Hunger, Healing, and Indigenous Food Sovereignty

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine. You can become a member of SHFS and subscribe to Folklore HERE.

In my Swampy Cree culture, stories are not linear. Stories can exist in more than one place, in more than one way, in more than one time. Stories also interweave and interconnect with other stories. Much like a spider web: to tug on just one strand will reverberate through many more. Context is everything in Indigenous cultures. This is a story about hunger, past, present, and future.

For the last five years, as part of my doctoral research, I have studied how food has been weaponized and used as a tool of coercion and subjugation for Indigenous peoples in what is now known as Canada. The history of how Indigenous peoples have been fed (or not fed in many instances) and why is part of a larger picture of colonialism in this country. As I write this, Indigenous communities are going through the literal and metaphorical process of unearthing Indigenous gravesites, in order to bring their children back home. These children – my ancestors – faced conditions that give me nightmares. An Elder I work with once told me her brother had seizures in residential schools. He was punished and tied to his desk during class times. I have a blood condition that results in convulsive syncopes and have had seizures. The Elder was clear and calm when she said, they would have done that to you too.

Four Swampy Cree men standing, in the background you can see an encampment with women and children
Swampy Crees at Shoal River, Manitoba. 1889. Credit: Geological Survey of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / PA-050874.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hunger was chronic in residential schools so we must understand that the bodies being unearthed may have died through starvation and malnutrition. We don’t talk about food as part of the colonial project in Canada, or at least, not enough. Yet we know that Indigenous peoples face high levels of food insecurity today and have since colonization. To understand why that is, we have to look to the past. As Elders say, sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward. My focus is on the prairies, my homeland and the homeland of my ancestors. But stories of hunger are not only applicable to this area. They can be extrapolated, explored, and reckoned with across so-called Canada. Truthfully, Indigenous peoples, as the original caretakers of this land, have been hungry for much too long.

Food sources, as well as access to and availability of foods, varied for Indigenous peoples prior to colonization.1 While hunger was not a persistent problem, it did occur, though not to the extent that was experienced following the loss of keystone species in the prairies, such as the bison, beaver, and wolf, that were part of the colonizer’s earliest attempts to clear the plains of Indigenous peoples. These sacred species were hunted and poisoned to near extinction as part of the government’s project to clear the plains of both people and food.

“These sacred species were hunted and poisoned to near extinction as part of the government’s project to clear the plains of both people and food.”

Once Indigenous peoples were experiencing starvation, treaties were offered as a means to eradicate hunger: to give up claims to the land in return for the promises of a better life that included food, shelter, and medicine (an important aspect given the rampant introduced diseases that were spreading amongst Indigenous peoples like wildfire).2 Many treaty promises were not as clear as they had once seemed. The rations that were guaranteed through the treaties were poor in quality and quantity; rancid rations were knowingly fed to nations, despite their fatal effects.3

Hunger as a weapon continued through the 1900s. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to be assimilated into Christian culture at residential schools. The trauma of residential schools included physical and sexual abuse, forbidden communication amongst families, loss of cultural skills and knowledges, malnutrition, and more. In some schools, nutrition experiments were conducted on starving children without their parent’s knowledge or consent. Nutrition experiments also took place in northern Indigenous communities from 1942-1952.4 Communities were not given food to alleviate their hunger, but rather vitamins to see how little it would take it keep them alive. There are many more examples that speak to Canada’s current hunger project, including the introduction of extractive industries that has left some communities without access to safe, uncontaminated food and water.5 Or the colonial rules and regulations that interfere with fishing rights. Without land that is safe and accessible, what will we eat?

two Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg men drying wild rice
Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg men drying wild rice, Rice Lake. Credit: John Boyd. John Boyd Fonds. Library and Archives Canada, e011303091.

What does it mean to be hungry? Is it only a physical condition? I have long hungered for what has been lost to my family because of colonialism. I have hungered to make sense of the past, to be well and strong.

In many ways the study of hunger has served as a counterbalance to my other work in Indigenous food sovereignty. Today, there is a land-based movement, practice, and ethos, known as Indigenous food sovereignty, in which Indigenous peoples are reclaiming their ancestral relationships to the land through activism, and practices ranging from hunting and growing to language revitalization. As a Cree food scholar, I exist between these worlds: one of hunger, trauma, and colonialism, and one of responsibility, as we begin the long path towards feeding ourselves again. There are sad parts to this story, but there are happy parts too. As a mixed ancestry Cree woman, I am affected by the trauma of my ancestors and the bounty of Cree food knowledge that I am working to reclaim. The more time I spend with Elders, the more I learn about Cree food systems and our relationships to the plants, animals, and all of Creation. I realize how much I don’t know about what was lost. I marvel at what is still there.

“As a Cree food scholar, I exist between these worlds: one of hunger, trauma, and colonialism, and one of responsibility, as we begin the long path towards feeding ourselves again. There are sad parts to this story, but there are happy parts too.”

A coned purple flower, Camassia quamash
Camas has been a food source for many native peoples in the western United States and Canada. After being harvested in the autumn, once the flowers have withered, the bulbs are pit-roasted or boiled.” “Camassia quamash” by wallygrom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Recently, I have started to ask questions about the language needed to uncover our food knowledges, my mouth struggling to shape the words of my ancestors. While lacking a true definition—because the concept applies to nations across Turtle Island who experience different histories and geographies—Indigenous food sovereignty refers to the processes and practices of being in active relation with the land. Through Indigenous food sovereignty, food is honoured for its spirit.6 Importantly, people play a significant role in Indigenous food sovereignty: Indigenous bodies on the land, in the garden or in the bush, are working to re-enact their relationships to Creation.

“People play a significant role in Indigenous food sovereignty: Indigenous bodies on the land, in the garden or in the bush, are working to re-enact their relationships to Creation.”

These relationships are vital for Indigenous peoples and communities that are working to feed themselves. Notable examples include the Cree8 Worker Cooperative in Flying Dust, Saskatchewan, a garden and market project working to grow people and food.7 Not only does the garden provide food for sale, but workers are re-introduced to plant knowledges, growing techniques and management skills. Indigenous food sovereignty initiatives tend to be holistic. If our history of forced government hunger teaches us anything, it is that all things, living and otherwise, are connected.

Stories provide insight into patterns of history, our origins, and our roles and responsibilities as Indigenous peoples. While we have been folded into the systems of colonial hunger, we are also making our own stories of caring for and feeding ourselves and each other once again. Feeding ourselves as Indigenous peoples is one of the most powerful acts we can do.

This piece is adapted from: Robin, T., Dennis, M. K., & Hart, M. A. (2020). Feeding Indigenous people in Canada. International Social Work, 0020872820916218.
Feature Image: [Anishinaabe women parching manoomin (wild rice) as a first step in removing the hulls]. 1919. Lac Seul, Ontario. Credit: F. W. Waugh / Library and Archives Canada / R.F. Waugh collection / e011369233-018_s1.


  1. Council of Canadian Academies. (2014). Aboriginal Food Security in Northern Canada: An Assessment of the State of Knowledge. Ottawa: The Expert Panel on the State of Knowledge of Food Security in Northern Canada, Council of Canadian Academies.
  2. Daschuk, J. (2013). Clearing the Plains. Regina: University of Regina Press; McCallum, M.J.L. (2017) ‘Starvation Experimentation, Segregation, and Trauma: Words for Reading Indigenous Health History,’ The Canadian Historical Review 98(1): 96–113; Monchalin, L. (2016). The colonial problem: An Indigenous perspective on crime and injustice in Canada. University of Toronto Press.
  3. Daschuk.
  4. Mosby, I. (2013) ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ Social History 46(91): 145–72.
  5. Simpson, L. (2003). Toxic contamination undermining Indigenous food systems and Indigenous sovereignty. Pimatiziwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health1(2), 130-134.
  6. Morrison, D. (2011). Indigenous food sovereignty: a model for social learning. In H. Wittman, A. Desmarais, & N. Wiebe (Eds.), Food sovereignty in Canada: Creating just and sustainable food systems (pp. 97-113). Fernwood Publishing.
  7. Martens, T. (2015). Good news in food: Understanding the value and promise of Indigenous food sovereignty in western Canada [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Manitoba.
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Tabitha Robin

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