‘Healthy Eating’ and the Indigenous Child

During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Alanna Sabatino’s Medium.

Author of the Globe and Mail Best Book of 2019 A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, Alicia Elliot identifies as a Haudenosaunee writer. Her memoir is a collection of short essays that encapsulate her life experiences growing up as an Indigenous person in Canada. Although born in the United States of America, Alicia Elliot was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario from the age of thirteen. The memoir draws attention to the trauma, oppression, racism and gentrification that Indigenous people, especially younger children, experience every day as a result of the feeling of superiority exhibited by white, Settler North Americans.

Haudenosaunee people are an Iroquois speaking North American Indian tribe, their name means “people who build a house.” And refers to an alliance among six Native American Nations known as the Iroquois Confederacy, which consist of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes. The Haudenosaunee people refer to themeless as Ongweh’onweh, which translates to “real human beings.” The Haudenosaunee people have a strong connection to the natural world, relying heavily on the ‘Three Sisters’ — Corn, Squash and Beans — for their diet. They also hold great respect for the deer as the deer is an integral part of the Haudenosaunee lifestyle, using to provide a source of food, clothing, blankets, tools thread and ceremonial garments. A large part of the economy comes from Ironwork, as it is an extremely dangerous skill, these tradesmen rely on the trust of their brother or relative, which further unites their community bond. As for their experience in today’s society, the Haudenosaunee people still have a rich ceremonial and community life allowing them to thrive as a united people.

“My diet, like the diets of so many poor and racialized families, consisted mostly of carbs, dairy and fat. There was very little protein, fibre, fruits of vegetables” (102)

A Mind Spread Out On The Ground tackles taboo subjects such as racism, gentrification, and oppression but what makes this collection of short essays more impactful is how with each essay Elliot is able to shine a light on how white settler ideology has infiltrated itself into every aspect of an Indigenous child’s life. From how they are perceived by their neighbours and family, to their hygiene, and their education. Elliot does not hold back in the raw retelling of the traumatic events she has endured. However, the most outstanding essay is entitled “34 grams per Dose.” This essay focuses on the role of food and ‘healthy eating’ in a low-income Indigenous family. It highlights how the concept of healthy eating as identified by the Government-created Food Pyramid, actually upholds racist and oppressive ideas. I found this essay to be the most impactful as we hear in the media about how the correlation between the fast-food industry, obesity, and capitalism but never about how the Government-mandated Food Pyramid holds equally disturbing correlations to low-income houses and the detrimental effects on the children as a result.

“They push farmers to overproduce these crops which farmers then sell at a deep discount to companies that turn them into high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, refined carbohydrates — all the primary ingredients in food poor families rely on” (97)

Every few years, the Canadian government creates and distributes a new document entitled “Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide” Which uses vibrant images and cartoon drawings to tell its population what they should be eating and how much. In order of most serving to least, the Canadian Food Guides outlines Vegetables, Complex Carbs, Dairy, Protein, and then Fats and Sugars. In a perfect world where everyone has equal access to these food groups, the Canadian Food Guide would appear to be extremely reasonable. Unfortunately, that is not the case, many lower-income households do not have access to vegetables or protein regularly, they are forced to rely on packaged food and the fast-food industry due to the extreme prices of certain food groups. From a young age, children are exposed to colourful the Food Guide through being apart of the government-mandated curriculum. The posters are plastered across schools, worksheets are made to teach budgeting skills via shopping for the ‘perfect’ meal as outline by the Food Guide. This is the first exposure of colonialist-Government impositions that poor and racialized children encounter and impacts how these children view themselves as compared to their fellow wealthier, mostly white, students.

“None of the worksheets mentioned that healthy food was more expensive, or that food banks mostly relied on giving out non-perishables to families like mine, families that visited at least one food bank every money, our hands outstretched, hoping for boxes of cereal and day-old doughnuts.” (102)

Elliot begins her essay “34 Grams Per Dose” by saying “For years I’ve believed food would make me happy,” (91) which sets the tone for the rest of the essay. In acknowledging the false happiness that food brings a person, Elliot can further address the oppressive and racists undertones that are found within the food industry. She begins by addressing her harmful exposure to the Canadian Food Guide as a child of poverty and Indigenous descent in a white middle-class school. And continues to provide an in-depth look into how the Canadian government has used food and the concept of ‘health’ to further suppress the Indigenous people. Elliot explores how the appearance of ‘being healthy’ through ‘healthy eating’ did not only affect her upbringing but her young brother and her parents; since they were the “Other” as Indigenous peoples, there was an added pressure to conform and act to align with their white counterparts. Visually being an “Other” in hegemonic society creates a target for the government to interfere with every aspect of your life, and the food was no exception. Elliot describes how her younger brother “already learned what poverty meant, how it shaped your needs, your desires, you expectations. All before he’d entered kindergarten” (96). The division becomes too prominent at a very young age for these children because the government has full control of how food is consumed and distributed; according to their logic, “ if racialized people aren’t considered human, it’s okay for them to have unhealthy bodies” (98). And this belief is spread throughout society, further alienating and targeting impoverished Indigenous families.

“Certain methods of preparing foods were called “primitive,” a word that has been very effectively used throughout history to delegitimize Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and culture” (100)

Elliot effortlessly weaves historical oppression with real-life outcomes which have detrimental side-effects to provide an emotional account of the trauma that food can have for Indigenous people. She touches upon the forceful displacement of Ingenious children, stolen from households and forced into Residential Schools, who were used in social experiments lead by white scientists. These experiments focused on the malnourishment experienced by these Indigenous children, not as a way to find a solution but to explore the relationship between malnourishment and the Indigenous body. The experiment, as performed by Mosby and Galloway, do not account for the trauma and violence that the Indigenous body has endured over the years. She speculates that these scientists held no remorse in experimenting on these children because “coming face to dace with that they meant would shatter everything they believed about their country, about themselves” (110). She furthers this sentiment by stating:

“The ways Indigenous people deal with out trauma, whether with alcohol or violence or Chips Ahoy! cookies, get pathologized under colonialism. Instead of looking a the horror Canada has inflicted upon us and linking them to our current health issues, Canada has chosen to blame our biology, as though those very genes they’re balling weren’t marked by genocide, too.” (112)

Elliot shifts the narrative away from historical oppression to how its outcome is experienced today by her, evoking emotions of sympathy and guilt in the readers who did not have to endure suffering that she has throughout her life. She addresses the disconnect she feels from her heritage through food, as for her food is directly related to trauma and mental health. From a young age, Elliot had to become the parent in her household due to her mother’s mental health which left a dark cloud over Elliot as “Mom’s love and attention were what my siblings and I hungered for most” (113). The discourse around this experience that Elliot creates is one that resonated with many poor racialized children. The common belief is that food connects people, but not for Elliot, food act to further separate herself from her Indigenous heritage because the government unlawfully destroyed that connection through historical oppression and Residential Schools. Questioning, “But I wonder what the first mean I cooked would have been if poverty, violence, mental illness and trauma hadn’t kept my family in a sort of permanent survival mode” (113) strengthens the discourse created as Elliot emphasizes all the catastrophic areas of her life that food contributes towards. Highlighting the relationship between food and poverty, food and violence, food and mental illness, and most vital, the relationship between food and trauma and that is tattooed across her genes.

“Maybe if circumstances were different, if history were different, if trauma hadn’t tattooed itself across my genes…” (114)

Elliot does not leave this essay on a note of sorrow and repression even though these are the sentiments still experienced by Indigenous people, she chooses to end on a message of hope and positivity; a sign of her strength as an Indigenous woman. Choosing to focus on the love that specific food carries for her and her community: “corn, beans and squash were once all [her] people really needed” (116). Although systemic racism and government oppression had disconnected Indigenous people from their heritage that is experienced through food, they have not destroyed the love that food creates for them. Elliott philosophies how “food that carried the love of [their] ancestors can be medicine — a medicine that offers something much stronger that whatever temporary feeling of control or relief” (116) is experienced through the over-consumption of processed ‘white’ food. The shift in ideology that Elliot presents at the end acts to highlight to vital triumph that Indigenous people today have achieved. How their strength, determination and dedication to their ancestors and heritage have moulded her generation to seek love and hope for themselves as an act of rebellion against the trauma inflicted by the Canadian government.

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