Indigenous Memories

23 Jun 2011

In the last years of his life Iain MacKinnon’s grandfather bought a tape recorder. A Northern Highlander on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, he was a great poetry lover and would often recite his favorite works in English. He told his son, Iain’s father, to forget about Gaelic, their mother tongue. It was a ridiculed and oppressed language and wouldn’t get him off the island.


Over the years Iain wondered about this tape recorder as he had never seen his grandfather play any music on it, but it wasn’t until several years after his grandfather’s passing that he listened to one of his tapes. He discovered that his grandfather had recorded himself singing many old Gaelic songs – songs that he used to sing as a young man, songs composed in his village. Iain made a CD version of the tape for the local Gaelic library. He listens to it often, whenever he needs to feel restored.


Iain’s story, told to the attentive crowd during Indigenous Terra Madre, resonated with those gathered for this first Slow Food meeting of Indigenous food communities. Countless experiences were described during the four-day event, of the valuable memories and knowledge held by Indigenous peoples and efforts to preserve them. “These memories want to live, no matter how oppressed,” Iain said, who was in Jokkmokk, Sweden representing the Terra Madre community of Scottish Crofters who continue important agricultural and cultural traditions. “They want to transmit themselves.” The protection of traditional knowledge was one of the many topics covered during the event. In one workshop, delegates shared their experiences about the impact of climate change in their struggle to maintain their way of life.


Aydar Todoshev from the Altaj Gray Cattle Farmers Terra Madre community in Russia told delegates how with increasing periods of drought and fires in their region, the community is losing many animals and is forced to buy fodder from other regions to feed those that remain. Many other delegates expressed their solidarity and voiced identical problems.


“For many people here, it is the first time they have traveled far from their villages. It is the first chance for them to tell their story, which they do in ways that are more profound than the experienced spokespeople can explain,” said Phrang Roy from the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, of which Slow Food is a part.


Numerous other issues were debated and explored during the days: Indigenous peoples in modern and extreme conditions; pastoralism, food and communication; and the relationship between man and nature. The essence of the discussions and wishes of delegates were summarized on the last day in a document, the Jokkmokk Agreement, which expresses the collective voice on the issues discussed with statements on topics such as land grabbing, food sovereignty, biopiracy, exploitation by multinationals, the protection of resources, etc.


Delegates also decided to create a permanent working group to continue to address these issues and represent Indigenous members of the Terra Madre network into the future. While around 200 delegates were welcomed by the Sami hosts, there were some whose absence was conspicuous. Several delegates, including nine from Ethiopia were denied entry visas from the Swedish government, on the grounds that they had insufficient finances.


“This is a serious problem,” said Ol-Johan Sikku, president of Slow Food Sápmi. “You cannot deny these people the chance to come here because they are poor or different.” When the Jokkmokk Agreement was presented, it was also announced that a second document will be created specifically on this issue, directed to the Swedish government and the United Nations.


“Allow my heart to extend to all the Indigenous communities who couldn’t be here,” said Carlo Petrini, President of Slow Food International. “We will be working so that these rights are guaranteed to each and every one, no matter where they come from. They must have a right to participate in these meetings.”


While Indigenous Terra Madre covered serious issues, aspects of pleasure and celebration of diversity were always present, bringing people together to share meals, cultural traditions and rituals. On the Saturday night of the event, delegates performed their songs and dances to the backdrop of the full light of the midnight sun. On the last day, a symbolic tree planting using soil and water delegates had brought from their homelands marked the unity that had been built during the event.


Comment after comment during the three days reflected the same theme – the benefit that participants found in being able to come together and share their experiences, repeatedly finding similarities in groups that were geographically and culturally distant.


“With events like Indigenous Terra Madre and other Slow Food events, we hear stories of the same thing that is happening in our own countries and own lands, and it gives us hope,” said TahNibaa Naataanii, a fifth generation weaver of sheep’s fleece from the Navajo Sheep Presidium in the USA. “All of our ancestors have survived many years and we are resilient people. We come to together like the pieces of a quilt – and together we are strong.”


Just as Iain’s grandfather did, Petrini urged the delegates to document their knowledge – cultural, culinary, language, agricultural – to ensure that as we move forward towards a better food future, we can share this knowledge not just amongst ourselves and future generations, but with humanity in general. “Using new technology doesn’t mean you need to renounce old traditions. The future is mastering these technological tools and using them for this purpose.”


Indigenous Terra Madre was organized by Slow Food Sápmi together with Slow Food Sweden and Slow Food International. Terra Madre is a worldwide network launched by Slow Food in 2004, of small-scale farmers, fishers, breeders and artisan producers working with cooks, researchers and youth to build a more sustainable food system. 
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 Photo: © Stéphane Lombard

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