By Katie Redmiles
Addiction, obesity, factory farming, added hormones, artificial flavoring, diabetes, and cancer: all negative effects of the way today’s society views and operates with food. Food has become something to be consumed fast and in large quantities, to satisfy an appetite rather than a hunger in many cases. Prices of food, with healthier options of organically grown produce on the expensive end and fast, unhealthy options such as McDonalds on the cheap side, cause many communities to suffer from major health issues. The East Vancouver area, with a high population of Indigenous people, is one such community whose high rates of poverty has led to high rates of food insecurity, with less accessibility to options beneficial to the body.
The Indigenous community residing in the East Vancouver area suffered greatly from being separated from their lands during colonization. These lands provided healthy food practices and allowed for Indigenous knowledge to be passed down through the generations.
What happens when a community is disconnected not only from its food but its traditional food systems? The disparity between a community and the nourishment it receives from its traditional foods is increased when their traditional way of obtaining, preparing, and connecting to the food has disappeared. After colonization occurred, a dominant European culture spread throughout the territories adding to the disappearance of Indigenous food systems. Today, the East Vancouver Aboriginal community experiences severe poverty with high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other food related diseases.
The Vancouver Native Health Society is combating such adversities by helping East Vancouver’s Indigenous community to return to its traditional food systems, a process synonymous with its Indigenous values of healing the body and the self. The Aboriginal community in Vancouver, primarily comprised of Coast Salish territory with First Nation bands such as the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, greatly values the healing power that exists from the sacredness of food, which provides energy and nourishment to the body and spiritual self.
Combining two great powers of nature – food and native lands, untouched by urbanization – VNHS’s Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen Project has been working to lower the devastating number of serious diseases rampant in the community since 2005. The project teaches traditional healthy food practices while strengthening bonds between families, individuals, youth, elders, and adults across the First Nations East Vancouver community. The project uses the phrase “We Belong” on its emblem, reaffirming that the project will ultimately restore a sense of belonging for a community struggling to maintain its culture.
The Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen Project includes harvesting food (fishing, hunting), cooking, and feeding up to 2,100 community members throughout the year. The project conducts weekly kitchens where healthy, culturally sensitive foods are prepared and served, and workshops are held for sharing the healthy practices and food knowledge derived from the Indigenous traditions.
The harvesting and hunting trips are supported by a grant from First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund. In the 2013-2014 harvesting year, the project conducted two trips to adjoining Indigenous territories with about 30 community participants, and one hunting trip with eight participants. During these trips they harvested chum salmon in Cheam, Sockeye Salmon from the Musqueam territory, and tipi poles on the Bridge River First Nations Reservation, in British Columbia, Canada.
During the fall of 2013, VNHS led six community participants to Cheam, a valley in British Columbia located under a mountain known as “Cheam Peak”, or “Lhílheqey” in the indigenous language. In Cheam, they harvested 100 salmon and smoked half of their harvest during their stay. The other half was smoked during two sessions back at the University of British Columbia (UBC) farm, where the project’s activities are usually held. The process of catching and smoking the salmon are vital activities that demonstrate natural and healthy ways of procuring food as taught by the traditions of East Vancouver’s Aboriginal community.
Then, at the end of the harvesting year and beginning of summer, the project led another harvesting trip closer to home in the Musqueam territory where the UBC farm is located. There, 100 Sockeye Salmon were purchased, prepared, and served as the year went on.
Tipi Pole Harvesting
VNHS also led a third, and unexpected, harvesting trip to gather tipi poles on the Bridge River First Nations Reservation. The experience was especially rewarding because it gave a chance for children, youth, and elders to camp and immerse themselves in the rich land of the Bridge River First Nation band.
The campsite was surrounded by the beautiful natural landscape of the territory and the journey was led by two of the band’s elders through a nearby mountain, part of the Band’s ancestral lands. This experience allowed for exchanges between elders and youth, sharing in knowledge of the earth which surrounds them, deepening the connection to their culture that has been compromised because of colonization and urbanization. They came away from this trip with 10 new tipi poles to be used for the Tipi, a traditional tent, used for workshops, feasts, and other traditional activities – a safe space for community gatherings.
The project also hosts two feasts each year commemorating the start and end of harvest. All of the Tu’wusht activities take place on the Musqueam territory. The Musquem tradition is also greatly rooted in the vision of “One Heart One Mind” which strives for the unification of a strong community based on the cultural values and ideas.
Each time the Tu’wusht project gathers on the land, they give thanks to the Musqueam people and ancestors for the honor of being on their beautiful land and use of natural resources. The recognition given to the Musqueam and to the Indigenous people participating in the activities is key to keeping the connection strong between the Indigenous community of East Vancouver and the land they were separated from.
The VNHS, through the Tu’wusht project, is now able to feed and teach the community healthily and in accordance with their traditional culture. Where it once saw the insurmountable health problems of increasing numbers of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, they now realize the knowledge and traditions of their own culture are the best solution. Prevention is always stressed as the best option to combat serious issues, and the Tu’wusht project has been working for a decade toward the goal of preventing the health adversities faced by so many in the community.
A major cornerstone of the VNHS’s mission is their use of the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel is a way of approaching healing of the body and mind by acknowledging a person is made up of a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self. The Tu’wusht project is remarkable in its ability to heal each component of the self represented on the medicine wheel. Through the healthy feeding of their community the physical self is healed. By learning and participating with the whole community as well as close loved ones, the emotional state of their people improves. By giving a sense of belonging and community, as well as hope for the state of their health, the peoples’ mental selves are comforted. When they take excursions to Indigenous territories, the spirit resonating in themselves is reacquainted with the spirituality that is present in the land. The VNHS uses the Tu’wusht project activities to help bring balance to individuals and to the community as a whole.
VNHS grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2013
VNHS grant report for Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen project, 2014
VNHS grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2014