Andrea Turner, who was adamant that the full life-cycle, including harm at the production stage of pressure treated posts, needed to be understood and incorporated into the deliberations of the standards review committee;
  • Wayne Harris hosting a rotational grazing workshop provided by E Ann Clark, formerly of the University of Guelph, with multiple farmers from the Creston Valley deeply engaged in the conversations about optimizing soil, field, and animal health simultaneously and symbiotically through careful management;
  • The Reid brothers who led the battle to open the Chicken Marketing Board to specialty producers, including organic;
    Linda Edwards’ brilliant guide on organic tree fruit production;
  • Rick and Vicky Llewellyn, who also went toe-to-toe with a marketing board and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in order to enable on-farm production of certified organic cheese;
  • Hermann Bruns’ longstanding practice of sharing the knowledge they have garnered over decades of trial and error on the farm he operates with his partner Louise;
  • Tim and Linda Ewert who operate Wildwood Farm near Pouce Coupe exclusively on bona fide horsepower, including using the horses to grind their own feed;
  • Mary Alice Johnson who over the years has mentored so many young people who have then gone on to have their own successful farm operations;
  • The persistence of volunteer-based regional certifiers that provide accessible certification to area farmers; and
  • The hundreds of certified organic farmers in BC who work year-in and year-out, through the vagaries of market and climate, to grow and raise certified organic foods while working to preserve and improve the land upon which they work.

Recognizing Indigenous Stewards

It is well established that the world’s centres of biodiversity owe their existence to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples. I remember well the 2018 annual conference in Chilliwack at which several Indigenous Food Sovereignty leaders, including Dawn Morrison, spoke to packed rooms. BC organic farmers crowded in to learn more about Indigenous relationships to the land, their stewardship practices, and their work towards food sovereignty. The tensions with settler agriculture were also explored. While organic farmers perpetuate settler agriculture on the landscape, it is clear that there are areas of complementarity in the shared care for the land, the water, and all the species that contribute to the well-being of an ecosystem.

Youth Wisdom, Youth Voices

Scientists have persisted in their warnings about climate change over multiple decades, despite the fact that their words have fallen on uncaring ears for too long. One group that has needed less persuasion is the youth. In communities across our province, county, and around the world, youth are taking action. Many are so young they do not yet have the right to vote. Nevertheless, they are leading awareness campaigns, engaging with political leaders, and using their voices to focus more attention on the urgent need for action.

It is both sad and ironic that our un-enfranchised youth are among the most vocal about the need to save our precious planet. Groups like Fridays for Future can be found in most communities.

They understand that it is their future at risk. The generations before them who have been a part of getting the planet to its present state owe them a debt that can never be fully repaid.

Acting Together

The wildfires that raged across BC again in the summer of 2021 are a stark reminder of how important it is that humanity more fully embrace climate friendly practices in all aspects of life. The August 2021 release of the International Panel on Climate Change report made it abundantly clear that we have run out of time to take real action in the face of the climate crisis.

Farmers for Climate Solutions, of which Organic BC is a member, was instrumental in the August announcement by the federal government of the On-Farm Climate Action Fund. The program promotes the widespread adoption of climate-friendly agricultural practices. It is high time for organic farming to become the dominant—“conventional”—approach to agriculture.

By learning from and uniting the voices and knowledge of organic farmers, Indigenous Peoples, youth, and climate scientists, we can help to shift how humanity lives on this precious planet.

Abra Brynne grew up on a small tree fruit farm in Syilx Territory. She is a former co-chair of the Organic BC Standards Review Committee, a long-time volunteer with Kootenay Organic Growers Society, has sat on the Organic BC board, and was the founding certification committee chair for PACS. She has worked closely with farmers and on food systems for 30 years, with a priority on food value chains and the regulatory regimes that impede or support them. Abra is a founding member of many agriculture and food-related organizations. Since 2016, she has led the Central Kootenay Food Policy Council.

Featured image: Rows of crops at a diversified farm. Credit: Abra Brynne

Organic Stories: Crannóg Ales, Secwepemculecw (Sorrento) BC

in 2020/Grow Organic/Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Organic Community/Organic Stories/Spring 2020

Rest is Key to Innovate (and Survive a Pandemic)

Michelle Tsutsumi and Rebecca Kneen

Starting this piece during the onset of COVID-19 in BC created a curious opening for Rebecca and I to delve deeply into what improvement means for organics (both of us speaking from a smaller scale perspective, with the need to hear more from our larger scale colleagues). The presence of a pandemic spotlighted the precarity of our food system, the inequity within it, and the need to shift the system. We had no idea where things would be two weeks later.

Over the span of two weeks, there were significant pivots so that farmers and processors could continue to get their food and beverages to people (with a pinch of panic as the future of farmers’ markets became more uncertain). After several communities closed their farmers’ markets (or contemplated closing them), it was a relief to hear the provincial government declare farmers’ markets as an essential service on March 26.

Throughout the two weeks, I have witnessed the (direct market) organic community coming together to mobilize online platforms, change their CSA delivery methods, and coordinate new distribution channels, all from a foundational value of helping each other in hopes that we will all be okay through this. This deserves acknowledgement as a core part of organics that needs no improvement. The organic movement and community formed from a belief in interconnectivity and this will continue to serve us well as we adapt to a world, a way of being, that could be permanently altered by COVID-19.

Rebecca at market winding yarn onto a drop spindle selling beer and wool. Credit: Crannóg Ales

I am honoured to profile Rebecca Kneen in this issue to discuss how she, Brian MacIsaac, and Crannóg Ales have been improving their practices in ways that “extend deeply rather than extend widely.” Crannóg Ales is celebrating 20 years this year (let’s all raise a glass in congratulations to them!), so there is much to reflect on in terms of where they have been extending deeply. It is important to keep in mind that there is a long history of involvement with the North Okanagan Organic Association, COABC, and the Organic Federation of Canada, so Rebecca can also speak to what she has witnessed in terms of improvements in organics over time.

Crannóg Ales 20th anniversary glassware. Credit: Crannóg Ales

Let’s set the stage. Picture this interview taking place on our front south-facing porch (somewhat socially distanced), warmed by the afternoon sun, with Dropkick Murphys playing a spirit-raising St. Paddy’s Day gig on YouTube in the background. Even with a pandemic looming, it was a dream way to spend an early spring afternoon.

Where have you seen the greatest change in terms of improved processes at Crannóg Ales?

It took the first 10 years to get to know the land, mostly based on theory, and the next 10 years figuring out what that means with practices on the land. Coming to land as an adult means that a lot of observation is occluded, so it was a lot of trying stuff and then trying new stuff. In the beginning, our practices were what was financially viable, which equalled “the hard way.” Twenty years later, we are better rested, which leads to better thinking. One of our key principles has always been to limit our market expansion to fit the ecological carrying capacity of our land. Because of this, we have been forced to extend deeply rather than extend widely.

Sheep doing early season pruning for pest and disease control. Credit: Crannóg Ales

What does extending deeply mean to you?

Finding efficiencies and working in increased harmony with the land, letting permaculture principles guide us and making do with less in all ways. There is a balance point in having a growth cap, because the question remains about what scale the brewery, in particular, needs to be at to make a sufficient amount to take care of and support employees. One way we do this is providing extended health care to employees. Another way is to intermingle the farm with the brewery to supply good food for employees.

Extending deeply also interconnects with the way we are being in, and understanding, our relationships to land, water, workers, wild things, the whole around us. Are our relationships exploitative or mutually beneficial? We have been deepening relationships in terms of responsible stewardship, which sees (non-hierarchical) interrelationships rather than partaking in caretaking behaviours, which can involve power dynamics or someone making decisions for someone else.

How else does seeing things as being interrelated play a role in how you have deepened your way of being in the world?

Looking at things in terms of relationships has helped us to see a responsibility to, rather than for, employees. Interrelationships also seem to be part of organics as a movement, which, 20 years ago, focused on social and agricultural change. Making a living was a given, it wasn’t the goal. A shift in emphasis from an organic movement to an organic industry means that we are losing our ethical and ecological focus, which threatens the ability of our robust standards to withstand a strong push from industry toward non-organic practices (similar to mission drift in the nonprofit world, shifting to an organic industry could lead to practice drift).

Snake napping on a compost pile. Credit: Crannóg Ales

The way we manage certification is also being lost as the organic movement shifts to that of an industry. This has a large impact on regional or community-based certification (which is still an unusual model, but with increasing membership, interestingly enough), because they are seen as being less valid and less valuable than Canada Organic Regime (COR) certification bodies. In my view, farmer-to-farmer certification review leads to deeper relationships, better understanding and communication, and is just as strict as third-party certification. That being said, people are craving community, which is something the regional certification bodies do well (and also aligns with organics as a movement).

How do you see reconnecting with social change as part of organics extending deeply?

The organic community has long been taking responsibility, where other sectors have been outsourcing or offloading responsibilities. For example, organics has been a leader in terms of traceability standards, responsible packaging and reducing packaging waste, and emphasizing the need for social justice. Social justice becomes an issue of scale when looking at employment. If employment potential is increased, so does the potential for exploitation. Our identity as stewards, as well as values of social justice and fairness, have been grounded in the organic standards, and we are working on deepening these areas nationally right now. With most of BC being on unceded territories, there is an opportunity to deepen our organic perspective on social justice in terms of land and land ownership.

What are ‘next steps’ that you see as being important for social justice in organics?

Listening. And trust. These both entail a worldview or paradigm shift that is reliant on relationships. Reflecting on organics with a social justice lens will challenge our notions of ownership and relations to land. It will be an uncomfortable (but necessary) exercise in questioning our understanding of security and access to tenure. It will require us to work through assumptions and tensions, and let new ideas percolate. Here is an interesting thought exercise: if you hold debt or a mortgage, you don’t truly own the land. Do you really care if the owner is the bank or your Indigenous neighbour? If you do care, this is an opportunity to delve more deeply into the reasons why this matters (and to examine the paradigms of individualism, capitalism, and systemic racism which live in our brains).

Sheep eating hops vines after harvest. Credit: Crannóg Ales

After allowing this conversation to percolate and settle, it was interesting to note that what was being named as innovative and improving practices at Crannóg Ales are ancient practices that have been, and continue to be, carried out by Indigenous people and traditional sustainable farmers. These practices are seen in subsistence living through hunting, fishing, gardening, and harvesting medicines. Principled practices of observing and knowing the land, not seeing oneself as an owner of the land, tending to relationships, recognizing interconnectivity, being mindful of scale, and stewardship have been part of Indigenous ways of knowing and being for millenia.

Identifying social justice as being important to organics ties in with the need to stop erasing Indigenous ways of being from the land where we grow and prepare food, including access to this land. If any group or community can do it, it is the organic movement that can start to see the areas where Indigenous food sovereignty and organic agriculture align. In the face of uncertain, and changing, times due to COVID-19, we will need to recognize interconnectivity and help each other more than ever. It is easy enough to remember that what joins us together is the soil, so we can start there as our common ground.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” ~ Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

Resources to Explore Further:
Indigenous Principles of Just Transition
Opinion: Fairness in Organic Agriculture by Anne Macey (2018)
Reviving Social Justice in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture by Elizabeth Henderson (2012)
Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Food, Land and Heritage by Dawn Morrison
Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Michelle Tsutsumi is a mid-life switcher to organic farming. She is grateful to have learned from the Hettler’s at Pilgrims’ Produce in Armstrong and has been at Golden Ears Farm in Secwepemculecw (Chase) since 2014. Michelle is also an organizer and communicator, with an eye for process and a passion for systems thinking.

Indigenous Foodlands and Organic Agriculture, Fairness, and Social Responsibility

in Indigenous Food Systems/Land Stewardship/Spring 2017

Rebecca Kneen

Most of us in BC live on unceded territory—territory that was appropriated by settlers from Indigenous peoples without treaty. We are beginning, finally, to explore the implications of this condition on our relationship with the land and our Indigenous neighbours.

We are learning that we live within a great contradiction: we want to improve our communities’ food sovereignty, but we are inheritors of theft. We desire to act for the benefit of ecosystems, but we are missing countless generations of knowledge that could and should inform our stewardship. How we begin to change the paradigm within which we live will shape the future of ecological agriculture and social justice.

The basis of Indigenous food systems is a non-exploitative relationship to land, recognizing that “we are all related” and that systems are interconnected. Whether categorized as hunter-gatherers, fishers, or farmers, the goal of the relationship was not production or extraction, but living in balance.

Organic agriculture strives to understand ecosystems and to live in balance while at the same time engaging in production for sale. Our history with developing the organic standards has always been a struggle to maintain that balance in the face of extractive agribusiness models attempting to co-opt organic principles. We’ve been pressured to allow large-scale monocropping, high-density livestock production, and systems that treat organics as “just a different set of chemicals”—and we’ve resisted.

As organic farmers, we are aware that we operate within the larger ecological context. Our water sources, our soil nutrients, our air all depend on systems outside our farm boundaries. While we swear at the coyotes and deer, we also know that like the salmon, they are critical to the biosphere we live in. What we have forgotten are the people who are also part of that larger biosphere.

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We live within biospheres that were tended by Indigenous people for uncountable generations. The saskatoon, salal, salmon were all cared for in order to provide food for the people and sustain the biome. If we are going to live here, we in turn need to learn how to live here properly.

The key principles of Indigenous food sovereignty will ring a chord in the hearts of organic farmers, as they embody the principles we have also set for organic agriculture:

  1. Sacred or divine sovereignty: Food is a gift from the Creator; in this respect the right to food is sacred and cannot be constrained or recalled by colonial laws, policies and institutions. Indigenous food sovereignty is fundamentally achieved by upholding our sacred responsibility to nurture healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food.
  2. Participatory: Indigenous Food Sovereignty is fundamentally based on “action”, or the day to day practice of maintaining cultural harvesting strategies. To maintain Indigenous food sovereignty as a living reality for both present and future generations, continued participation in cultural harvesting strategies at all of the individual, family, community and regional levels is key.
  3. Self-determination: The ability to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods. The ability to make decisions over the amount and quality of food we hunt, fish, gather, grow and eat. Freedom from dependence on grocery stores or corporately controlled food production, distribution and consumption in industrialized economies.
  4. Policy: Indigenous Food Sovereignty attempts to reconcile Indigenous food and cultural values with colonial laws and policies and mainstream economic activities. Indigenous Food Sovereignty thereby provides a restorative framework for policy reform in forestry, fisheries, rangeland, environmental conservation, health, agriculture, and rural and community development.

(from the Indigenous Food Systems Network: www.indigenousfoodsystems.org/food-sovereignty)

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While the language may be a bit different from that found in the organic standard, the ideas of healthy interdependent relationships with the land, daily practice of stewardship, and the ability to be independent of corporate-controlled food systems (especially around seed production) are integral to organic agriculture.

The concepts of Indigenous Food Sovereignty are necessary for us to adopt if we are going to build a food system that upholds these values. Most of these values seem to be part of our organic values already, but we are now on a journey to find common language to express them and to understand that their framework is in itself restorative.

On the ground, in our daily practice of farming, there are many ways we can incorporate these ideas. As organic farmers, most of us already maintain buffer zones around at least part of our farms. We can fill these areas with indigenous plants, bringing back native vegetation and wildlife as we do so. We can provide corridors for birds and homes for beneficial insects, forage for bees, and at the same time begin to understand the delicate balance of living in the more natural ecosystem. Many of us have waterways and other “wild” areas on our farms. When we change our basic language from “wild” to “Indigenous foodlands” we begin to transform our understanding of those lands and the people.

We can begin to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours by opening these areas to them for harvesting and care. We can open these areas as teaching grounds for wild harvesting methods, and maybe learn about protocols as we do so. We will need to do this with the knowledge and understanding that there will be serious emotional issues around inviting people back to land that was stolen many years ago.

We grow food to feed people. This is central to our idea of ourselves as farmers, but we can also think a bit differently about production. Not everything is bound to a financial transaction, and sometimes what we “produce” is relationships. By feeding elders, by teaching young people, by asking how we can build good relations and what the protocols are, we open the door to non-exploitative relationships.

While our hearts may speak the same language, there are many points of contention between production agriculture and Indigenous ways.

  • Land ownership, licensing of mineral, timber, and water rights, the privatization of land and water, and theft by patenting indigenous knowledge and plants all make it “difficult to reconcile outstanding Indigenous land claims and have dispossessed Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering societies.”
  • The fragmentation and division of ecological systems into the sectors of various government agencies “limits the sustainability of the agri-food system which is interdependent on the healthy functioning of the neighbouring Indigenous food system…”
  • Agriculture as a whole exists within an economic model based on extraction, production, and “resources” rather than “deep ecological and spiritual relationships with plants and animals that provide us with our foods in a regenerative, life giving paradigm.”

(Above quotes from Dawn Morrison, “Cross Cultural Interface Where Indigenous and Sustainable Agri-Food Systems Intra-act,” 2015 Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty.)

We have to think hard about these issues, as they are central to our food system and our entire mode of thought about how we relate to land. Until we shift our thinking and our language, we cannot also shift our relationships.

If we are going to take responsibility for what we do on the land, we must also take responsibility for the system within which we function. We cannot sell food to fascists, dispossess people from their land, or behave as if we have no responsibility for social justice. Our responsibility for stewardship and sustainability does not end at the farm gate.

For more information on how to be an advocate for Indigenous Food Sovereignty in your community, check out the following resources:

Indigenous Food Systems Network

BC Food Systems Network

Wild Salmon Caravan

Rebecca Kneen farms and brews with her partner Brian MacIsaac at Crannóg Ales, Canada’s first certified organic, on-farm microbrewery. They have been certified organic since inception in 1999. Their farm is a 10 acre mixed farm growing hops, fruit, and vegetables as well as pigs, sheep, and chickens. Rebecca has been involved in agriculture, food, and social justice issues since she met her first pair of rubber boots at age three on the family’s Nova Scotia farm.

Photo credits: Rebecca Kneen

Preserving and Restoring First Nations Foods and Medicines

in 2016/Climate Change/Indigenous Food Systems/Seeds/Summer 2016

Nicholas Peterson

I feel a deep connection to the land, a feeling that spans more than just a couple generations, but a feeling of millennia. Having a First Nations heritage from the Nicola Valley it’s impossible not to recognize that I am at the very place where my ancestors gathered, living on the same land they too survived upon, especially as I take my own family to gather foods and medicines. Growing up with a relationship to this place, and an understanding of being stewards of the land, organic farming seemed to be a logical fit, both for raising my family and for my own lifestyle.
With my love and knowledge for farming, I can’t help but see the importance of filling knowledge gaps to assure beautiful and productive grasslands for future generations. Observing land disturbance through mining, pipelines, and transportation corridors, I didn’t feel in my heart that best practices for reclamation were being used.
Government and industries will continue to impact and disturb natural areas, no doubt about it. This leaves an urgent and constant need for land reclamation to not only help mitigate the negative impacts of such disturbances, but also to restore stable and resilient ecosystems and the beneficial ecosystem services they provide (Dong et al. 2015). After land disturbance, agronomic seeds are typically used in restoration and the disturbed areas become swathes of land that to me are an eye sore on the landscape.
In order to restore disturbed sites to their natural, pre-disturbed condition, which should be our goal, there is a great need for a more abundant, consistent, and higher quality supply of native seed (Burton et al. 2002). Demand for the use of native plants in restoration is increasing and due to the current and growing need for native seed there is a lack of supply. As well, there is a lack of research on seed storage methods, seed viability, and germination success of native plants. Native species are often expensive and difficult to obtain in large quantities (Burton et al. 2002).
Fortunately, there is exciting research happening on native seeds around the world – including our own backyard. Currently, my research is focused on a masters thesis (Use of Native Seed of British Columbia’s Interior Grasslands: Seed Storage & Germination Trials Using Smoke Application on First Nations Traditional Foods and Medicines). I am exploring seed germination with the aim of filling some of the knowledge gaps on breaking seed dormancy in native plants, especially through testing the effects of smoke on seed germination.
Fires are and have been a part of the local natural history. Fire has also been used as a land management tool by First Nations to help ensure abundant and healthy food sources(Miller et al. 2010).Many seeds have evolved to inherit specific characteristics that not only allow them to survive fire, but to break dormancy and germinate based on cues caused by wildfires (Landis 2000). Seeds of many species appear to respond positively to the application of smoke (Franzese et al. 2011, Gonzalez et al. 2012, Landis 2000, Read et all. 1999).
The main objective is to increase the germination success of native species, which in turn will hopefully increase use of native species used in reclamation and restoration projects. Knowing that many projects are proposed years before initial construction, we can collect and stockpile seed from the very natural areas that will be affected by scheduled projects, before they are disturbed. This assures best genetic appropriateness and local plant adaptability to the area when it comes time for rehabilitation.
Species selection for the germination trials was difficult. Deciding to use many First Nations foods and medicines, I reflected on childhood gathering and consulted with local First Nations elders and wisdom holders. I asked if there were species of particular importance and ones that they continue to harvest and use today. Grasses are the dominant species in a grassland but because of my interest in cultural importance I knew there had to be an emphasis on the forbs. The forbs are a large and important part of the food and medicine crops harvested by First Nations. Coincidentally, forbs have a considerably larger knowledge gap in seed research with little to nothing found on certain species.  
Table 1:Species, common name, and life forms of seeds tested for germination response to smoke water. Nomenclature follows E-Flora BC database.
Common Name:
Life form:
Achnatherum hymenoides
Achnatherum occidentale
Achnatherum richardsonii
Allium cernuum
Allium geyeri
Amelanchier alnifolia
Arnica latifolia
Balsamorhiza sagittata
Berberis aquifolium
Calamagrostis rubescens
Calochortus macrocarpus
Claytonia lanceolata
Crataegus douglasii
Erythronium grandiflorum
Festuca campestris
Fritillaria affinis
Fritillaria pudica
Gaillardia aristata
Juniperus scopulorum
Lewisia rediviva
Lomatium macrocarpum
Lomatium nudicaule
Prunus virginiana
Poa secunda
Pseudoroegneria spicata
Rosa woodsii
Sheperdia Canadensis
Indian Ricegrass
Stiff Needlegrass
Spreading Needlegrass
Nodding Onion
Geyer’s Onion
Mountain Arnica
Arrow Leaved Balsamroot
Oregon Grape
Mariposa Lily
Western Spring Beauty
Glacier Lily
Rough Fescue
Chocolate Lily
Yellow Bell
Brown Eyed Susan
Rocky Mountain Juniper
Large Fruited Desert Parsley
Barestem Desert Parsley
Choke Cherry
Sandberg Bluegrass
Blue Bunch Wheatgrass
Prairie Rose

I am grateful to Thompson Rivers University for the opportunity to do research and to further my education. I have high hopes of seeing more native seed used in future restoration and reclamation projects. My intention is that this research will further the practical application of these techniques in restoring ecosystems, while encouraging farmers, backyard gardeners, and anyone who manages land to include native plants in their ecosystems.

Nicholas Peterson is a farmer at Nicola Valley Produce (www.growinggarlic.ca) with his wife Vileena and five children, specializing in gourmet garlic cultivars. He is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band in Merritt, BC, and was elected Councillor in 2013. Nicholas is currently working on his Masters of Environmental Science from Thompson Rivers University, exploring Native Seed Germination for land reclamation and restoration. Nicholas has always had a passion for growing plants and learning more about his natural surroundings. He loves learning and applying the principals taught to him through his First Nations heritage.

Photos: All photos by Nicholas Peterson

Reference Cited:

Burton, Philip j.; Burton, C.M. (2002) Promoting genetic diversity in the production of large quantities of native.Ecological restauration,20, 117–123.

Dong, X., Dai, G., Ulgiati, S., Na, R., Zhang, X., Kang, M. & Wang, X. (2015) On the Relationship between Economic Development, Environmental Integrity and Well-Being: The Point of View of Herdsmen in Northern China Grassland.Plos One,10, e0134786.

Franzese, J. & Ghermandi, L. (2011) Seed longevity and fire: Germination responses of an exotic perennial herb in NW Patagonian grasslands (Argentina).Plant Biology,13, 865–871.

Gonzalez, S.L. & Ghermandi, L. (2012) Fire cue effects on seed germination of six species of northwestern Patagonian grasslands.Natural Hazards and Earth System Science,12, 2753–2758.

Landis, T.D. (2000) Where there’s smoke…there’s germination?Native Plants Journal,1, 25–29. Miller, A.M., Davidson-Hunt, I.J. & Peters, P. (2010) Talking about fire: Pikangikum First Nation elders guiding fire management.Canadian Journal of Forest Research,40, 2290–2301.

Read, T.R. & Bellairs, S.M. (1999) Smoke affects the germination of native grasses of New South Wales.Australian Journal of Botany,47, 563–576.

Return of the Salmon

in Indigenous Food Systems/Living with Wildlife/Summer 2016
Pauline Terbasket, Executive Director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance releases Okanagan Sockeye Fry into Shingle Creek as part of a ceremony to restore salmon.

Pauline Terbasket

We have, like the salmon, remained resilient, persistent and determined to be leaders in this work by feeding our peoples and lands.”

In January 2016, I had the opportunity to present to the Young Agrarians 3rd Okanagan Winter Mixer conference. I presented on our Syilx Salmon Recovery efforts and shared our successes and yet constant challenges respecting Indigenous Peoples and food security.

There are so many angles from which this story can be told, so I briefly and humbly shared mine, both personally and as an executive director of a Tribal Organization. It is our Chiefs’ office that is the primary driver of all our work “for the Peoples, lands, and resources”, collectively. I also want to acknowledge and respect the presentation that preceded mine by Nicholas Peterson, a Nlaka’pamux farmer of Nicola Valley Produce and leader of his community regarding the work his family is undertaking to grow their own foods so they are able to have a sustainable livelihood and future in the Nicola Valley Region.

Scwin, Nsyilxcen for Okanagan Sockeye salmon, have been a primary food mainstay of the Syilx Peoples and central to our cultural and trading traditions between Indigenous Peoples throughout the Interior of British Columbia and Northwest United States. These salmon annually migrate up the mighty Columbia River to spawn in the Okanagan watershed, where they are a cornerstone species, feeding humans, bears, birds, among others. After spawning, they turn brick red, decompose and further fertilize the river and lands, contributing to the terroir of the region.

Fraught with negative consequences rooted in our shared history of colonization and the reeling impacts of being alienated from our lands and resources, Indigenous Peoples have overall suffered immensely – as have their foods. In addition to this common past shared by all Indigenous Peoples, by the early thirties International Water Agreements had been launched leading to the building and expanse of hydro-electric developments on the Columbia River over our territories.

Over the course of the 20th century these developments garnered for the Columbia the dubious designation as one of the most dammed river systems in the world. Along with a host of other environmental disruptions and damages, these dams made it impossible for fish passage, devastating the annual Sockeye salmon runs to near extinction, and as such deeply undermining regional Indigenous food sovereignty and food systems.

The recovery of our salmon story mostly has been framed as a “negotiation of salmon mitigation and re-introduction to the Okanagan sub-basin” which has entailed over the course of the last 20 years a process of initiatives undertaken by the leadership of the Syilx Peoples in partnership with governments and numerous other agencies including projects that involve: research, modeling, brood stock assessment, habitat restoration, and water and temperature ow monitoring of this system, etc.
No one spoke outright of it being about “Indigenous food sovereignty and food security.” However, the underlying cause for our people was the ability to access and protect our traditional food source. Because of our plight, First Nations in Canada have legal protections to address injustices through the court system and now have legally entrenched rights for the use of our salmon for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

This is readily understood but not outwardly spoken because we know as Indigenous Peoples it is fundamental to our cultural, social, economic, and political way of being. It should not have to be explained. Our inherent knowing of our connection to our food systems is needed in addressing the underlying issues impacting Indigenous Peoples. Like the salmon, it is our responsibility to respond to our own needs for healthy, culturally adapted Indigenous foods. We have, like the salmon, remained resilient, persistent, and determined to be leaders in this work by feeding our peoples and lands.

An Elder prepares to cook fish on an open fire

Return of Salmon, Rebirth of Culture

While this work moved forward, so did the revitalization of our language, ceremonies, and customs:
kt cp’elk’ stim’ is an Nsyilxcen term that roughly translates as “to cause to come back.” With the guidance of our elders and sacred teachings, all seven Okanagan Nation’s member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribes have great conviction in their determination to have the Sockeye salmon return.

In 1996-1997 the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), under the long standing leadership of the Chiefs and Councils of our member communities and the Colville Confederated Tribe Business Council (CCTBC), formally undertook their responsibilities and obligations to their lands, waters, and peoples to restore the Okanagan Sockeye salmon back to the Columbia River systems. In 2014, more than 600,000 Sockeye salmon returned, of which a fraction is carefully harvested to feed the people. Our leadership remains resolved to continue the work and commitment required to return salmon to the reaches of the Upper Columbia.

As Scwin journey back to the Okanagan to spawn we not only see the rejuvenation of a fish species, but the revitalization of Indigenous food sovereignty. A myriad of Syilx cultural practices, including the Salmon Feast, enable snxa?l’iwlem (honouring the sacredness of the river) while reinforcing strong cultural-spiritual ties between Syilx communities and the Sockeye salmon.

During fish harvest certain parts of the salmon are returned to the river of origin, with the backbones/fish heads distributed to the community for fish soup. Portions of fish are given as offerings to eagles and owls, again reinforcing strong reciprocal bonds within the broader ecosystem. As such, these salmon are central to a wide range of connections between generations, communities, humans & non-humans, terrestrial and aquatic species, and transboundary watersheds within Canadian and American sovereigns including Indigenous Tribes along the Columbia River systems.

This brief encapsulation and acknowledgement of centuries old cycles of nature, sacred worldview, intertwined with human interaction, pattern, intelligence, adaptability, and wisdom must continue if we are to sustain our life on this planet.

Last year our Scwin felt the direct impact of climate change. The 2015 salmon run incurred devastation with increased water temperature and lower water levels inhibiting the vast majority of Scwin returning to spawn. We know this will become more frequent as our world evolves. So as our Scwin have taught us, we must like never before not let these challenges deter us (like the dams) from our responsibilities to each other as neigh- bors, farmers, harvesters, sowers of seed, hunters, inno- vators, and relations.

Like the salmon we will persevere, be resilient, and be determined to overcome adversity.

Pauline Terbasket is a member of the Syilx Nation, and registered member of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. She has led her community and her Nation as a council member of her local band and most recently as the Executive Director of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. A strong advocate for social change and food sovereignty, she has committed herself to tackling difficult issues confronting the prosperity and wellness of Indigenous People.

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