I’m going to talk to you today about barriers to creating an Aboriginal veganism. I’ll talk a bit about traditional food, and human-animal relationship in Mi’kmaq legends. And I’ll end with the concept of “M`sit No`maq,” which means “all my relations”.
There are two main barriers to an Aboriginal veganism.
The first is that veganism is often equated with whiteness. As a result, Aboriginal vegans are assumed to be inauthentic and assimilated. This presents a challenge for people like me, who view our veganism as compatible with our Aboriginality. Ojibwa playwright Drew Hayden Taylor jokes, “What do you call a Native vegetarian?” His answer: “A very bad hunter.” The implication is that for Aboriginals, choosing a non-meat diet is a kind of cultural failure.
A second barrier to Aboriginal veganism is its portrayal as a product of class privilege. Opponents claim that a vegan diet is an indulgence. And the poor – among whom Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented – can’t afford to be so picky. This assumes that vegans eat highly processed food products, and it overlooks the economic and environmental cost of meat, and assumes that the subsidized meat and dairy industries in North America are representative of the entire world.
While it’s true that I favour an increase in Aboriginal veganism, I’m not proposing that we replace a vibrant food culture with one that’s, maybe, a little more alien. The truth is, the eating habits of Aboriginal people have already been colonized. People have been trained to think that poverty is Native. So we see Aboriginal restaurants that have balogna, wieners and canned meat wrapped in fry bread on their menu. What we’re doing is traditionalizing our own poverty. Lack of access to nutrient-rich foods is a problem that Aboriginal people have in common with other oppressed groups. Konju Briggs Jr. notes that poor communities of colour in the U.S. lack access to healthy food and as a result are disproportionately affected by diabetes and heart disease. In Canada, the reserve system resulted in a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates and low in protein and fibre. As a result, Mi’kmaq people have seen a serious increase in diabetes and gallstones. Professor of Human Ecology, Kim Travers sees three reasons for this nutrient poor diet among the Mi’kmaq: First, most of us have very low incomes. Second, we lack of access to transportation so we can’t go to things like farmers markets. And third, our reserves are situated on land that isn’t suitable for agriculture, so we can’t grow our own food. Mi’kmaq people living on reserve are often limited to eating protein such as peanut butter, wieners and bologna.
So, what’s the problem with developing an Aboriginal veganism? Well, it’s hard to frame it as a traditional activity. Historically, the Mi’kmaq diet was meat-heavy. We ate beaver, fish, eels, birds, porcupine, and sometimes whale, moose, or caribou. And we supplemented this meaty diet with vegetables, roots, nuts and berries. The use of animals as food figures prominently in our legends. So that’s an issue. Second, food production is gendered in Mi’kmaq culture. Hunting was a traditionally male activity connected with the maintenance of virility. The killing of a moose symbolized a boy’s entry into manhood. So when you challenge the hunting traditions, you’re challenging how Mi’kmaq men understand their masculinity. At the same time, I want to suggest that the context in which Aboriginal gender identity develops has changed significantly since colonization. Meat, as a symbol of patriarchy, actually binds us closer to white colonial culture, than practices such as veganism do. Veganism might be seen as white, but it’s certainly not hegemonic.
So, desperate for some way to understand my veganism together with my Mi’kmaq culture, I started delving into our legends. In our stories, animals are our siblings. Mi’kmaq legends view humanity and animal life as being on a continuum. Animals speak, change into human form, and some humans marry these shapeshifters and raise children together. Human magicians may take animal form, and some people are transformed into animals against their will. An ecofeminist exegesis of Mi’kmaq legends enabled me to see my veganism as a spiritual practice that reflects the fact that humans and other animals possess a shared personhood. Quick show of hands, how many people have heard of Glooscap, and have any idea who he is? Okay, not very many people at all.
So, Mi’kmaq legends portray human beings as intimately connected with the natural world. Glooscap is sort of our main figure in Mi’kmaq legends. He’s like an Adam. He’s sort of like a Hercules or a Superman. He’s this prototype human being, who has special powers. So, for instance, in our legends Glooscap is formed from the red clay of the soil of Prince Edward Island. In the story of “Nukumi and Fire”, the Creator makes a grandmother, Nukumi, for Glooscap from a dew-covered rock. She agrees to provide wisdom in exchange for food. When Nukumi explains she cannot live on plants and berries alone, Glooscap calls to Marten, and asks him to give his life so Glooscap’s grandmother can live. Marten agrees because of his friendship with Glooscap. For this sacrifice, Glooscap makes Marten his brother. Based on this story, it seems like Glooscap wasn’t a hunter prior to the arrival of the grandmother. This story also represents, through the characters of Glooscap and Martin, the basic relation of the Mi’kmaq people with the animals around us. The animals are willing to provide food, clothing, shelter and tools, but they must be treated with the respect given a brother and friend.
A Mi’kmaq creation story tells of the birth of Glooscap’s nephew from seafoam caught in sweetgrass. Glooscap calls upon the salmon to give up their lives so he can feed his newphew. Although not unproblematic, this dynamic is at least open to the possibility of refusal on the part of the animal. As well, the story undermines the widespread view that we have an innate right to eat animals. Glooscap and his family don’t want to kill all the animals – indicating moderation in their fishing practices. The theme is one of dependence, not domination. Animals have independent lives, their own purposes, and their own relationship with the Creator. They’re not created for food, but willingly become food in these stories as a sacrifice for their friends.
This is a far cry from the perspective of the white colonial hunter, in which animals are constructed as requiring population control, turning slaughter into a service performed, rather than one received. An interesting exception to this thread is the Wabanaki story of “Glooscap and His People”, which blames the animals themselves for man’s aggression toward them. In this tale, Malsum, an evil counterpart to Glooscap, turns the animals against Glooscap. Glooscap announces, sounding oddly like a god-figure here: “I made the animals to be man’s friends, but they have acted with selfishness and treachery. Hereafter, they shall be your servants and provide you with food and clothing.” In this story, the original vision of harmony is lost, and inequality takes its place as a punishment for listening to Malsum. In this way, the story is sort of similar to the Genesis story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Glooscap shows the men how to make bows, arrows and spears, and he shows the women how to scrape hides and make clothing. He says: “Now you have power over even the largest wild animals. Yet I charge you to use this power gently. If you take more game than you need for food and clothing, or kill for the pleasure of killing, then you will be visited by a pitiless giant named Famine.”
Even in this story, which attempts to justify dominion, the proper relation to the animals is only for food and clothing. If animal consent is required to justify their consumption, then it opens the possibility that such consent might be revoked. Another feature of Mi’kmaq stories is the regret that comes with animal death. In “The Legend of the Wild Goose”, Glooscap is concerned for the safety of the migrating birds and he charges the Canada Goose with their protection. “The Adventures of Katoogwasees” tells how Glooscap’s grandmother used magic to obtain an unlimited amount of beaver meat from a single bone, reflecting a wish for abundance disconnected from the need to hunt. Regret and kinship also feature in the story of “Muin, The Bear’s Child”. In one version of the tale, a young boy, Siko, is trapped in a cave by his evil stepfather and left to die. The animals hear him crying but only the bear is strong enough to remove the rocks from the front of the cave. Siko is adopted and raised as a bear. Later, Siko’s bear family is attacked by hunters and his mother is killed. He addresses the hunters in Mi’kmaq and pleads with them to spare his sister. The amazed hunters put down their weapons and spare the bear cub. In addition, they are sorry for having killed the bear that had been so good to Siko. At the end of the story, Siko takes on the name Muin, the Bear’s Son, and vows that when he grows up and becomes a hunter, he will never kill a mother bear, or bear children.
The regret that you see in the Muin story is also expressed in rituals surrounding the act of hunting. One ritual, a dance, thanks the spirit of the animal for giving its life for food. In contrast to the enlightenment view of humans as distinguished from animals by speech and thought, Mi’kmaq legends view animals as not only capable of thought and speech, but as people. The value of an animal lies not in its utility, but in its very essence as a living being.
Happily for me, not all Mi’kmaq food traditions centre upon meat. Glooscap’s mother was a leaf on a tree given life and human form by the sun. The feast celebrating her birth consists of plants, roots, berries, nuts and fruit. If we recognize that activities traditionally performed by Mi’kmaq women, such as fruit, vegetable, and nut gathering, are also fully Aboriginal, then we can form indigenous counter-narratives to meat promotion. If women initiated hunting, as in the story of Glooscap’s grandmother, then surely changing circumstances empower us to end it as well.
The values obtained from an ecofeminist exegesis of Mi’kmaq stories can serve as a starting point for an indigenous veganism. The personhood of animals, their self-determination, and our regret at their death, all show that choosing not to ask for their sacrifice is a legitimately Aboriginal option. Since the consumption of animals for food, clothing and shelter is no longer necessary, as vegan culture demonstrates, then the Mi’kmaq tradition, as manifested in our legends, suggests that hunting and killing our animal brothers is no longer authorized.
Because Aboriginal people are the targets of genocide, the practices that we adopt are vitally important. Bonita Lawrence notes that daily life practices have been used to assess the authenticity of Native identity claims, to accord Indian status, and to assess land claims. For instance, some Native land claims were rejected because the claimants had regular jobs and could be shown to have eaten pizza, instead of living off the land. Because Aboriginal people are judged based on how we eat and how we live, the choices that we make around this are extremely important. Because practices, such as veganism, may impact how white authorities assess our treaty rights.
Yet those who value only preserving Aboriginal tradition join with colonialism in seeing no place for a contemporary indigeneity. There’s more to my culture and to my relationship with the land, particularly as a woman, than hunting and killing animals. One must also be aware of changing circumstances and needs among the Mi’kmaq. As research shows, Mi’kmaq people living on reserve are dependent on store bought food and, in addition, half of Canada’s Aboriginal population lives in urban areas. When Aboriginality is defined as a primordial lifestyle it reflects our intentional extinction as a people. The modern commercial fishery, often touted as offering economic security for Aboriginal communities, is even further removed from our Mi’kmaq values than modern day vegan practices are.
Commercial fishing frames fish as objects to be collected for exchange, while veganism is rooted in a relationship with animals based upon respect and responsibility. The ability to reinterpret our traditions, our rituals, enabled our ancestors to survive genocide, famine, disease, forced moves, reserves, residential schooling, and a host of other colonial ills. Urban Aboriginals, like myself, embody our traditional values in new rituals. Vegan meal preparation and consumption, for example, can become infused with transcendent significance, as we recall our connection with other animals, our shared connection to the Creator, and prefigure a time when we can live in harmony with other animals, as Glooscap did before the invention of hunting. Veganism offers us a sense of belonging to a moral community, whose principles and practices reflect the values of our ancestors, even if they might be at odds with their traditional practice.
At stake in the creation of an Aboriginal veganism is the authority of Aboriginal people, especially women, to determine cultural authenticity. Dominant white discourse portrays our cultures as embedded in the past. But Aboriginal cultures are living traditions, responsive to changing circumstances. In retelling and reinterpreting our stories, or in creating new stories, Aboriginal women claim authority over our oral traditions. In doing so we recognize that our oral culture is not fixed in time and space, but is adaptable to our needs, to the needs of our animal siblings, and to the needs of the land itself.
To finish off, I’d like to say a few words about the phrase “M`sit No`maq”, which means “all my relations”. It basically encapsulates the Mi’kmaq perspective on the world.
What does this phrase mean, exactly? Who are my relations?
And I have a brief anecdote to share too, which I think encapsulates the concept: One day, after a big rainstorm, my dad came into the house, and said “Hey kids, I need your help. A frog laid a bunch of eggs in this puddle out back, and it’s drying up now, and they’re all going to die if we don’t get them into the pond.” So for the next two hours, in the sun and the muggy weather, we transported these gelatinous frog eggs and these squirmy little tadpoles from their shrinking puddle into the pond near our house. And as we did this, I realized that to my dad, the fragility of these animals mattered in the same way that our own fragility mattered. So for me, that was a really concrete experience of what that phrase “all my relations” means. “Let me not forget our mutual vulnerability”, and let the way that we treat each other reflect these ties that bind us all.
Dr. Margaret Robinson is a vegan Mi’kmaw scholar and bisexual activist based in Toronto. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Michael’s College. Margaret is currently a fellow in community-based research with the Researching for LGBTQ Health Team at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and an affiliate fellow with the CIHR-funded Social Aetiology of Mental Illness Training Program. Margaret is passionate about postcolonial theory and Aboriginal self-government. She is a past editor of the Journal of Postcolonial Networks and a present board member of the Postcolonial Network.