Sacred Meals: Food, Community and Place in Indigenous Traditions

Suzanne Crawford O'Brien, Pacific Lutheran University

Summary

Within indigenous subsistence and ceremonial traditions of the Pacific Northwest food defines relationships, creates community, and symbolizes the connection between a person and the place in which they live. In order to better understand the significance and meaning of these practices, students are asked to prepare a meal and invite persons who comprise important relationships in their lives, reflect critically upon the implications of how the food is sourced, and how the process of participating in reciprocal exchange through preparing and giving of food defines and shapes human relationships. The power of ritual and ceremony is its ability to encourage us to pause and pay attention to the significance of our actions and the world around us. In that sense this assignment engages with ritual: it asks students to pay attention. This assignment focuses on one big idea pertinent to sustainability in particular: the importance of cultivating awareness of the interdependency of people and place. This core concept intersects with a central big idea of the course: how subsistence traditions maintain reciprocal relationships between human and ecological communities.

Learning Goals

  • Sustainability "Big Idea": Cultivating awareness of the interconnection of person and place.
  • "Big Idea" of the Course: How subsistence traditions maintain reciprocal relationships between human and ecological communities.

This Class Asks Several "Big Questions"

Why do places matter and how do people develop a relationship with place? What is the ceremonial and symbolic importance of food in native cultures? How do native communities cultivate an ethos that values community and reciprocity over individual needs or desires?

These big questions intersect with several big ideas within sustainability. These include the notion that living things are interconnected and interdependent; the need to be conscious of one's footprint so as to minimize consumption; the importance of investing in local food and community; and the tragedy of the commons (the notion that individuals acting in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy shared resources). This assignment integrates these central ideas, and provides a space for students to reflect upon them within their own experience.

These various traditions serve as exemplars of key principles of sustainability. First, ecological systems are interconnected. Second, it is important to cultivate awareness of that interdependence. Third, local food systems symbolize that interdependence, reinforcing and strengthening relationships with place. And finally, that relationship depends upon balancing individual desires and collective well-being.

Context for Use

In native Northwest cultures, food isn't just about sustenance; it also has enormous symbolic and ritual significance. For example, in this course we discuss the rituals and oral traditions surrounding Koyukon and Coeur d'Alene hunting and gathering practices. These highly ritualized activities affirm personhood of animals, ensure that resources won't be depleted and symbolize proper human behavior, ethics, and social relationships. Each resource harkens back to oral traditions that teach core values and symbolize the connection between individual, community and land. We also examine Coast Salish and Coeur d'Alene spirit power traditions. Spirit powers provide an experiential and symbolic relationship between individuals and the natural world. One's own health and well-being are tied to the health of that relationship. We discuss Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Koyukon Potlatch traditions. These ceremonies illustrate the profound value placed on the labor required to gather traditional foods and other resources. Potlatch gifts symbolize varied and complex relationships to place and community. And memorial potlatches in particular provide a way to celebrate a life while strengthening the bonds of a community that are threatened by loss. The traditional foods, pelts and baskets given at such a ceremony embody the link between people, land, and ancestors. We also learn about the Kwakiutl Hamatsa ceremony which symbolizes the dangers of over consumption and the threat to a community when individual greed takes precedence over the collective good. Finally, we examine the efforts of contemporary Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish, and Makah communities to restore rivers and renew the health of salmon and whale populations.

This assignment takes place within my "Native Traditions of the Pacific Northwest" class. This is a 300-level Religion course cross-listed with Environmental Studies. The purpose of the assignment is twofold: first, to help students get a better sense of the experiential significance of indigenous ritual and subsistence practices and second, to help them make the connection between abstract ideas pertaining to sustainability and students' own lived-experience. While this assignment is designed to encourage students to think critically and reflectively about the significance of indigenous rituals surrounding food, community, and place, it could be an effective assignment for any class that explores the ritual and symbolic importance of food for human communities and the impact of food production on the planet.

Timeframe: This task will be assigned early in the semester, with a due-date at the end of term. Students will thus have the bulk of the semester for preparations and planning. Early in the term we will spend 20 minutes discussing the assignment and clarifying expectations. Throughout the course, as we discuss different examples of indigenous rituals and symbols pertaining to food, we will return to the assignment to reflect on how students might integrate relevant ideas into their own projects. In the final weeks of the semester half of a class session (1 hour) will be devoted to students sharing photos and reflections of their experience.

Possible Use in Other Courses:This assignment would be appropriate for other disciplines, including anthropology, philosophy, and ethics.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

Within indigenous traditions of the Pacific Northwest food defines relationships, creates community, and symbolizes the connection between a person and the place in which they live. In order to better understand the significance of these practices, students are asked to select a particular indigenous tradition and reflect upon it further, identifying core values or intentions expressed by the practice in question. They are then asked to find a way to express these core values or intentions within their own lived experience by preparing a meal, inviting persons who play important roles in their lives, reflecting critically upon the implications of how the food is sourced, and discussing how the process of participating in reciprocal exchange through preparing and giving of food defines and shapes human relationships.


Student Handout: Sacred Meals: Food, Community and Place (Microsoft Word 31kB Nov7 11)
Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 40kB Nov7 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I want to emphasize that this assignment is not asking students to replicate an indigenous ritual or ceremony. I'm not asking them to mimic a potlatch. Given the strong views expressed by many native people against appropriating indigenous traditions, I want to be clear that students understand this is not my intention. Rather, I'm asking them to reflect upon the core values and ideas conveyed within these traditions and hopefully come to a better understanding of how they can be reinforced through ritual and ceremony by through applying them to their own experience. In order for students to take this assignment seriously it may need to be heavily weighted within the course grading schema.

Assessment

  • One page response papers throughout the term ensure that students are gaining a clear and grounded understanding of the indigenous traditions in question.
  • The final essay will be graded based on a grading rubric I use for all essays, modified to address the core concerns of this assignment.
  • Students will collectively discuss their experience with the assignment upon completion. They will share their experiences and the degree to which it enabled them to better understand (or not) the key ideas conveyed within the course. Based on this discussion and their written work, the assignment will be crafted for future incarnations of the course.

References and Resources

  • Most course readings address this issue in one way or another. Students will be asked to select one that they focus their reflection upon. A bibliography of course materials is available upon request.
  • I also reference the book Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The book takes a similar approach, analyzing four different meals, where the foods are sourced, and how each impacts the planet and the people involved in its preparation and consumption.

Evergreen State College