Reviving Traditional Food Practises

Reviving Traditional Food Practises
Reviving Traditional Food Practises

Colonization, Food and You


Indigenous Trade Systems existed all across Vancouver Island. Coast Salish territory was rich with camas bulbs and enjoyed year round productivity with many other rhizomes (indigenous root vegetables) and berries. Kwkakwakawak Peoples eagerly anticipated the arrival of oolichans each year. The production of oolichan grease established very well used “grease trails” across northern Vancouver Island and up into the northwest coast of BC. Nuu-chah-nulth People mastered the art of whaling and enjoyed the benefits from successful whale hunts. The presence of resident whales and migratory whales made whale hunting a year round activity (with the height of whale hunting season occurring in early spring). Whale meat, blubber and bones were traded to many people across Vancouver Island, into the interior and up and down the coast. All of our people were expert canoe builders as this was our primary mode of transportation that we used to trade.

What are some other foods and medicines that were natural to our territories before the arrival of Europeans?

What effect do you think this type of food had upon our people and way of life?


Indigenous People along Vancouver Island were among the first to encounter Europeans when they first arrived in the late 1770’s. Travel for Europeans was very long and exhaustive. Often explorers and sailors stayed aboard their ships for many months on end. As a result, fresh foods and produce were generally replaced with highly salted and canned rations that could withstand the many months of storage. When Europeans arrived in our territories they were often accompanied with sicknesses such as scurvy (derived from a deficiency in Vitamin C). They were dependent upon local indigenous knowledge of foods and medicines to regain their health and to stock up on foods for their return voyages home. Eventually, the return voyages slowed down and more and more Europeans opted to settle within our territories. Rather than gain further insights into local indigenous food and medicine knowledge the common approach became importing foods from their homelands. Foods like flour, beef, chicken, pork, sugar, molasses, and other items such as alcohol and tobacco were shipped in by the ton.

During the earlier stages of colonization our people continued to harvest and preserve foods from our immediate area. Eventually, as more Europeans settlers arrived there were many more sicknesses that were introduced (smallpox, measles, whooping cough, influenza, etc.) As Europeans started to set up their governments they decided it was their responsibility to “take care” of indigenous people. Our peoples immune systems, largely due to a completely different diet, was not prepared for the onslaught of diseases that swept through our territories. Many European people mistakenly viewed our people as poor and dirty because we lived in houses made from natural resources from our immediate area and we ate food directly from our shores and forests. As a result, the newly formed Canadian government (1867) decided to create laws to control the indigenous people. The Indian Act was passed and created 1) reserve systems, 2) the band council system, and 3) the status card system (based on blood quantum). Moreover, the indigenous foods that our people had eaten for thousands of years were quickly being replaced with introduced foods such as flour, sugar, dairy products, domesticated meats, etc. During this time it was believed that you were wealthy if you could obtain foods from across the world. For our people this meant the beginning of the end of our cultural and spiritual connection to our foods from the land and sea.

As the reserve system continued to grow and other laws were passed to criminalize our cultural practices and to place our children in residential schools our relationship with indigenous foods continued to quickly fade away. Rather than engage in harvesting and preserving practices in our own territories we were forced into paying for foreign and often unhealthy foods in grocery stores. Designation of parkland and crown land and later tree farm licenses made it increasingly difficult for our people to continue gathering and eating our own indigenous foods. While the salmon and herring fishing industries began to provide employment opportunities for our people our taste for indigenous foods gradually gave way to starchy, fatty and sugary foods. The relationship with our foods had now clearly started shifting from one built upon culturally rooted respect to one of economic gain and employment. This started to usher in a brand new killer: fast food!

What kind of impacts do you think can happen when your diet changes so quickly?

What kinds of things made it more difficult for Indigenous People to continue to harvest traditional foods during this time?

Today we are affected more than ever by the excessive consumption of unhealthy foods. Where we once gathered food on a daily basis and interacted with the environment we have now become dependent upon grocery stores for our daily food. Often the foods that are available in grocery stores are imported from all corners of the world. These foods can contain pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, pollutants and other harmful chemicals. Also, genetic modification of foods is often done to produce bigger fruits and vegetables and to grow them in much larger quantities. More and more studies are revealing that these agents (usually used to provide a longer shelf life) are known to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Before the colonization of our territories and the introduction of new foods there was little to no accounts of critical diseases among our people. But, today there are many diseases that continue to harm our people (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, cancer, tuberculosis, arthritis, etc). These diseases have a higher rate of impact especially upon Indigenous People.

The concept of “fast food” and “convenient” stores are supposedly comforts to assist us in this fast-paced world we live in. We’ve all seen the commercials and probably all of us know a TV jingle for one of these types of stores. The mainstream approach to food today is based upon making a profit rather than making a connection with food. There are many marketing gimmicks and branding campaigns that are targeted especially to young people to make you want to buy their product. How many commercials do you see that tell you how to go and gather or grow indigenous or other healthy foods? Now, how many commercials do you see telling you to buy their food at a cheap price? Their intentions are quite obvious.

Why do you think that Indigenous People experience higher rates of disease?

What might our people do to change