MA thesis learnings from our University of Calgary grad student, Megan Sampson
It has been one year since I travelled to Lloydminster to conduct ethnographic research with the Women Warriors program. I will soon defend my MA thesis based on the results of that work, which explored the dietary practices of Indigenous women in the program. While in previous newsletters I’ve been able to describe the methods, goals, and preliminary trends from this study, today I am able to offer a more complete picture of the ample learnings participants offered.
This research is grounded in Indigenous feminist literature1to explore the interplay of social and structural factors impacting Indigenous women’s wellness. Two main tenets of Indigenous feminist theory apply most directly: 1) Indigenous women’s experiences of marginalization and gendered inequality are distinct and rooted in colonization. Colonization remains intact in living legislation, having persistent impacts on Indigenous women’s health, wellbeing, and material realities; 2) Indigenous women have the leadership, knowledge, and skills to produce lasting change and resist oppression. Both of these truths are evident in the food practices and experiences of the women in this study.
Socio-political factors related to colonization have produced food insecurity among Indigenous peoples in the territory where Lloydminster now resides2. Trauma and the impacts of residential schools have also impacted dietary practices. Some participants in the study were residential school survivors, and they described how it felt to be separated from their culture, including traditional diet:
The food they gave us was pathetic. They gave us rotten food back then. And we came from a system of wild meat– you know, the good food. And then we get thrown into a system where it’s not so good [. . .] So, times have changed, but the memories still linger. It’ll take time. Some people eat because of comfort, because it’s a comfort food. . . It’s not because they want to eat to be a diabetic. It’s what they’re trying to feed because of what they didn’t have. . .
Others described intergenerational effects:
L: Well, for me, I used to be overweight. And I’ve been battling with weight my whole life. And, growing up I’ve often wondered why my parents never said anything to me. I was getting chunkier and chunkier [. . .] And maybe it’s because of how my dad grew up—he grew up in residential school—that he just wanted to let me have everything, because he didn’t have it. . . He couldn’t be with his parents. So, I think he was just trying to spoil me and my sister—does that make sense?
Another challenge described by participants was the high cost of healthy foods. It is important to consider that the socio-economic realities of Indigenous women have been shaped by colonial and gendered violence, for example in sexist legislation engrained in the Indian Act3. Some participants reported fear of running out of food before they had money to buy more or feeling unable to afford to eat healthy. Even for participants who reported feeling financially secure, economic considerations often played a major role in what foods they consumed. Out of 8 participants who took part in a social network mapping activity, it was revealed that collectively they shared meals (at least once a week) with a total of 57 other individuals (an average of about 7 each). This often required considerable financial planning. For those from Onion Lake Cree Nation or rural surrounding areas, the cost of travel to and from the city for groceries, and the high cost of produce at convenience stores, posed added economic burden.
Personal food preferences (or the food preferences of children, grandchildren, or partners) were sometimes described as interfering with nutrition and chronic disease management. Behavioural-level, “lifestyle”-based health analyses have been criticized for “victim blaming”, as individuals whose choices are constrained by larger socio-political and environmental factors are blamed for their own adverse health. In the context of this research, it was evident in participants’ narratives that food choices and preferences revealed much about broader structural realities:
B: When I was younger we didn’t always have food to last us until the next time we were getting money. So basically we just had to eat what was provided to us. . . So it would have been a lot of starchy foods like potatoes and soups. . . I ate a lot of macaroni [. . .] That’s the only way I learned how to cook for my own family. [My daughter’s] in university, and she’s overweight. She’s carrying on the same habits that I kind of taught her.
* * *
Residential school. . . that kind of led me down a different path. When I was on reserve, I didn’t gain weight. But the minute that I was in the residential school the weight came. I started getting fluffy. [They fed me] breads, lots of breads and fatty foods. So when I came home after residential school, that’s the way I preferred to eat. For some 40 years I struggled with weight because I couldn’t maintain the way I was eating.
Despite these barriers, food practices were also sites of cultural resilience, leadership and creativity. Despite concerted assimilationist efforts by settler society, a large majority of the women involved in this study reported consuming traditional foods (mostly meat from wild game). Several described active efforts to seek out, prepare, and share traditional foods, for reasons including their economic feasibility, health benefits, and cultural value. One participant was a foster parent who taught other foster parents in her community how to prepare traditional meals to promote cultural competency. Others described various ways that actively connecting or reconnecting to their culture through food benefitted themselves and their families:
So I’m just now, since from last year getting back into eating raw vegetables and, um, dry meat and, you know traditional food like duck [. . .] I’m really liking the way I eat right now. It’s really pulled me back from the brink of something. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, you know, if I didn’t stop eating the way I was eating. Yeah, so I’m trying. I’m teaching my grandkids and my kids, you know, like “you have to eat differently”.
In a couple of cases, participants went to impressive lengths to self-provision. One participant was able to combat household food insecurity, which she had struggled with for years, through converting her yard into a vast home garden and building a smokehouse to prepare wild meat. Having minimal experience with gardening or traditional food practices in her past, these feats were a source of immense pride. It was evident that passing these knowledges on to her children helped to empower them and her alike:
My biggest pet peeve is ‘oh cooking is for girls’. People and their strong gender beliefs that ‘oh because you’re a male you don’t need to know how to do this’. But what if you find out that you don’t like girls? What if you find out that you like boys, then what? What if he was raised the same way as you and doesn’t know how to do these things? Who’s going to cook, who’s going to clean? So, I like to teach my boys. My boys help me garden and help me weed. Like, come on, my son grew a watermelon!
I do not mean to suggest such self-provisioning is feasible for all Indigenous families struggling with food insecurity. Rather, what these activities demonstrate is the extensive actions Indigenous women are already taking to nourish their families. Every woman involved in this study, through various means, actively sought better health for themselves and their families on a daily basis (hence why most enrolled in Women Warriors). The question for those designing health programming or initiatives to promote Indigenous women’s health should be how to support them in such endeavours and provide the tools to overcome structural barriers. Prescriptive top-down approaches that fail to account for such barriers are discernibly limited.
I would like to thank Shelley for featuring me in her newsletter, and for being a friend and mentor at every stage of this project. Thanks also to Sonja Wicklum, Rita Henderson, and both Dolores Pahtayken and Elder Verna Buffalo Calf, who served advisory roles. Above all, thank you so much to the women who generously participated in this study.
For any additional information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Megan’s previous contributions to our newsletter include Food Security & Needs in Lloydminster and a two-part series on Lloydminster Plains History.
NOTES AND REFERENCES:
- A few of many works to consider if interested in learning more about Indigenous feminism:
Anderson, Kim. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2016.
Green, Joyce. “Taking Account of Aboriginal Feminism.” In Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, 20–32. London: Zed, 2007.
Suzack, Cheryl. “Indigenous Feminisms in Canada.” NORA: Nordic Journal For Women’s Studies23, no. 4 (December 2015): 261–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/08038740.2015.1104595
Suzack, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, eds. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
Guerrero, Jaimes. “‘Patriarchal Colonialism’ and Indigenism: Implications for Native Feminist Spirituality and Native Womanism.” Hypatia18, no. 2, 2003.
Fiske, Jo-Anne. “Child of the State, Mother of the Nation: Aboriginal Women and the Ideology of Motherhood.” Culture12, no. 1 (1993): 17–35.
Fiske, Jo-Anne.“By, For, or About? Shifting Directions in the Representations of Aboriginal Women.” Atlantis25, no. 1 (2000): 11–27.
- Bourassa, Carrie, Kim McKay-McNabb, and Mary Hampton. “Racism, Sexism, and Colonialism: The Impact on the Health of Aboriginal Women in Canada.” Canadian Woman Studies24, no. 1 (2004): 23–30.
Kubik, Wendee, Carrie Bourassa, and Mary Hampton. “Stolen Sisters, Second Class Citizens, Poor Health: The Legacy of Colonization in Canada.” Humanity & Society33, no. 1–2 (February 1, 2009): 18–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/016059760903300103.
- Jamieson, Kathleen. “Sex Discrimination and the Indian Act.” In Arduous Journey: Canadian Indians and Decolonization, edited by J. Ponting. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986