I want to make abundantly clear that I am not a Native person, but a queer and genderqueer biracial Chinese-American vegan. I cannot and do not wish to speak for Native people on veganism, so I’ve grounded this commentary in as many Native perspectives as possible. This piece will appear in the inaugural edition of Project Intersect, a new radical (eco)feminist and intersectional ethics zine.
Recently my partner and I went to a local cafe in Denver that serves various salsas, meats, and vegetables over frybread or corn chips in a “taco bar” style. I appreciated the food, the atmosphere, but most of all, the ownership by Native people from the Osage Nation. In a world where (mis)representations of Native people are controlled and exploited by non-Native people all the time, it’s critically important that we support Native people representing themselves, as these restaurateurs do.
This meal got me thinking about histories of colonialism and violence in my homeland. The frybread was not vegan, so instead of eating it, we pondered this simple symbol with a vexing past. Wheat is a European import, so frybread was created out of necessity 150 years ago during “the Long Walk” of the Diné (Navajo) which was a 300-mile forced walk at gunpoint from Arizona to New Mexico facilitated by the U.S. government. To prevent starvation during this walk and after the Diné were removed to land that would not sustain their traditional plant-based diets, our government gave them canned food, white flour, sugar, and lard with which they invented frybread.
There are many crops indigenous to the North American continent that have been cultivated for generations and yet Native American cultures are used as one of many tired excuses by animal eaters trying to justify their choices and attack mine. One classic line is, “What about Native American people, game animals, hunting, ‘respecting the animal’s spirit’?” To them, I say, “Is this relevant to you, and your life? In other words, are you Native?” They usually aren’t… I am frustrated when white or non-indigenous people use a shallow understanding of Native American spirituality to justify consuming factory farmed animals. They do however bring up a good point: How do Native people fit into veganism? I was honored to speak with Native activist and artist Linda Fisher on this topic. She explained to me that the traditional lifestyles and ancient spiritual practices of indigenous people throughout the world are nearly extinct, and that hunting is often a way to put food on the table in poverty-stricken communities. Before addressing animal consumption in Native/people of color (POC) communities, we must first address poverty, healthcare, healthy food access, education, and other pressing needs.
I strongly support reducing unnecessary suffering, part of which is certainly raising and killing animals for human consumption, but efforts to promote veganism in Native communities must be led from within. I’m happy to say that there are many Native-identified activists writing about plant-based knowledge and traditions. For example, Native scholar Margaret Robinson wrote an excellent postcolonial ecofeminist essay on mythology entitled “Veganism And Mi’kmaq Legends: Feminist Natives Do Eat Tofu.” In “Decolonize Your Diet: A Manifesto”, Catriona Rueda Esquibel and Luz Calvo discuss cooking a pot of beans as a revolutionary act.
Whiteness, visibility, and power in vegan communities must be addressed. When discussing indigenous food knowledge and communities we must recognize the painful parallels between the forced removal of indigenous people to make way for white settlers, and the forced removal of indigenous herd animals such as bison to make way for factory farming and subsidized ranching. We must think critically about and reframe veganism to make sense outside of a white upper middle class framework. Part of this process involves elevating vegan POC voices, actively challenging racism in the animal rights movement, and always including human animals in our advocacy. When I was searching for vegan frybread recipes I found one by a prominent white author on a popular vegan site that described frybread as “perfect for Thanksgiving.” This type of insensitivity about our violent colonial history and specifically a holiday that many Native people consider a national day of mourning is a perfect example of how the mainstream animal rights movement alienates POC. I certainly do not think that veganism will solve all the world’s problems, and I’m all for having nuanced conversations about veganism’s limits with POC, but I want to support those discussions with writings by other POC writers and activists.
“Native Americans and Vegetarianism” by Rita Laws