Decolonizing Foraging: Amplifying Black & Indigenous Knowledge

Written by: Hadeel Abbas

What is Foraging?

Foraging is the practice of gathering vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts and other food where they appear naturally in the ‘wild’. Wildcrafting, is an all encompassing term that refers to the act of harvesting plants for food or medicinal purposes. ‘Wild’ does not only refer to protected areas but rather foraging can occur anywhere, in urban, rural or forested areas. Foraging is distinct from agriculture or gardening, as the food gathered is not cultivated and is found spontaneously in the ‘wild’.

Although the act of foraging has been present for centuries, there has been a resurgence of foraging in recent decades as a means of accessing nutritious and free foods. However, the space is largely dominated by wealthy, mostly white, individuals and high-end restaurants selling foraged food.

We must ask ourselves what is the origin and historical significance of foraging?

To understand the colonial impact of foraging, we must first recognize the language we use when discussing this topic. The word ‘wild’ implies that humans don’t have a relationship with the land and the environmental movement of “rewilding” has proven harmful to Indigenous communities. The term “Sustainable Foraging’’ further contributes to the erasure of traditional Indigenous knowledge. There is a careful relationship with the land that comes from foraging, which is rooted in the sustainable practice of taking what is needed and leaving the rest.

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”

― Toni Morrison, Black American Novelist

Historical Context

Foraging has been present and continues to be practiced among various Indigenous groups worldwide. However, this discussion will focus on the practices carried out by Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island, colonially known as North America. In addition, Indigenous communities are diverse and cannot be treated as a single entity. All Indigenous groups have their own unique spiritual, political, economic and historical relationships to their lands.

Respect for the land and all life-forms is an important concept in many Indigenous worldviews. Secwepemc elders of the Northwest Coast would recall being told never to “play with” (i.e., playfully waste) animals or plants, which were viewed as giving themselves up for the benefit of humans. Not only do they recognize the power and spirituality of nature, but there is a strong identification to ancestral lands. Their concept of guardianship over the land requires careful management and preservation for future generations.

“We have to preserve and maintain our lands for the generations to come”

-Mary Thomas, Secwepemc elder

The ways in which people learn to gather edible plants and fungi has always been historically rooted in traditional Indigenous knowledge. Their skillful harvesting and land-management techniques allowed them to maintain populations of edible and medicinal species for generations.

“We have to realize that these plants don’t just feed us physically, but spiritually.”

-Linda Black Elk from the Cotawabi Nation, Ethnobotanist

Linda Black Elk foraging. Designed by Zeynep Demirer. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

While some native species are still foraged today, many are no longer used by Indigenous peoples for their nutritional and cultural importance due to the violent repression of colonization.

Indigenous Peoples & Anti-Foraging Laws

During colonization, European colonizers banned Indigenous peoples from subsisting off gathered meals while simultaneously relying on the same foraged species they opposed. This occured to the Powhatan peoples, where English colonizers that arrived in the 17th century, began pushing them off their traditional hunting and foraging grounds. The European colonizers regarded these Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers due to their foraging practices which were used to justify their forceful relocation.

In the United States, the 1830 Indian Removal Act violently relocated nations to unfamiliar land, further inhibiting their ability to gather plants. When Indigenous peoples were forced onto reservations, they were largely forbidden from leaving these parcels of land to hunt or forage. Later, the Dawes Act further depleted Indigenous land ownership and coerced communities into adopting agricultural practices which used cheap labor, enslavement and theft for the production of mass resources. Missionaries and colonial officials also tried to convert the First Nations to a “proper” farming economy by introducing non-native plant species to these areas, which had large environmental and social implications.

Medicinal plants used by Indigenous peoples were forcefully taken by European colonists and continue to be used by their descendants today.

Black Americans & Anti-Foraging Laws

Similar racist and discriminatory anti-foraging laws were set later by the United States government targeting Black Americans. During chattel slavery, foraging provided enslaved Black people with a means of survival as they gathered food to supplement the paltry meals provided by plantations. After the Civil War, many freed Black people started to make a living by selling foods they foraged. Not only did this provide them with a source of income but it provided Black Americans with some degree of self-sufficiency. However, this did not last long, as southern states in particular, zeroed in on practices that would allow freed Black people to be truly free. Therefore, plantation owners forcefully and systematically restricted foraging rights and practices of the newly freed Black people.

During the Reconstruction era, governments also removed laws that previously allowed public access to unfenced lands and enacted criminal trespass laws. Anti-foraging sentiment continued to spread in the decades following the Civil War and continues to persist today.

Foraging Today

Today, the practice of foraging is largely banned or discouraged within US cities, restricting residents from collecting healthy and free food close to home. In some states, expensive fines can be given to those who break this law, many of whom are already socio-economically burdened. This is largely due to private property laws that expanded throughout the United States in the mid-20th century, allowing landowners to forbid foragers from accessing the land. These laws can be seen as a continuation of the anti-foraging laws that targeted Black and Indigenous peoples in the past.

Baylen Linnekin, a food lawyer and professor who has studied foraging legislation, states that the current legal repercussions of gathering free food comes from years of American colonialism and imperialism.

“The origins of anti-foraging laws have some very onerous subtext and are racist and classist” Linnekin says.

Municipalities commonly refer to human safety and environmental concerns as reasons not to allow foraging. However, studies have shown that experienced foragers don’t take more than they need and often check soils for harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Another important thing to note is that the park departments dictating these rules usually lack both racial and socioeconomic diversity, and thus disregard the historical and cultural significance of foraging to Black and Indigenous communities.

People of color and low-income communities have long gathered ingredients for meals. These laws are largely discriminatory as they further inhibit these communities, especially those living in food deserts, from having access to healthy, local and free foods. For example, in the past, New York City’s Chinese American community would collect mulberries and ginkgo nuts in their neighbourhoods. In addition, Foraging has helped provide nutritous food in areas where redlining has impacted the supermarket options in Black and Brown communities.

Despite the prevalence of anti-foraging legislation in the United States, some grassroot organizations have defied the norm by establishing volunteer-run programs in urban areas that allow people to gather varieties of fruit, veggies, and nuts, usually at no cost. Foragers can also bring valuable knowledge to their communities by passing information about how to identify specific foods in their neighborhood which could be beneficial for those living on the poverty line who may need to supplement their diet. This ability to gain collective knowledge and understanding has been especially important for many Black and Indigenous communities as they can re-learn the traditional knowledge of their ancestors by connecting to the land. These locally-run foraging initiatives are acts of resistance against oppressive colonial practices that continue to be perpetuated by modern anti-foraging legislation, among others.

“Amongst Indigenous communities you were seeing this return to traditional food ideology that was basically trying to decolonize our diet.”

-Caleb Musgrave from Hiawatha First Nation, owner of Canadian Bushcraft

Interested in foraging yourself? Please check your local municipal guidelines and read through these resources on how to forage safely. We also encourage you to take an Indigenous-led foraging classes.

To learn more we encourage you to follow these amazing Black and Indigenous organizations, creators, chefs, activists and more!

Justin Robinson, Content creator. @countrygentlemancooks

Lady Danni, Forager & crafter of herbals @ladydanni1, www.landedgentress.com

Alexis Nicole, Foraging educator and enthusiast @blackforager

I-Collective, An autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists, seed, and knowledge keepers. @ICollective2019, https://www.icollectiveinc.org/

NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems): An Indigenous 501c3, focused on Indigenous Education+Food Access through the @indigenousfoodlab — Founded by Sean Sherman (@ the_sioux_chef)

@natifs_org + @siouxchef, https://www.natifs.org/

Billie Alexandria: Forager, herbalist, chef, @earth_sol

Caleb Musgrave: Owner and operator of Canadian Bushcraft, @ canadian.bushcraft

Sources

What is foraging? Finding your food in the wild. https://britishlocalfood.com/what-is-foraging/

Foraging for Wild Food Guide. https://www.ediblewildfood.com/foraging-for-food.aspx

Decolonizing Foraging and Amplifying Indigenous Knowledge with I-Collective. https://thisismold.com/event/education/decolonizing-foraging-and-amplifying-indigenous-knowledge-with-i-collective

Harvest season time to forage for wild food and gather seeds for saving. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/harvest-foraging-seed-saving-1.5757806

The Complexities of Wildcrafting: A study of knowledge systems’ influences on wildcrafting in Chittenden County, VT. https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1060&context=envstheses

Sustained by First Nations: European newcomes’ use of Indegenoius plant foods in temperate North America. https://cyberleninka.org/article/n/307067/viewer

Wild Food for All. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/wild-food-for-all

Food Law Gone Wild: The Law of Foraging. https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2740&context=ulj

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom of Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia. https://www.fws.gov/nativeamerican/pdf/tek_turner-2000.pdf

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Faithfully Sustainable

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