Guest Column: Using Indigenous food practices to revitalize relationships
By Valerie Nuvayestewa
Restoring our Indigenous food practices is restoring our relationships not only with food and people, but also with the land and waters, which could bring about a healthy communication and a revitalizing of culture and holistic wellness for all of life.
I recall my maternal grandmother, Clarabelle Lewis, “Pink Sayah” (sayah means grandmother in Tewa), is what our children called her because she lived in a pink house, sharing stories about her time as a cook for Keams Canyon Boarding School. She would get ready for work around 3 a.m. to catch her ride into Keams Canyon. She lived in Polacca and made sure she got to work on time so she could set the dough for bread and begin preparing food for “her kids”.
She took great pride in her cooking and constantly told us to “taste your food while you are preparing it and before it is served to others.”
Nothing was too good for her kids and she knew each of them by name. She loved all of them and it showed in the way she prepared their food for them, so much so that when she got old, some of them would still come visit her with their families and bring her food they raised. They shared how much they appreciated my grandmother’s cooking as they knew they were getting a taste of home, as they themselves were far from their families and their own mothers' cooking.
When pre-made, warm up food was beginning to show up on the scene, she did not want it to be served. The younger cooks she worked with tried to encourage her to use the warmup as it was faster and easier to prepare. She fought against it and was upset that no one seemed to think warm up food was bad for “her kids.” She believed wholly that homemade food, food that was gently crafted with her own caring, loving hands, was the best kind of nourishment she could give to her kids and she told them so.
Cutting corners for her was never in her cookbook.
What she was trying to get across to the younger cooks was that she was trying to restore a balance within “her kids” through foodways, as food enables us to live and helps our bodies and brains to function at optimum levels.
She felt she could restore a balance within the children so their loneliness would lessen and they would begin to feel whole again, thus restoring within the child motivation to learn and receive the education they were being provided in a good way.
Using her lived experience as a former boarding school student; she knew how it felt to be away from family. She knew that loneliness and depression affected learning, and she knew that a lot of “her kids” thought of her as a surrogate mother, grandmother.
She also knew that food was one way she could show them how much she cared about them, that they were human beings to be valued and cherished. It helped some of the young ones adjust to their new environment, some of them never being away from the comfort of their own homes and families, it helped them to feel that “home was not so far away”, as one student put it when he shared how much he enjoyed the food my grandmother made for them.
By understanding the emotional and psychological piece and understanding that before we can move on from traumatic experiences, we must move through the pain and not carry the pain; this is how my grandmother used her cooking to help “her kids” through their pain.
Like Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. said, “A moment of clarity without any action is just a thought that passes in the wind; but a moment of clarity followed by action becomes a pivotal moment in our life. It is the moment we wake up and see the Creation that we created...".
Her time as a cook at Keams Canyon Boarding School was a pivotal moment in my grandmother’s life.
My grandmother knew that she made a world of difference by being at work every day and serving “her kids” good food, no matter if it took longer to make, she did not mind doing the work.
She knew she made a difference in their lives and that she was doing her part which included “therapeutic learning, teaching, and healthy communication while revitalizing culture and wellness.”
She knew that the love she felt for every one of “her kids” was nourishing the hurt, the loneliness, the pain, but more importantly through the energy in her loving hands, she was also lifting, healing, and encouraging them in that moment to live their lives to the best of their ability.
In that moment, she played a valuable part, in their Creation.
My grandmother is only one example of how one person can make a difference in the world. Tutskwat Oqawtoynani encourages you all to find your “moment of clarity followed by action.”
We are at a pivotal stage in our lives here on this earth, it can go either way. We can either go down in history as the generation who left their mess behind for others to clean up, OR we can use our Hopi and Tewa agricultural practices, ceremonies, values, and foodways, to heal and revitalize our culture and provide a holistic wellness for all of life.
Remember our agreement to live as humble people. The choice is yours, make sure you choose a beautiful creation. Kuna’a.