Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Sara Calvosa Olson is a Karuk food writer for Edible Shasta Butte who is passionate about reconnecting with traditional Indigenous ingredients. In this fireside chat, Sara explores how using traditional foods can create systemic change within our agricultural system and what food sovereignty means to her.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Recently publishing her cookbook, Chími Nu'am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen, Sara highlights how we can bring traditional foods and California's Indigenous cuisines into our kitchens.
How do you define food sovereignty?
Food sovereignty means having the option to practice your traditional food ways while increasing food security in our communities. It’s deeply intertwined with how secure we are in our communities in terms of the amount of food available and support received from governing agencies.
What inspired you to specialize in traditional foods?
I grew up in the Hoopa Valley Indian reservation where we often cooked with traditional foods. I want to help people decolonize their diet by encouraging them to reclaim traditional food ways and cook with traditional foods.
I do not have a professional culinary background. But, I’ve been a food writer for almost 10 years and I write a lot about traditional foods. Through my role as a writer, I’ve been able to talk to a lot of producers and makers, which made me realize that so many people are so disconnected from traditional foods. People don’t have a lot of information about our traditional food ways because it wasn’t anthropologically documented. It was considered women’s work and unimportant.
As a mom, I want my children to have some connection to my background because they didn’t grow up in a reservation like me. In order to keep them connected, I do it through food and storytelling. I want to provide people with those connections and approach the traditional food space from a place of service.
Who is your primary audience?
I believe my cookbook should be for everybody; however, not everyone can live off of the food on their land. We still need to figure out a way to engage with our food systems in a healthy way. Food systems, especially in California, are not healthy.
I want to help people understand the broken parts of our food system and identity areas where we can work better. For example, I want to provide ways on how to incorporate more wild stock into our food, more traditional Indigenous farming practices into agriculture, etc. Our current food system is a resource extraction model and it isn’t going to work for everybody. It increases the divide between us and our food systems. So, I want to nudge people to think more about our food system and become activists inside the system.
How is our food system broken?
There’s so much food wasted in every aspect of the food chain such as farmer food waste and resource extraction. For example, we’re constantly fighting for water in California. The Central Valley agricultural system is set up in a way that water intensive plants (eg., pistachios, pomegranates) are being irrigated in deserts like Palm Springs. The lack of fresh water available in watersheds is also killing off salmon and other fish species. We’re using our water inefficiently and Native people are constantly fighting for water rights.
How does California’s Agriculture Community have a colonialist setter mentality?
There’s a lot of entitlement to land and resources. California’s agriculture took off after the Civil War when Confederate soldiers left the south and settled in California. Afterwards, they drained freshwater lakes to use the land for ranching and cropping. This mentality of entitlement has influenced how we manage farmland in California.
What do sustainable food practices mean to you? (Especially when conversations on veganism and plant-based diets are gaining more attention)
It would mean radical change to our food system. I understand the big push towards veganism and I support it if we’re able to acquire resources in a sustainable way.
I’m not an expert on agricultural systems and I have my own personal set of beliefs. I do believe that it would require drastic radical change throughout our food system and returning to Indigenous and regenerative techniques.
How can people source regenerative foods?
Check out the Intertribal Agriculture Council for more resources!
What types of native plants can we start growing at home?
My book has a gathering guide for how to grow native plants at home when you don’t have a lot of space. Growing a native garden at home is a great step and you can grow a lot of native plants in container gardens. Examples include native lettuce, purslane, leaks, and onions.
What are you encouraged by?
I’m encouraged by the Land Back Movement and the way it has embraced traditional agricultural communities.
I had a chat with someone who moved from San Francisco to Iowa to farm 500 acres of her husband’s family land. Farmers, on average, make -$1,300/year and have made negative money for generations. I proposed the idea of giving back the land to its original owners if farming is not financially feasible. She said it was a great idea and became interested in learning about the legal processes of giving back land to the Native people. It was refreshing to hear someone embrace the idea because farmers normally want to keep their land for its value.
How do people become activists within the food system?
People should find out whose land they’re on and familiarize themselves with the local tribes. Lend your support physically and monetarily because tribes are always fighting for their rights and the land’s resources.
Also, the sad reality is that current politicians in California are all beholden to resource extraction industries. Vote for politicians who are more conscious about our resource usage in California.
Lastly, go outside and observe what’s in your neighborhood. You might spot a new plant and/or a new species.
How can we support you?
You can purchase my cookbook, but most importantly, support your local Indigenous communities and their food ways. Don’t forget to go outside and embrace what’s in your surroundings.
Check out Sara’s cookbook here and learn how you can use traditional foods in your kitchen today!
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