Lyla June Johnston is a Diné writer, singer, spoken word artist, and activist. In this episode she and Eric talk about indigenous food ways, the deeper meaning of the word "food", power structures inherent in industrial food systems, and learning lessons from the rise and collapse of civilization, among other things.
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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast, a show dedicated to helping you learn to navigate today's changing world. I am your host, Eric Garza.
Today's episode features another conversation with Lyla June Johnston. She and I recorded this a while ago, before the pandemic, but it still feels quite timely and I wanted to make it available again. We spend our time in this episode talking about indigenous food systems and the fragility of today's industrial food system, among other things.
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Eric: For starters, congratulations on getting into your doctoral program in Indigenous Studies up in Alaska.
Lyla June Johnston: Yes, I'm actually very excited. And a lot of my professors are Alaska native elders, so I feel right at home.
Eric: Awesome. I remember you mentioning that you are going to be studying indigenous food ways, so I thought that'd be something that we could focus on. My first question is, What inspired you to pursue indigenous food ways as an area of study?
Lyla: Well, that's an interesting question. And oftentimes, if I give truthful answers, no one would ever believe me, but I'll go ahead and just say what happened. Essentially, we were in ceremony, and one of the ancestors came, and they started talking to me about the foods ways, of our people. And they started talking to me about how we really need to change the way the world thinks about food and water. And so what they said was, We, as Native people, were not scattered bands of half naked nomads. We were people who densely populated the land, who managed it extensively and whose history is almost completely unknown to modern humanity. And he said, We were not the ones who were primitive. He said, Actually, the people who came on the boats had a primitive culture compared to ours, because they did not understand the way nature worked. And he said that archaeologists always look for marks on the earth to see if there were people there. Maybe a pyramid, maybe an aqueduct, maybe structures, stone walls. And so he said, The archaeologists think that there were no people here, because there's no evidence, there's no marks on the earth to denote any civilization, he said, but our civilizations, we tried very hard not to make marks on the earth. And because of that, you won't see the legacy of our culture. He said, however, what we did leave in our wake was biodiversity. So about 4% of the population is indigenous peoples who still live on their ancestral homeland. And they safeguard 80% of the world's diversity, according to recent studies. So you have 4% of the world's population protecting 80% of the world's biodiversity. So we understood the way nature worked very well. And we still do.
And so he said that the corn that we used to have was smaller, but it would keep you full longer. And he said that Lyla, you could go protest the coal plant, or you could plant a seed. And he was encouraging me to plant seeds. And he also discussed the American Chestnut tree. He said, The American chestnut tree has a blight right now. They're being devastated by pests. And he said the reason why is because people are planting them too close together. He said we understood that you have to plant the trees far apart. And I'm still trying to understand what he meant by that, but I think it was a mixture, it was about not letting the trees get inbred because when they get inbred, they get weak in the face of parasites, and they can't hold their own. So he said that the genetic integrity of these plants is is dwindling.
And he also said that when we would plant seeds, we didn't break what Creator made. We always planted our seeds just where they wanted to be planted. By the river, or where there was water already flowing. Places where the seeds want to live. He said we never break what Creator made. He said if you break what Creator makes, there are consequences. Because what Creator made was designed to sustain life. So if you break that—for example you put a dam in a river, you mine uranium, you take down a forest—if you break those systems that Creator made, there will be consequences, because those systems were designed to support life. So if you destroy the very system that supports life, your life is going to be compromised. It's pretty simple.
And he was talking a lot about how Native American people, indigenous people, control enough land to change the way the world thinks about food and water. And if you look at foods in the world today, a lot of them came from our homelands. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate. All of those are our foods. And so you have about, I forget the number. I think it's either in the 100s or the 1000s, I want to say this elder was telling me there's 3000—I don't want to get the number wrong—but many varieties of potatoes in South America. And they're very resilient because you have potatoes that are good for this kind of weather and good for that kind of weather. And so if a crazy storm hits, some of them are gonna die, but you have these other ones that are going to live. And if you have a drought, then these ones are going to die but these other ones are designed to sustain in that kind of drought. So it's very simple. It's very simple science. And we've known it all along. And now we're the ones getting called primitive. And it's like, look at your monoculture. How primitive can you get? You're planting all your corn in rows. And you have to create this artificial pesticide, herbicide environment just to keep it going because it's not supposed to exist like that. So we're trying to bring sanity back into the world of food with the leadership of this ancestor, and a lot of indigenous peoples who already know this stuff that I learned.
Eric: I talk with my students a lot about crops, modern commercial commodity crops. One of the themes that goes to some of the work that I've done in the food sector is doing energy audits on farms, and exposing how much fossil fuel you have to dump into these farms in order to get some edible calories out. And it takes a lot! Enormous amounts. A lot of modern farms operate at a huge energy deficit. And a lot of it is because of how little robustness modern crops have. We've bred for yield and storability, and sacrificed everything else. And a consequence is that to grow wheat or a lot of modern varieties of corn requires so many inputs in order to get anything back.
You brought up the primitive versus sophisticated duality in our previous episode, and it fits here perfectly well. What is really more primitive? To create a system where you can plant seeds and they're robust enough to carry themselves through their own lifecycle, or to breed seeds that require enormous amounts of human labor and other inputs? I guess from my perspective, the answer to that is pretty obvious. The system we have now is definitely pretty archaic in its outcomes, at the very least. When I say "system we have now", I am referring to the mainstream industrial agricultural model.
Lyla: I've been toying with the idea of merging the food research—because I'm only in my second semester of coursework of my PhD—but I'm toying with the idea of merging food revitalization with language revitalization, because I think that indigenous languages contain a code, an ethics code, a science code, a social code, a cosmic code, if you will. A single word in my language is very challenging to translate into English. English is very impoverished. We can't talk about a lot of things that exist out there because we don't have words for them.
For instance, I was interviewing one elder for my research and she has this thing called bachla, a British Columbia tribe, and it's the harvest. It's all about the smells, the sights, the sounds, the family that you're with, being on land, working with the seasons. There's no weekend in that world. It's every day. You are in communication with the realms that give you food. And so for example, one thing they do is every May they plant kelp beds in the estuaries, or the shorelines, I think it's a shoreline. At any rate, they plant these kelp gardens by hand. And that gives a bed for the herring to lay their their roe, which is a I guess a fish egg. I'm not an expert on that. That herring is a type of fish that lays these really big eggs that are edible, not only to humans, but to salmon, and to a plethora of other animals. And so she said, we create the beds for the herring to create the base of this whole ecosystem. So the herring are crucial nuts and bolts in the machine of our ecosystem. If they leave, a lot of other things leave. Our ancestors understood this. They observed. They were incredible scientists. They understood things on a more holistic, practical reality level. And they said, Wow, we got to take care of these kelp beds. So bachla—I hope I'm not mispronouncing it—it's called the harvest, but it entails skinning caribou, it entails working with salmon, it entails picking berries. It's like his whole world. And if we can teach our children these words and give them a space to actually use them, we can transform the lens through which we look at food.
I can go on and on, but even the word food is problematic. It's such a dry, boring, lifeless word. It doesn't connote the fact that something just gave its life so that you can live. Think about that. That's so mind blowingly beautiful! Something gave its life so that you could live, so that we could live. It's incredible. And it's a sacred exchange. The most sacred there is. And if we can relearn the words for food in our languages, we can really heal the Earth.
Eric: Yeah. And as someone who... I speak a little bit of Spanish, but for the most part I think of myself as an English speaker. I suppose I could track down the indigenous language from Ireland and perhaps Scotland, or parts of Mexico from prior to when Spanish—both the people and the language—invaded that place, which are the two different threads that my ancestry takes. But it also seems useful to me to try to breathe life back into that word food. This is a conversation that I've had with a lot of people, of recognizing that that word has turned into this very lifeless, very stoic thing, and it doesn't have to be that way. Even the English version of that word doesn't necessarily have to be that lifeless. It just takes people committing to a different meaning in order for that to take on at least the recognition that life is being transformed.
Lyla: I absolutely agree. A lot depends on the meaning we ascribe to these words. And grammatically, fundamentally, food is also just kind of... I can give an example. I interviewed four indigenous peoples, and all of their words for food were actually verbs that were turned into nouns. Fishing is a verb that has came out of a noun. It's like fish-ing, so it's noun based, and then they translate it into a verb. But our languages are the other way around. 'Eon is to eat. ch'eon is food. This is significant because food to us, nothing's ever static, everything's living. The verb everything in indigenous language is ongoing. Nothing is just there, it's in the process of being something. It's in the process of serving some function. It's in the process of committing some act upon the universe. When we nounify everything, we set it into stone, and we cage it. And so for food, you're not understanding that food is actually part of a motion. It's part of a process that's constant, and ongoing, and dynamic. That is the constant flux of life from one form to another, and that we are an expression of that flux. Human life is an expression of a birth and a death, and that birth and death feeds into more births and deaths. And so when we forget that that's what food is, it's the exchange of life, it's this exchange of a flow, then we delude ourselves and forget that this is an epically inspiring, incredible, awesome symphony that we're a part of.
Eric: Yeah. And it's interesting, the way that you articulated that. I've got a friend of mine, he and I used to run a private martial arts training group. He was Cherokee by descent, and he speaks Cherokee, but he speaks several other indigenous languages as well, North American indigenous languages. And I've never asked him to teach me any of those, but we've certainly talked about how different structurally those languages are, because when he was a lot younger—he's got about 10 years on me—when he was a lot younger he took it on as one of his projects to try to reintroduce his language, the Cherokee language, to a lot of his relatives, including a lot of younger relatives, and it proved really challenging. Challenging enough that he didn't have the patience to follow through on that. But he definitely has talked with me about how structurally different Cherokee as a language, Abenaki—I'm not exactly sure what the language is called, he refers to it as the Abenaki language—is from from English. And it was informative to me.
And without speaking that language, it's hard to relax into the differences of those meanings in anything but an intellectual way. But it definitely impressed upon me how, and maybe this is not quite the right word, but how commercial of a language English is. It affixes labels to things so that you can sell them. It's not surprising to me that our food system is the way that it is under the influence not just of English, but other languages that do that very same thing. Just turn everything into nouns so that you can put a label on it and turn it into a commodity, and toss it out on the marketplace and try to turn it into cash.
Lyla: Yeah, that's true. I never thought of it that way, that the nounification of everything is related to commerce, but I've heard quite a few people say that English is a language of commerce.
Eric: This dovetails somewhat with what we've been talking about. In the United States we have, I wouldn't say a huge movement towards local foods, but there is a certainly a movement towards local foods. People wanting to rebuild connections to local places, and the foods that are eaten there. And I'm curious if you see any overlap or similarities between that, and some of the work that you're doing with indigenous food ways.
Lyla: Yeah. I mean, my first gut reaction is that people tend to come up with these grand ideas, and then a lot of indigenous people say, Yeah, that's what we've been trying to say. Not to belittle the local food movement whatsoever, but so many things that are so groundbreaking, and the scientists are pioneering into this realm of quantum physics, and Whoa, did you know actually something can exist in two places at once? And we're like, We've been trying to tell you that for a long time.
But anyways, I won't get too bitter there. I think I'll stay on a positive note and say I think the two are very similar in the sense that indigenous food systems were always local, because, as one of the elders said in an interview yesterday, Our production was tied to protection. We protected so that the land would produce, and we produce land that we protect. So in other words, if you don't know where your water is coming from, you're not going to protect that river. If you don't know where your food is coming from, you're not going to protect that basin. And so that's just one facet of a lot of facets of local food that she brought up, which is when we localize things, we become more accountable to them. And when we localize things, we start to be a lot more cognizant of their fragility. And we start to be a lot more cognizant of our responsibility to caretake the land.
And one of the Yoruba elders who was at the World Parliament of Religions, I forget his name, he gave a beautiful speech about the Yoruba language, an African language. And he said that, In our language if you translate the word for human being, it means Chosen One. And he said, This is because the human was chosen to take care of the land. The human was chosen by Creator to be the steward, and the tender, and the caretaker. And so it's pretty amazing how a lot of native cultures view the human role the same way. You have the Winnemem Wintu of California. The salmon in their creation story gave their voice to humanity. So when all the beings were coming out of the Genesis spring at the base of Mount Shasta, when all the beings were coming out, they said, Oh, that human's going to need a lot of help. So the salmon gave human his voice. And so therefore, human is now responsible for speaking for the salmon, and for speaking up for the salmon and saying, Hey, you know, we got to protect the salmon.
These creation stories are more than myths. They're devices and tools that maintain social and ecological harmony. So they're not like Indian myth, you know. It's technology. So I think when we talk about local foods, we get into that conversation of when we return to being local with our foods, we return to being our true role, which is the caretaker and the steward of our local environment. As the elder said, two days ago, she said, Wherever you stood, that's what you protected. And she said, the National Park System is breaking that apart, because they're saying, Oh, well, we've just got to protect this area here. And then, therefore, we could pollute everywhere else, as long as we maintain a certain percentage of land bases. And that's so fragmented. It's not holistic. She said, Wherever you stood, is where you were responsible to. So that doesn't mean you can pollute your own. As she said, we pooped in our own bed. And we're doing that all over the earth. And it's just mind bogglingly primitive. Why would you poison your own water? It just doesn't make any sense. But we do it over and over and over. So anyways, I'll stop blabbing. But that's one of the insights I think the elder taught me about localizing food systems is it encourages us to protect what's around us.
Eric: Certainly don't feel shy about critiquing the local food movement as it exists in mainstream Western culture. This is something I take great pains to do with a lot of my students, usually to good effect.
You mentioned the term technology, and I am curious if you've heard or done any reading of a sociologist, not an indigenous man, named Lewis Mumford? Is that someone you're familiar with?
Lyla: It's not. Lewis Mumford? Um, no.
Eric: There's a particular idea of his that I've really valued. He talks about the idea of a technic, which is a combination of a technology and its broader cultural and environmental context. Certain types of technics tend to allow for the dispersal of power and individual and community sovereignty, while other types of technics tend to concentrate power and rob groups of people of their sovereignty. An example of a technic that spreads power out might be planting indigenous maize, where you don't need large combines or any kind of machinery that requires a larger infrastructure that someone else has to be in charge of. Whereas when you get into a lot of industrial foods, like GMO foods, you need a larger infrastructure that once it's in place has a lot of power over people.
Lyla: You're hitting the nail right on the head, my friend, because what you're tapping into is how food has a power structure. What is it, a handful of corporations control everything we eat? A handful. We've purposefully been disconnected from food structures, because just like in a domestic violence situation the abuser will often get the abusee dependent on that, maybe by buying them a phone, buying them a car, paying all the rent. And then that abusee wants to leave, wants to step outside, but it's so radically different when everything's just taken care of and it hurts, and it sucks, and they're mean, and I'm unhealthy, but at least I don't have to ever worry about material things.
And so just like that abused women or abused man, we have the power to walk out of that door. We have the power. They've tried to strip that power from us by, as my friend said, the Farm Bill. The Farm Bills that go out from Congress give so much subsidies to farmers that a local farmer can't compete, can't begin to compete. So they've created an artificial environment, just like we have with oil, where these things somehow makes sense. It somehow makes sense for everyone else to make our food for us. But if you take those subsidies away—which was our tax dollars—our local farmers are going to beat those corporations, and our local food harvesters, and even ourselves, we would beat those corporations. So planting a seed is more than just planting a seed. It's like you said, it's a technic of restoring power, distributing power equally.
And even though these corporations are making a lot of money, they are still going to fail in the end. Because unsustainability is literally built into the system. It just can't last. They are reaching their peak, now. They are trying to improve things, they can't improve anymore with the pesticides and herbicides, they've reached their limits. And we've had a fun time on the upswing...
Eric: Fun, with air quotes around it.
Lyla: Yeah. And by fun, I mean cheap food, and they make a lot of money. And it looks like it's working. But you know, it's kind of like Peak Oil. There's peak mass food production, too. Because on the Earth, untruth just can't sit on land as sacred as this for very long. It's just not what Creator designed. And so what we have is, very soon, things are going to change. And it's going to hit everyone blindsided, because we've been fooled to believe that this structure is so stable.
Really good statistic: I think it's something like 60% of the world's food comes from four crops. I might have it slightly wrong. There's soya, corn, wheat, and rice. So this is a highly precarious food system, because if any one of those crops fails, which they're going to soon, you're going to have billions of lives jeopardized. That's another reason I think this ancestor came to us, not just like, Oh, pretty cool, let's bring back indigenous food. They were like, No, we got a crisis on the horizon, and we need you to help because people are gonna be looking for alternatives. And when that system crashes, we want you to be ready to hand it to them. Because they're not going to accept it until they hit rock bottom, but once they hit rock bottom we need you to be ready.
Eric: It's interesting to think about, from the standpoint of people who don't very deliberately immerse themselves in a food-related education, this system does look really stable. But once you immerse yourself, you can see all kinds of ways—and I point a lot of these out to my students—all kinds of ways where corporations—and even farmers—are pushing the system well beyond its point of diminishing returns. And they're keeping it going with enough subsidies, fossil fuel subsidies, and monetary subsidies from the federal government with all the Farm Bills, but it's an open question as to how much longer that can happen. And you said, From our tax dollars, but I live in the United States, which means that some of this money isn't actually from tax dollars, it's deficit spending. So this is money that at some point in the future someone is going to have to pony up, and they'll just have to do without some subset of government services that would normally be provided. So just kicking the can down the road, year after year after year, until at some point you can't anymore, and then the bill comes due. And it's hard for me even to imagine what that will look like, but it wouldn't surprise me too much if I got to stand face to face with that reality in my lifetime.
Lyla: That's true. And you know, it's not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it's scary. Don't get me wrong.
Eric: I didn't mean to portray it as a bad thing. I was just acknowledging the reality of it...
Lyla: I think a lot of people would say it's a bad thing, and I used to, and part of me is still pretty worried about it. The idea of billions of people going hungry, even more than they already are, is hard for us as Americans to fathom, at least those of us on the upper economic strata. But our Native Nations in what is now called the Americas, although I don't like that term, we have experienced rise and collapse before. And the collapse is where all the lessons came. The collapse is where we learn really beautiful lessons that we get to keep. We earned it. We learned the hard way, but we are going to learn, and it's going to be hard.
You have Chaco Canyon, for example. It's a very celebrated archaeological site in New Mexico, where I'm from, and it shows a very clear archaeological record that at some point, the community collapsed. And everyone wonders, where did the Chacoans go? Those are my ancestors. What happened was they created caste systems, they created social hierarchy. They exhausted the land. They weren't taking care of the land in a good way. And Creator sent them a big drought to give them the courage to change. Because what they were doing—and I read this from Okanagan elder in Melissa Nelson's book, Original Instructions, she has a book of bunch of different chapters written by different elders, she said, The way we treat each other relates to how we treat the land. And so because there was slavery within the social order, this translated into slavery in the ecological order. And slavery is not of Creator. Creator did not intend for slavery to be here. So what you have is you have unsustainability. And it just doesn't work here. This place wasn't designed to house that kind of stuff.
So the collapse, like you said, kicking the can down the road, not only with the subsidies, and the food systems that are about to collapse, but also, like you said, with the deficit spending, that's where we learn. And it's throughout Native Nations, including the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy, that we celebrate, because they're so epic and awesome, and they actually taught Benjamin Franklin how to do democracy. So anyways, the Haudenosaunee had a really messed up social structure. They had these blood feuds where they would get revenge. And there was just violence all over, from the Great Lakes to Maine, where we call Maine, and it was just nasty. People are hurting each other. People are raping each other. And then that's when they hit rock bottom. And that's when Creator sent the peacemaker. I forget how you say his name in the their language, but he was a real being who came, and he taught them how to make peace once they were finally ready for it. It took them a few generations with their file, okay, we don't like this anymore. Creator said, Okay, they're ready. They're asking for it. Here we go. So the peacemaker came, and peacemaker taught them these technics: Here's how you create clan mothers, here's how you honor the women, here's how you choose your leaders, here's how you turn an enemy into a friend. They literally have processes to turn enemies into friends! It's beautiful. It's brilliant.
What I'm saying is the only way the Haudenosaunee got this technology is by failing, and failing epically. And that's what we're about to do. So I think a lot of us kind of have low self esteem as Americans, like we're just totally screwing up the planet, we're totally messing up. I just want to reassure everyone: Humanity has done this before a lot. And we're learning this on a global scale together. And that might make it last longer, because we're all learning it together. And we're gonna learn really important lessons that are going to help us in generations to come.
Eric: Yeah, it's a powerful, powerful lesson. One of the things that I contend with, teaching in the environmental program, is a lot of misanthropy among young people. They get it from someplace. They get it from a lot of their instructors in college, they get it from friends and family, they get it from teachers when they were in high school. There's another lesson in there, wrapped up around struggling against and contending with that misanthropy.
Lyla: Absolutely. And you might want to ask the last question, because I think I'm about to get flooded here.
Eric: Okay. I guess I didn't have a particular last question. But did you have any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Lyla: Well, I just want to say thank you, Eric, because I can feel you honoring your ancestors, all of them. And I want to thank you for following your nose, and following your heart, and following your spirit because I think it's guiding you to some very important conversations. And I know that one drop of dye can change the whole river, so continue to put those droplets into the river, and continue to make those changes because the ripples are more than we know. And I'd say that to everyone who's listening, continue to make those prayers. I know life seems hopeless sometimes, it seems daunting. But continue to try, because when we have the audacity to try in the face of odds like these incredible things can happen.
Just like with Standing Rock movement, 10 people gathered around a fire, and they had the audacity to put some tobacco in the fire and pray for help to protect their water. And they ended up starting a global movement to protect water, and they cut ETPs share value in half, so ETP is going bankrupt now, this pipeline company, and the oil companies surrounding it. Wonderful article out in Forbes magazine by Rebecca Adamson discussing the financial impacts of the Standing Rock movement and how we actually did win that movement, that battle. So I would just say that to everyone, you never know what's going to happen when you throw your stone in the pond. Just keep throwing them, just keep trying. Keep learning, be patient with each other, be good to each other. And keep believing in your heart and in your love because that's the only thing that ever change the world.
Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. This episode, again, is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find Quillwood Academy on the web at quillwood.org. Check out the Reality Blind Reading Group. The registration for this reading group is open. You can find its info page under the Offerings menu in Educational Events.
Until next time, this is Eric Garza signing off. Walk softly, and take good care.