FAO in North America

Food is Medicine, Food is Culture, Food is Reconciliation: Indigenous Youth and Mentors Dedicated to Participating in their own Evolution


6 October 2021 - As part of the World Food Forum festivities, Indigenous Chef Nephi Craig was joined by a panel of seven Indigenous youth and leaders from North America in a roundtable discussion on the importance of Indigenous foods as medicine, culture, history, identity, lifeways, and reconciliation.

The questions raised by panellists brought forth themes around personal journeys connecting to their own Indigeneity, languages and cultures; and how food is part of this journey. Additionally, they shared formative experiences traveling away and returning home; overcoming adversity, intergenerational trauma and racism; and resourcefulness in urban and rural experiences as Indigenous Peoples. With the youngest members of the group around fifteen years old, to college students, a young executive director, and Jacob Beaton and Nephi Craig in programmatic mentoring roles – the group brought together an age range of perspectives on the discussion themes.   

Chef Nephi Craig (White Mountain Apache and Dineh) founder of the Native American Culinary Association (NACA), and Coordinator and Executive Chef at Rainbow Treatment Center and Café Gozhóó, has been cooking professionally for twenty-three years starting off in a kitchen in Scottsdale, Arizona when he was eighteen years old. As a young chef, he experienced a sense of alienation in the restaurant world with the lack of Indigenous representation. He “began to realize as an Indigenous person our languages are special, our foods are important, our communities are vital” said Chef Craig. His journey has involved recovery, sobriety, working around the world, navigating obstacles and ultimately returning home to White River on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. He is now focused on bringing Native food in site in mind for the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and intergenerational health of his community.

1. Validating the Urban and Rural Experiences

Having grown up in the urban centre of Phoenix, Arizona with family on the Navajo Reservation, Candice Joe (Navajo), relates to both rural and urban Indigenous communities. She is currently a UNITY Earth Ambassador, a student at Estrella Mountain Community College, and Intern at the Phoenix Indian Centre. Her experiences growing up in both settings have honed her passions and focus on supporting urban Indigenous communities to stay culturally connected, as well as addressing the lack of resources in rural communities. As a UNITY Earth Ambassador, she is focused on infrastructure and policy change with tribal governments to improve water access in urban and rural communities. It is important to her that Indigenous youth feel validated in their experiences, as well as in opportunities of leadership, civic engagement and decision-making. While she did not grow up very involved in her culture, her growing community of peers and elders are supporting each other to strengthen the future culture of Indigenous Nations.

2. Writing as an Outlet & Opportunity

Poetry and writing for Sareya Taylor (White Mountain Apache and Navajo) are an outlet and avenue for her activism. She opened the webinar with a reading of her poem, I am Thinking of Strawberries. As the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of Phoenix, Arizona, the experience has afforded her the opportunity to travel, meet, and connect with writers and other Indigenous authors. Currently studying creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of her goals is to create a poetry centre in her hometown, White River on the White Mountain Apache reservation.  As a child she was bullied for being Native and did not connect with her culture until later life after experiences motivated her to learn more of her culture, languages, history and be able to speak up for herself and her People. She encouraged Indigenous youth and adults, “to keep in mind you may not know everything, but there is always time to learn things and go back to your roots and figure out who you are.”

3. Pathways and Policy

Terrius Harris (Inuit/Oaxacan), Legislative Fellow with Senator Schatz Office of Hawai’i, master's Graduate in Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy, and FAO-Planet Forward 2021 Summer Storytelling Fellow, shared that his process to connect with his own Indigeneity happened later in life and is ongoing. “Having the opportunity to work within different areas of native affairs has made me grateful for my identity,” he said. Having grown up in a household where he and his family got all their groceries from the supermarket, visiting his ancestral homelands and other Native communities and lands were eye-opening experiences that taught Harris about access to food, and his passion for policy work. These experiences expanded his understanding of “how Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are put into place, why they were necessary versus why they are still in practice today.” 

4. Growing People, Growing Food  

As founder of Tea Creek Enterprise, an Indigenous-led, Indigenous food sovereignty and trades training organization, Jacob Beaton’s work and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples’ history and foodways developed through his own journey and healing process. He is Tsimshian and has the name “Dzapł Gygyaawn Sgyiik” (an eagle who gets it done right now) from the Gispaxloats tribe from the Pacific Northwest. Having grown up in a home where trauma and dysfunction was normalized, it wasn’t until he left, travelled, and learned from other Indigenous Nations that the complex layers of post-traumatic stress disorder were not normal. With First Nation communities and elders who are strengthening their cultural revitalization and reviving their food systems, Beaton and his wife experienced a sense of hope and saw there were other options. This inspired them to create Tea Creek, as a culturally-safe place for Indigenous youth and community to gather, learn, train, process, and regain self-confidence and cultural identity, while growing an abundance of nutritious foods for their communities. Tea Creek Enterprise is surrounded by hundreds of hectares historically cultivated by Indigenous Nations of the region, including water ways, food forests and valleys.  They are starting to bring this Indigenous cultivation and stewardship back one hectare at time alongside hundreds of Indigenous youth and community members involved in their programs.

For youth at Tea Creek, including Noah Beaton and Shanna Smoke, this place and practice of cultivating, harvesting, and processing food is feeding their passions, minds, and cultural identities. Shanna Smoke is from the Gitxsan Nation and the Watsuatan Nation, who has grown up in a small town near Tea Creek. Smoke shared, “I’ve been learning all my life how to clean and process fish which is a big part of Gitxsan culture for generations and we rely on that. I’ve also been taught how to harvest berries and our traditional medicines. Learning all these things have given me a connection to my land and it’s changed my point of view on life, and the way I look at things.” With her mom teaching her, Smoke has been harvesting, preserving and preparing medicines and traditional foods with the hope that in the future she will be able to teach and share her knowledge with others.

Noah Beaton, eldest son of Jacob’s family, has a passion and dedication for growing food, as well as bringing back traditional medicines. Tea Creek has provided him a place to deepen his learning and experiences growing out traditional seeds and experimenting with growing foods that do not typically grown in the Pacific Northwest climate. Noah shared, “I was genuinely surprised when I learned how much of our food that we eat every day and that we so much rely on was cultivated and developed by Indigenous Peoples and how little credit there is for this.” He added he has a “high appreciation for the ability of agriculture, that hundreds of years ago how much work this was and how we thrive on the fruits of their labour and how amazing it really is.”

As his father described, for many of the Indigenous youth learning this expansive history of Indigenous Peoples’ food cultivation including potatoes, tomatoes, sunflowers, beans, squash, they feel angry as they learn how much of the Indigenous culture of food was essentially stripped away by colonization. “Food is medicine, food is also reconciliation, because this is an education process. Not just for us Indigenous People, but for non-Indigenous people to be part of supporting Indigenous agriculture, food, and medicines to come back to have that be something that is seen as part of our culture, again, as it was for many, many thousands of years,” said Beaton.  

5. Taking a Stance

As a farmer, father, and Executive Director of Diné Introspective, Kyle Jim of the Navajo Nation is dedicated to making the resources accessible and pursuing the systemic changes needed in the community as well as at the policy level to improve and protect the livelihoods and cultures of Indigenous Peoples. Coming from Ship Rock, New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation, Jim has been growing food and participating in his traditional methods of cultivating food since he was very young. Kyle Jim brings into sharp focus the systemic contradictions holding back and threatening the health of Indigenous communities. From the abundance of unhealthy and highly-processed foods and drinks available on or near the reservations; to Indigenous methods of cultivation being commodified and sold back to them as “organic”; to widespread pollutants in lands and waters; to federal land statute limitations on reservations, Jim is confronting contradictions that he is experiencing. He emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed “all our vulnerabilities in the system.” At a time when communications and platforms are more accessible and interconnected than ever before, Jim encouraged Indigenous youth and the audience to, “To be diligent and stand our ground.”

6. Continuing Forward

As Indigenous youth continue their personal and collective processes to reconnect to their cultures, learn their languages, traditions, songs, ceremonies, prayers, and traditional foods – they are equipping themselves and supporting one another to be the future culture barriers of their communities and nations. As mentors and teachers providing culturally safe, supportive spaces for Indigenous youth and community to connect, learn, heal, and grow – Jacob Beaton and Nephi Craig and their programs are nourishing bodies as well as hearts, minds, and spirits. 

In closing, Chef Nephi Craig encouraged all the speakers to, “keep that sense of communication active because never before have we been this interconnected so quickly and able to share and revitalize our foodways and systems,” and “to participate in your own evolution staying committed, passionate and diligent in this courageous pathway we’ve created.” Chef Craig encouraged everybody to support Indigenous food practitioners, Indigenous food suppliers, farmers and anyone that is connected to Indigenous food way movements and cultural resurgence.   

Useful Resources 

Watch the recording: https://bit.ly/106Recording  

Speaker bios: https://bit.ly/3DgRYtz 

Twitter livestream: https://twitter.com/FAONorthAmerica/status/1445782352433610763 

World Food Forum 

Cafe Gozhóó & Rainbow Treatment Center: http://cafegozhoo.com/

Tea Creek Enterprise: https://www.teacreek.ca/

Diné Introspective: https://www.dineintrospectiveiina.org/

Planet Forward Fellow: https://www.planetforward.org/users/terrius-harris

UNITY Earth Ambassadors: https://unityinc.org/earth-ambassadors/