Try to create a snack for your group/class that does not use any of the five whites. Share the food then reflect on the experience.
Download the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and identify ones that could be connected to food sources, ideas, and practices.
Organize a meal with friends to discuss these issues.
What did you know (or think you knew) before this photo essay and what have you learned?
What were you taught about cooking, growing food, or saving seeds?
Chandra suggests that all North Americans suffer from the five whites and processed foods:
What are the ways that Indigenous communities or people in your community are organizing to improve diets and food systems?
What foods would be part of the Indigenous diets in your region?
What food memories do you have from your school experiences?
How are schools in your area organizing to improve the quality of food available for the students? Are there any programs that support local, sustainable menus?
Lorraine Johnson is the author of City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, along with many books about native plant gardening, such as 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens, The New Ontario Naturalized Garden, and Tending the Earth. She lives in Toronto, where she is active in the community garden movement and in advocating for the legalization of backyard hens.
I’ve always thought of food as a unifier: something that brings us together on a primal, basic level; something we all need, and something we can all understand that we all need. The foods we love because they connect us to our communities and identities, the foods we grow up eating, the foods we grow in our gardens and farms, the foods we nurture to nurture ourselves, our families and communities—I have always thought of these as positive, unifying forces.
For me, “The Mush Hole” photo essay presses into my full belly—a belly that has always been full, always been fed—reminding, teaching, showing that food is also weaponized, used as a cleaver to break bonds and sever relationships.
The violence of weaponized food is intimate, expressed in and through the body—the personal body, the ancestral body, the communal body.
For me, this photo essay also impresses, imprints, marks the full heart with hope, reminding, teaching, showing, sharing that food is also healer, used to knit bonds back together and rebuild relationship. We eat from the land and the land becomes us and we become the land. Food manifests metaphor, literally embodied.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about land and how we might nurture healthy relationships with the land through cultivation (for example, growing native plants, growing food in cities). This photo essay helps me realize that I’ve been thinking of it as a trajectory instead of as a circle: land as body, body as land, and the act of eating as profound cultivation. Ancestral, in the present, for the future, in a circle to ancestors yet to come.
The residential schools are an example of genocide. The British or Canadian system decided to eliminate First Nations with this strategy. It’s brainwashing, to eliminate tradition and to put colonization inside the minds of these people. More horrible is to obligate people to a specific culture, a specific food, and to do experiments on them. It’s typical of genocide.
In terms of reconciliation, of the 94 recommendations (made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), the most important is the right to the land and control of natural resources. We face the same problem in our autonomous community of Nurio in Mexico – we have control of the land, we have a flag, we have our own security force. It’s better if you have natural resources within your community. But in Nurio we don’t have anything.
There are 15-18 autonomous P’urepecha communities in the state of Michoacán. A Mexican Supreme Court declaration says every community can live under traditional laws and customs. We decided not to receive any money from the state or federal government. The problem is the majority of the people are really poor, they live on state assistance. It’s very little money, but it’s better than nothing. So they want to retain a relationship with the state.
We had a similar challenge with school food like Chandra describes with the Everlasting Tree School. In the Mexican system, the school contracts a food business to prepare and sell food, usually junk food. In Michoacán we have a state law against junk food, but it’s not respected.
So Maria created a cooperative, and asked parents to prepare traditional food and sell it inside the school. She felt it was better and cheaper for women in the community to prepare the food. So now we have healthier traditional food within the school.
“The Mohawk Institute was the first residential school in Canada, founded at Six Nations in 1831. It became known as The Mush Hole, because of the bland porridge (in contrast to their more nutritious corn-based porridge) that Indigenous children were fed by the church and government officials running the school. Like most settlers on Turtle Island (North America), I had only a vague notion of the reality of the residential schools in Canada and the U.S. Through the Legacies project exchange, I was exposed to food stories which offered a window into that shameful part of our colonial history.
I met Legacies collaborator Chandra Maracle the same year (2016) that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report on this history with 94 recommendations for actions we should take, both individually and collectively. This became a part of our conversations around her kitchen table where she described the traumatic impact of those schools on Indigenous peoples’ bodies and spirits, practices and communities. At the time, her partner artist and historian Rick Hill was excavating stories for a potential museum at the site of the Mush Hole, the Mohawk Institute Residential School, so we learned from his research, too.”
– Deborah Barndt (Editor)
In May 2018 Chandra organized “The Law is in the Seed: A Community Cornvergence,” held at the Six Nations Community Hall in Ohsweken, Ontario. Framed as a “Celebration of Food, Culture and Community,” it brought together over 130 Indigenous and settler participants to share in a celebration of traditional and nutritious Haudenosaunee food, centred around corn, its history, cultural and spiritual significance.
Cornvergence was sponsored by Chandra’s organization, Kahwa’on:we, or Real People Eat Real Food. The gathering built on many years of her efforts to recover corn knowledge and healthy food practices – in her kitchen, in her community, and in other parts of Turtle Island.
But she also wanted to remind all those attending of the devastating history of the colonial food legacies resulting from the residential schools. She invited Ian Mosby, a settler historian and food researcher at McMaster University, to reveal what was on the plates that fed the children in residential schools from 1834 until 2000, when all schools were finally closed. The intercultural conversation below was constructed from their two different perspectives, a kind of settler-Indigenous dialogue, shared both at the Convergence conference as well as at other moments.
Chandra: Today we bring people together in community , in joy and food and conversation and love and all these things. But let’s not fool ourselves. There are still some tough conversations to be had.
Going back to the table is my strategy. Residential schools had a profound effect on everything, including the food. The Mohawk Institute in Brantford, the residential school close to this territory, was called “The Mush Hole.” We call it The Mush Hole because the children who went there became accustomed to the oatmeal mush served over and over.
That’s it’s legacy.
We know that generations of children were not properly fed nourishing food. Nor were they nourished in terms of love and affection. They were even abused.
Food historian Ian Mosby has become the modern whistleblower. He documented experiments conducted by the federal government on children in six residential schools across the country during the 1940s and 50s. Ian recovered information on the nutritional neglect and experimentation on children that took place in these schools. This is part of our collective history and something that all settlers need to take some responsibility for.
Ian: While many of the efforts to combat obesity, diabetes and other diet-related chronic diseases and risks in Indigenous communities have focused on modifying individual behavior and have focused on education, there has been little or no recognition that these problems may in fact be the legacy of colonial policies like the residential school system.
Many former students and their families trace their contemporary unhealthy eating habits and a range of diet-related diseases directly to their own residential school experiences. Not only did residential schools forcibly strip students of their Indigenous dietary practices, resulting in generations of children alienated from their own culinary traditions during their formative years, but they supplanted them with diets that were predominant unhealthy, nutritionally inadequate, and starch-heavy alternatives.
“Many former students and their families trace their contemporary unhealthy eating habits and a range of diet-related diseases directly to their own residential school experiences.”
Take, for instance, the testimony of Russell Moses, who attended the Mohawk Institute as a child here in Six Nations. In response to a government inquiry, Moses said: “If I were to be honest, I must tell things as they were. And really,’ he added, ‘this is not my story, but yours (settlers).”
The story Moses told is a harrowing one, of constant abuse and mistreatment. Food was a central part of this abuse. “We were given two slices of bread and jelly,’ he recounted, ‘oatmeal with worms and cornmeal porridge – minimal in quantity and appalling in quality. The beverage served was skim milk; we were milking 20-30 heads of purebred cattle, but we didn’t once receive whole milk or butter. Lunch was no better. We received water as a beverage.”
“Finally,” Moses recalled, “supper consisted of two slices of bread and jam, fried potatoes (no meat), and possibly a piece of cake or an apple. The diet remained constant and hunger was never absent.”
Moses estimated that over 90% of the children were suffering from some form of malnutrition. He recalled children eating from the swill barrel, picking up soggy bits of food destined for the pigs.
Survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) how they tried to overcome hunger however they could, by stealing food, eating spoiled food, or catching wild animals. The federal government was only able to conduct nutrition experiments in residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s because hunger and malnutrition were already so common in these institutions across the country.
Current health problems in Indigenous communities are the legacy of these colonial policies. Many former students and their families trace contemporary unhealthy eating habits, and a range of diet-related diseases, directly to residential school experiences.
What does reconciliation mean in the face of the legacy of a residential school system whose intent, according to the TRC itself, was nothing short of cultural genocide? Not only were children treated like guinea pigs in medical experiments conducted by the federal government, but the malnutrition which made these experiments possible had a profound and devastating effect on the long-term health and well-being of both survivors and their families. Hunger and malnutrition were never included as harms eligible for additional compensation under the residential school settlement.
Events such as this CORNvergence gathering give me hope.
Chandra: Ian and others have gathered many stories confirming this legacy of malnutrition. In trying to understand the impact of this history, I have found the concept of the psychology of eating developed by Marc David useful. He helped me reframe everything I’ve been thinking about for 25 years.
I now use the term ‘collective indigestion’. There are times when we’re not digesting our food properly in physical ways. Everything we take in – how we’re living our lives – through our emotions, our feelings and our thoughts – can be digested or not digested. So when we eat foods that are not nourishing – refined wheat, refined sugar, some dairy products – our bodies aren’t able to digest a lot of processed foods. When you add the emotional impact of eating these foods, we have “collective indigestion”.
“I’m not a proponent of a blind anti-five whites critique. This funny in-jest term known as the Five White Gifts is a play on words as there are five things within the food system that were ‘given’ as ‘gifts’ from Europeans to Indigenous folks. But really they weren’t. They were foods that have been processed and industrialized and therefore given to everybody in North America. When Indigenous People didn’t have access to growing their own food, let alone buying good quality food, some got commodity foods from the government. Those foods were often known as the five whites.
So you have white flour, processed wheat flour. I don’t like to demonize it but almost nowhere on the planet do we actually now eat wheat in its real form. Sugar, there are many forms of sugar. But the sugar we generally think of is processed cane sugar, which is literally white. Much salt has been iodized, so all of the nutrients have been stripped out of it. Then they put iodine back in, so it sounds good when we say it’s been iodized because it sounds like it has some nutrition in it. The other ones are a little lesser known: lard which is processed rendered pork fat and dairy, usually in the form of milk. So when you look at all these things, they generally look white. White people gave us these white things….these five white gifts.
But it’s more the industrial processing and the Americanizing of these foods which makes them detrimental nutritionally. Our bodies are not able to handle some of these things. As a general rule, get rid of the five white gifts. But if you take a deeper look, you can eat some, depending on the processing of those things.
Fry bread is the product of the 5 white gifts – it was originally made with processed white flour, salt, maybe sugar, baking powder – sometimes it was fried with lard. Keith Secola, a well known native American musician, says fry bread has killed more Indians than the American government.
Suzan Harjo says “fry bread is emblematic of the long trails from home and freedom to confinement and rations. It’s the connecting dots between healthy children and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, dialysis, blindness, amputations, and slow death. If fry bread were a movie, it would be hard core porn – no redeeming qualities, zero nutrition.”
The author Sherman Alexie says fry bread is the story of our survival. It relates to eating psychology – you can’t vilify a food that helped people survive for generations. It became a combination of those commodity foods – those 5 white gifts – with which native women worked their magic.
You are literally eating the trauma of the generations when you eat fry bread. It might sustain you in the short term, but in the long run it’s completely unsustainable. And it takes away from the integrity of our traditional culture. It was the survival food that has become known as the Native American food. But what does that mean? If anything, for Haudenosaunee people, it should be boiled cornbread. We have to acknowledge the role that fry bread played, we can thank it and then we can move on.
But it’s not as simple as saying to someone “Did you know there’s no nutritional value in that?” And people will say “Oh, really, OK” and stop eating it. Food takes its hold on you, these five white gifts become addictive, just like drugs. It’s not as simple as just educating or informing somebody about this. I think eventually it will be understood, and it won’t take as long as big tobacco, but it’s not going to go down without a fight.
The legacy of Residential Schools certainly seeps into what is on people’s plates now.
Many people weren’t taught things that generally are passed down, generation to generation, like cooking, growing food, saving seeds. Those things often didn’t happen for several generations, so there are many practical ways that the food system was interrupted. Science is now understanding the value and contribution of traditional knowledge: to eat and to cook in a good mind, to eat in a way that is enjoyable.
Taking the time to slow down and think about the things we’re eating…that’s where I want to be. Looking at what happened in residential schools and in our diets over time can help us understand the issues we face today.
We have relationships with food going back to before the beginning of time in the Skyworld, before the creation of the place we now call Earth. In the ethnological records from the 1600s, we see Jesuit observations of an incredibly rich agricultural tradition, led particularly by women and with a direct link between the landscape (hunting, fishing, gathering) and the Great Law.1 There was a link between politics and society where food was central.
I went back through all the Haudenosaunee histories and reframed them through food. I looked at the relationships of all the players or elements in the Creation Story as family members and their role in what we now consider the scientific way of growing food – you need the sun, moon, stars, wind, and rain, all those things.
But there was so much disruption in the 1600s and 1700s that included the burning of millions of bushels of corn because of the strength of the Haudenosaunee and the centrality of food. Then in the 1800s and 1900s came the residential schools, such as the Mush Hole or Mohawk Institute. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began uncovering those stories, we were talking about the sexual abuse in residential schools, but we were still not talking about nutritional abuse and neglect, and how that has affected the psychology of eating. When I discovered online the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, it all fell into place for me. Seeing the two words side by side, I thought there’s the Haudenosaunee framework.
Part of our mission at the Everlasting Tree School was not just about the renewal of education and revitalization of language, but about countering the effects of residential schools, and, for me, food in particular. It’s such a complicated question. We all have to be aware of our relationship with food in our lives outside of the school, while trying to nurture a healthy relationship with food for the children.
“We focused on the sharing of food, parents came to help, we were building community.”
The first year of the school we only had 20 students and only two yurts as classrooms. It was easier for us to streamline food into the classroom. Eventually all snacks were made at an outdoor fire pit, so we stopped letting kids bring in their own snacks, which were often pop and chips. We took away all drinks except water. And then there was no problem with plastic bottles or cans.
One day a week I made a pot of food and brought it to the school for lunch. The sharing of food in an educational system, I drew directly from Waldorf practice. They sit around the table, hold hands and say a little verse, light a candle, and share a meal together. (I was happy to welcome the Legacies partners to the school and to share a meal during our gathering in July 2019.)
Little by little, I started to recruit other parents to make a pot and bring it to school. We focused on the sharing of food, parents came to help, we were building community. It was coming a long way just to share food.
The fourth year the school moved into a building and had more students. Parents were contributing $20 a week. We’d get together and go over the menu and the Haudenosaunee context. What should our menu look like? We decided to be wheat, sugar and dairy free…because we get those outside the school. When we come together in the collective, we can really raise the standard.
We need to better understand what people’s relationship with food is like. To bring food into the school the way we do is light years ahead of what other schools are doing. It’s incredible what’s happening. Developing a school food system is an ongoing challenge.