By: Nicole Pham-Quan
The food on your plate means more than its nutritional value or its ingredients: for Native Americans, food is one of many pathways for self-determination and healing of colonial wounds.
Through the stories of Indigenous activists from different nations in the United States, the documentary Gather explores the colonial destruction of native food systems and the resilience of Native Americans in achieving food sovereignty. Food sovereignty refers to “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Patel, 2009). For many Indigenous communities, a core component of food sovereignty is healing the trauma of colonization and reconnecting to traditional ways of hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging.
When Indigenous filmmaker Sanjay Rawal was making this documentary in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, he “never expected that anybody outside Indian Country would like this movie.” However, the documentary has received positive reviews since its release in September 2020 and its addition to Netflix in November 2021. Gather has even been chosen as Critic’s Pick by The New York Times.
The praise is certainly well-deserved. The documentary utilizes archival footage and compelling interviews to deliver a balanced narrative between the history of the colonization of native food systems and the present-day examples of Indigenous food sovereignty. The documentary is focused on three nations and the stories of their people: the Apache, Lakota, and Yurok nations.
In Arizona, the documentary follows Twila Cassadora from the San Carlos Apache Nation as she teaches her niece the traditional knowledge of her people: hunting for wild rats and foraging seeds and berries.
The film also focuses on Chef Nephi Craig from White Mountain Apache Nation as he transforms an abandoned gas station into Café Gozhóó. The term Gozhóó is an Apache word that means love, beauty, and harmony. The café is now open, and in addition to serving traditional food, the café promotes cultural connection and nutritional healing. Most of Café Gozhóó’s produce is supplied by the People’s Farm, a local Indigenous agricultural farm that is led by Clayton Harvey.
Both Nephi Craig and Clayton Harvey have utilized their food sovereignty initiatives as means of healing from incarceration and substance use, issues that are not uncommon for Native Americans. Compared to their white Americans, Native Americans have higher rates of alcoholism, substance use, homicide, diabetes, and suicide due to the intergenerational impacts of colonialism.
In South Dakota, Fred DuBray from Cheyenne River Lakota Nation leads the Intertribal Buffalo Council that is focused on the rehabilitation of bison populations. The documentary excels in depicting colonization through the lens of food. Colonizers destroyed the food sources of Native Americans as a form of control. Over 60 million American buffalo were slaughtered to starve Plains Indians into submission, forcing them to live on reserves, eat government-issued processed food, and attend schools that enforced cultural assimilation.
In Northern California, Samuel Gensaw from the Yurok Tribe leads the Ancestral Guard, which is a group that teaches youth the cultural traditions of fishing, hunting, and foraging. In the documentary, the group is situated on the banks of Klamath River, where they learned how to fish salmon. Samuel Gensaw stresses the importance of cultural transmission and the nutritional benefits of ancestral eating. Many Indigenous reserves in the United States are known to be food deserts, places where healthy and affordable food is inaccessible. As Samuel explains, “if you’re a youth [in my community], you have a better shot of buying drugs than you have of buying healthy and affordable food.”
Although the documentary lacks discourse on the impacts of climate change on Indigenous food sovereignty, it is incredibly impactful and a must-watch. It identifies stories of resistance and healing through food sovereignty, but more importantly, it stresses that colonialism has not ended. The intergenerational impacts of colonization continue to disenfranchise Native Americans from nutritious, affordable, and traditional foods.
Begay, J. (2020, October 14). ‘Gather’ Centers Efforts to Heal and Rebuild Indigenous Traditions and Foodways. Civil Eats. Retrieved from https://civileats.com/2020/10/14/gather-centers-efforts-to-heal-and-rebuild-indigenous-traditions-and-foodways/
Marcus, M. B. (2021, October 29). New Netflix Release “Gather” Explores the Fight to Revitalize Native Foodways. Think Global Health. Retrieved from https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/new-netflix-release-gather-explores-fight-revitalize-native-foodways
Patel, R. (2009). Food Sovereignty. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36(3), 663-706. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150903143079
Rawal, S. (Director). (2020). Gather. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/title/81152263