R.I. Narragansetts raising their own food, connecting to the land again
WESTERLY — At the end of a long and winding dirt path lie 150 acres, 50 for farming and 100 of wetlands, that the Narragansett tribe owns for food cultivation. At the entrance to the property — called Crandall Minacommuck Farm — is an arch that says “Narragansett Tribal Farm.”
Beyond that lies a vision.
“Sometimes I like to just come here and listen to it speak,” said Dawn Spears, whose husband is the farm’s caretaker, Cassius Spears. “It has something to say about being where it is originally from.”
Speaking among tall stalks of Narragansett flint corn, rustling as breezes sweep their crowns, Dawn Spears said it is the first to be grown by the Narragansetts for communal use in over 200 years.
Agricultural projects such as these drew around 200 Native activists, scholars and farmers to the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative last week as part of the Mashantucket Pequot Food Sovereignty conference.
“One of our main [tribal] rules is, if you get separated from someone in your family, you go to where you saw them last,” he said. “Same with food…. Animals are our brothers and plants our sisters.”
Food sovereignty, as defined by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, “is 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. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
The initiative has been going on for two years. Headed by the Spears family, it looks to have all 3,000 Narragansetts participate in “putting the culture back into agriculture,” Dawn says.
“We don’t want this to be just us,” she said. “We want our whole community to take part.”
Indeed, the concept of food sovereignty is cultural as much as culinary. And, the Spearses say, the idea of a community that includes people, flora and fauna is critical to the health of all.
“This is a good place to build a social hub,” said Cassius. “If anyone follows the history of their food, you’ll find your history … your identity.”
In “the village” part of the farm, where there was a model settlement last Thursday, Nakai Northup, of Mashantucket, Connecticut, tended to a duck roasting on a spit over a log.
A 3-year-old, dressed in traditional Algonquin garb, approached him as he took the duck off the spit and began to cut it.
“Duck!” said Silvermist Northup, Nakai’s daughter.
“Yes, my love, I’ll give you some duck,” he said as he gave her a piece and then turned to talk to The Journal. “I think that food sovereignty means freedom … it’s going to make life better by eating our traditional food.”
“Control of your food is so important,” he said. “Everything we eat we have traditionally looked at as gifts, and we want to continue teaching that to our young.”
“Our cultures are tied to the land,” said Endawnis Spears, a Navajo and Ojibwa who married into the Spears family and, more broadly, the Narragansetts. “When we’re separated from our land, which is our food source, we’re not living our authentic lives, and it affects our health.
“It’s called food sovereignty,” she continued, “but it bleeds out into all aspects of our lives.”
Some came from very far in order to learn from the project being carried out on Narragansett land.
“It’s about being able to live the way we were meant to,” said Karen Linnell, an Ahtna from Glennallen, Alaska, who is executive director of the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission. “We don’t get to manage our lands…. We are overrun by people from urban centers who are competing for our plants and animals.
“They’ve done a lot here in a couple of years,” she said. “I’m glad to see it’s working so well.”
Back in the cornfield where Dawn Spears still stood, another breeze blew and she heard the corn.
“The plants know where they belong and they’re happy to be at home,” she said, fighting back tears with a smile. “We used to sing to the corn without it present.
“With this corn here, we’ll be able to sing harvest songs again.”