Maintaining Kinship through Food: A Discussion with Aboriginal Studies Student Amy Kikuchi

By Taylor MacLean

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When I was in the second year of my specialist in Aboriginal Studies here at U of T, I was encouraged to uncover the stories of the women in my family. It began when I read Kim Anderson’s Life Stages and Native Women. Quoting Maria Campbell, Anderson says: “When people say it was the women who held culture together it wasn’t ‘culture’ they held together; it was kinship. They looked after the big, extended family and made sure nobody fell by the wayside. Culture comes from all of those things – from the way that people live together, the way that people treat each other…”1.

The idea that women hold culture and kinship together was a powerful one and I began cataloguing my own mother’s actions in our family. I discovered the extreme hardships she went through to maintain our family unit and I came to appreciate her strength.

When I sat down with Amy Kikuchi, a third year student completing a minor in Aboriginal Studies, I was thrilled to discover that her education has provided her with similar insights into the triumphs of parenthood her mother has achieved. In particular, Amy spoke to me about her mother’s commitment to buying local-sourced, organic and nutritious food, a choice Amy has come to see as a highly impactful.

Amy’s mother’s commitment to healthy, organic eating is a way of ensuring that her family thrives, but her consumer actions go beyond the health of her family. Amy’s mother understands that her family’s eating habits have social and environmental consequences on a global scale. Amy has come to view her mother’s grocery purchases as a form of political action. Recently, Amy wrote a research paper where she told the story of the production of a can of pineapple slices. She explored the working conditions of the plantation where the pineapple was grown, the environmental impacts of pesticide use, and the resources involved in food shipment and packaging. Most notably, Amy compared the realities of extractive, exploitive and resource intensive eating habits with the commercial narrative told through imagery on the product’s label.

From an Indigenous perspective, eating locally produced food connects with the larger political goal of decolonization. In September 2013, Professor Jeff Corntassel visited the Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives. He spoke about “everyday acts of Indigenous resurgence”. For Corntassel, small action yields big results. When it comes to food, Corntassel explains that the revitalization of traditional food systems is an act of decolonization and a way to increase food security, build relations and increase family well-being.  To eat locally, or to consume cheaper and perhaps more desirable goods produced at distanca – both are seemingly inconsequential actions with cumulative effects.

Beyond the social, political and environmental consequences of our eating habits, Amy is concerned with how human beings view their responsibilities towards the plants themselves. In her double major in Forest Conservation and Environmental Studies, Amy explores Ethnobotony: the study of the relationships between human beings and plants. This formalized study has been put into practice in her Aboriginal Studies courses, where Aboriginal Studies instructor, Jill Carter, has encouraged Amy to think of herself as part of larger network of interconnected beings. The emphasis that paradigms in Indigenous Studies place on connection to land, environment and place is essential to Amy. Connection to place instills her with a responsibility to the rest of creation to live in a sustainable and respectful way. A simple act in acknowledging creation around her has come from learning the names of the trees she encounters on her bike ride to and from school. This act has deepened her connection to place, allowing her to acknowledge the presence and importance of the trees or her role in protecting and honouring them.

As Anderson tells us, culture stems from the way we treat one another and the way we interact within our networks.  If we expand our definition of culture to include plants, Amy’s mother is fulfilling her role in holding together kinship and culture through food. What could be more vital to the preservation of family and community than the nourishment of the body done in a way that honours creation, environment and the social network of human beings on a global scale?

Amy appreciates her mother’s commitment to raising their family on organic, locally sourced food as well as the values behind this choice. These values are echoed in her studies at U of T. For Amy, Aboriginal Studies at U of T is education focused on kindness, responsibility and respect towards the rest of creation. It is not about competition. Amy told me that she feels this is achieved through the respect and individual attention given by her professors, as well as an emphasis on student participation to encourage students to express their ideas, opinions and experiences. In Aboriginal Studies, Amy has been encouraged to contribute to the world and she hopes to continue work similar to her mother’s, focusing on the social and environmental impacts on the way we eat.

1. [Anderson, Kim (2011). Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings and Story Medicine. Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press. P. 112.]